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"Marble of Ingenuity"

February 13, 1993 Los Angeles Times Article, by John O'Dell

Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, California
Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, California
Apex Marble fully lined marble pool
Apex Marble fully lined marble pool

Randy Branson wasn't planning to copy Willie Hearst. He just wanted a pool for family fun.

But do-it-yourself projects have a way of growing.

Branson is a tile and marble contractor. So why not, he figured, do something with the pool that would show off his professional talents?

The result is what Branson says may be the only fully marble-lined pool south of the famed Neptune Pool at the late newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's sprawling estate, La Cuesta Encantada, on the Central Coast at San Simeon.

It is a claim that the Marble Institute of America won't dispute.

"Anytime you say something is the only one, you get in trouble," said Robert Hund, managing director of the Michigan-based institute. "But I don't know of any others except at San Simeon."

Louie Carnevale, owner of one of the state's premier commercial and residential marble companies, Carnevale & Lohr in Bell Gardens, said he knows of a marble pool in Hawaii and of a number of pools in Southern California that use marble, granite and other stone for edging, "but nothing other than San Simeon with a marble-lined one."

Branson's 17-foot-by-33-foot marble pool won't run Hearst's off the pages of Architectural Digest anytime soon, but it still is an eye-catching installation: A county Sheriff's Department helicopter pilot frequently overflew the Branson back yard during construction in summer 1990 and wound up, sans copter, on the front porch one day asking for a firsthand look at the checkerboard marble work.

So far as Branson knows, the pilot didn't rush out to install a marble pool of his own-and nobody else has signed up to have Branson install one, although he has shown the pool to several clients and says that a South County obstetrician "is talking pretty seriously about having me put one in for him."

As a pretty easily bent rule of thumb, Branson figures that at today's material and labor costs, the tab for doing a marble lining in a fairly simple pattern would be about $20,000 over the cost of the basic pool.

With conventional concrete and plaster pool prices starting at about $20,000, that's a lot of money.

But then, marble-in pools or on kitchen and entryway floors-is not an everyday material. It typically costs more than tile and is used principally for looks by people who don't mind spending $10 a square foot or more, plus installation, to get what they are looking for.

(For the budget-conscious, there are ceramic tiles being made these days that approximate the look of marble for about half the cost. Branson figures they would provide an acceptable alternative in a pool and could knock perhaps $6,000 off the cost).

Besides the look-and even under four feet of chlorinated water the black and white marble of Branson's pool looks sinfully rich-marble (and tile and, for the very well-heeled, granite) can offer a pool owner the benefit of permanence.

If treated right-the Marble Institute's Hund says the chemical balance of pool water has to be maintained very precisely to keep the chlorine from eating away at the stone-marble, ceramic tile and other stone products don't have to be replaced.

The Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle has lasted nearly 60 years.

By contrast, vinyl pool liners and conventional pools' plaster coatings weaken from traffic and exposure to water and chemicals and should be replaced every 10 to 15 years-at a cost of $2,000 or more.

Branson's own pool was far less expensive than a conventional one.

In part that's because, as a marble contractor, he was able to buy material at cost and do his own labor.

But he also used an unusual French-made swimming pool kit that he said a reasonably competent homeowner can install with the help of a few friends and a rented tractor with a shovel attachment.

The kits, by a company called Jean Desjoyaux,, have been withdrawn from the U.S. market because the company didn't want to spend the money needed to launch a full-scale marketing program in the midst of a general recession, he said.

But Branson said that a determined customer can still buy the Desjoyaux kit from European distributors.

The French kit uses prefabricated, bolted-together plastic wall sections for the shell of the pool, which can be built in a variety of rectangular, oval or free-form shapes. The shell is erected inside a rough excavation that a homeowner or contractor can dig in one day with a Bobcat or other tractor-powered digging machine. Wire mesh screens or iron reinforcing rods are laid on spacers on the ground at the bottom of the pool; reinforcing rods are slipped into hollow spaces in the plastic walls, and concrete is pumped into the walls onto the mesh flooring to create a one-piece reinforced concrete shell.

Desjoyaux's brochure claims that all of that can be done by one or two people in three days. A vinyl liner and specially cut stone rim is added on the fourth day, and the pool can be filled and ready for swimming on Day Five.

"I read all that and talked to the president of the company and watched their video before deciding to use the Desjoyaux kit," Branson said, "and I didn't for a minute believe you could build it and go swimming in five days.

"But if I had decided just to use the vinyl liner and not do it in marble, we would have been finished in four days. I couldn't believe it."

It took two more weeks of evenings and Saturday work, however, to get the marble installed.

The flat floor, laid in a diagonal checkerboard pattern, went fast, Branson said. But it took a week to lay out and cut the wall pieces, which required substantially more cutting and fitting to get an evenly spaced design.

In all, Branson figures he invested $15,000 cash plus about $10,000 in labor investigating just how to make a modern marble pool and then building it-about $25,000 versus $40,000 or more for the same effect in a conventional pool of the same size.

He spent dozens of evenings spread over a two-month period running down information on how to best apply marble that would be under water at all times.

"The people at the Marble Institute of America told me they didn't think it could be done, but someone at the Ceramic Tile Institute in L.A. finally referred me to an old tile setter who gave me some ideas," he said.

Those ideas included selecting lightly veined marble with none of the veins penetrating the entire piece from front to back. That eliminated worries about water seeping into the tiles from the back side and rupturing the surface with pockmarks over the years, Branson said.

"We used white marble from Thasos, Greece, because it is real clean and has almost no veins, and we used black marble from China because it has fewer veins than most blacks," Branson said.

Marble, tile and other stonework used for walls and floors is set in a thick, wire-reinforced cement called a mud bed. Branson had to devise a method of tying the mud bed to the slick plastic interior walls of the pool so it would stick and remain watertight.

"That system is my trade secret," he said, acknowledging only that it involves use of a special waterproof cement.

Branson's pool is two years old now, and he says it has not presented him with any problems. The pool must be drained yearly for a cleaning to remove chemical deposits on the marble and to check the grouting between marble pieces, but that and routine pool maintenance and chemical treatment is all that has been needed so far, Branson said.

"A lot of the people I talked to when I started investigating this told me that marble would be too fragile or too hard to install or too slippery, but none of that has" proved true.

The Branson family entertain frequently and regularly have all-day pool parties and swimming pool volleyball games. "It is a little more slippery than a rough plaster pool, but not impossibly so," he said. "And if you slip, you're already in the water so it doesn't matter."

The Marble Institute's Hund said he'd like to evaluate Branson's marble pool after a few more years of use to see how well it is holding up.

"But, hey," he added, "if he's got a system that works and it promotes the use of marble, then more power to him."

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