90 years “Lasa Marmo”

“Lasa Marmo” was founded on the 25th of September 1928. How it all began.

The Threepenny OperaIt’s the 25th of September, 1928, and Europe has gone through dramatic changes in its political structure. Ten years have passed since the end of World War I. Whilst Paul von Hindenburg has been the president of the Weimar Republic for two years, Michael Hainisch is the president of Austria’s first Republic, founded in 1920. Since 1922, the National Fascist Party has been in power in the Kingdom of Italy. While South Tyrol was annexed to Italy in 1919, from 1923 the names of its towns are exclusively Italian. One year later Italian was introduced as the sole official language, and in 1926 all German names and surnames were changed to Italian (Müller ≈ Molinari). In 1927 Italy banned German gravestone-inscriptions. All new buildings were designed according to Italian architecture-standards. On that Friday, ninety years ago, all German radio-stations were playing "Mack the Knife", Kurt Weiller‘s musical interpretation of Bertolt Brecht‘s "The Threepenny Opera".

Richard Oswald‘s silent film "The Green Alley", which starred Gustav Fröhlich and Grete Mosheim in the main roles, is premiering at the Primus Filmpalast in Berlin.

On this day, the German newspapers report on the agreement that was reached at the Geneva League of Nations Conference regarding the early evacuation of the Rhineland by the Allied and associated powers after the end of the First World War. Italian newspapers in fascist Italy on the other hand, celebrate Mussolini's amicable agreement with Greece, while Bolzano’s fascist German "Alpenzeitung" reports on the founding of the fascist local party of "Prato in Venosta".

Founded on the rules of new rulers

On a memorable day, in a very peculiar social and political context, two gentlemen meet in the study of renowned Milanese notary Federico Guasti. The two gentlemen in question are attorneys Roberto Pozzi and Viktor Perathoner Junior, respectively from Milano and Bolzano. On this day, both sign the document that marks the birth of the Lasa marble industry that still exists today.

Pozzi acts on behalf of Munich-based art-professor and sculptor Mathias Gasteiger, Viktor Perathoner on the other hand represents Viennese engineer Karl Francini, who lived in Lasa (Laas). The aim of this contract was to convert "Lasa – Industria di marmo Società a.g.l.", founded on 15 May 1925 by Mathias Gasteiger and Karl Francini, into a stock corporation. As shown in the agreement, which was recently found in an archive in Milan, the existing share capital of 500,000 lire is divided into 5,000 shares of 100 lire, the equivalent of the existing quotas. As the majority shareholder, Mathias Gasteiger was allocated 4,500 shares, while his partner Karl Francini was given 500. The legal representatives appoint geologist and chemist Dr. Ernst Schröder from Fürth as the managing director of the newly founded stock corporation. The headquarters of the new joint stock-company were moved from Lasa (Laas) to the elegant Via Monte di Pietà 1a in Milan's city-centre. The goal and future of the company is evident and clearly in line with the new political landscape: from Lasa (Laas) to Milan, through the entire World.

Dr. Ernst Schröder, first director of the new joint stock-company

On this day, Gasteiger can finally reap the benefits of his long-term effort to introduce modern industrial extraction and processing techniques into the world's biggest marble plant, and thus to introduce the white marble of Lasa (Laas) to the entire World. Sculptor and professor Mathias Gasteiger came from a humble farming family from the Pustertal-valley. Born in Munich in 1871, he attended the Academy of Arts in his home town. Later on, he moved to Vienna and became a pupil of Austrian sculptor Victor Tilgner, who was working at Mozart’s sculpture at the time. This was, of course, made of Lasa marble and is now standing in Vienna’s famous Burggarten. In 1904, Mathias Gasteiger started quarrying stone in the Franconian Jura and moved to Lasa around 1911. Gasteiger's medium-term vision for “Lasa” was clear: developing a marble business with all the rightful infrastructures and mining rights to promote it as an attractive investment opportunity for financially-strong parties. In 1911 there were essentially two large local marble entrepreneurs: on one side Josef Lechner, who in 1906 successfully managed to extend his 25-year lease for the White Water Quarry (Weißwasserbruch) with the council of Laas (Lasa), and imperial-regional master stonemason Eduard Hauser from Vienna. In February 1906, the Hauser bought the insolvency assets of the bankrupted "Tiroler Marmor- und Porphyrgesellschaft Fritz Zeller & Co.". Deep inside he was trusting that the opening of the Venosta Valley railway (Vinschgaubahn), planned for the 1st of July 1906, would improve the transport conditions and consequently increase the sales of the marble he was extracting (mainly) in the Covelano (Göflan) quarry. Gasteiger's business plan on the other hand, wasn’t as focused on sculptural marble, which demand was gradually decreasing. In his eyes the Lasa marble was the perfect cladding material for the facades of representative buildings. Gasteiger, who became popular in Munich with his fountain "Brunnenbüberl", was welcomed by the Laas (Lasa) community with open arms. The council had finally found a person willing to take over the Nessel Cliff Quarry (Nesselwandbruch), which, until then, had been run at loss by the council itself with the help of just four workers. The lease-contract for the Nessel Cliff Quarry was signed by Gasteiger and the Lasa council on the 12th of March 1912. While negotiating with the council, Gasteiger was obviously seen as the "rich uncle of America". His plan: build a new road to the quarry and open up the company to shareholders. Clearly inspired by the harmonious Italian "Carrara" name, Gasteiger decided to add an "a"-suffix to the German name “Laas” – which was at the time copyrighted by his competitor Hauser – to make it sound smoother. This is how Gasteiger created the trade name "Laasa" for his own marble. He established the headquarters of the "Laasa Marmorbruchbetrieb in Laas (Tirol)" in Munich, Dantestraße 2a. But the huge commitment and ambitious goals of the Bavarian sculptor and businessman were undermined by the outbreak of the First World War. After the war, when the Austrian territories south of the Brenner Pass were annexed to Italy, Mathias Gasteiger - still convinced of the success of his plans – carried on with his ambitious project to develop a marble industry in Lasa (Laas).

In 1921 Mathias Gasteiger contracts out the White Water Quarry (Weißwasserbruch)

When in 1921 the council of Lasa prematurely ended the contract for the White Water Quarry (Weißwasserbruch) signed with Josef Lechner in 1906, it transferred the extraction rights to Mathias Gasteiger, who finally gets a taste of success. That’s when he shuts down the Nessel Cliff Quarry (Nesselwandbruch) he had opened in his time and begins to extract marble from the White Water Querry (Weißwasserbruch). On the 1st of July 1922, Viennese engineer Karl Francini, who had recently worked for the Hauser company in Vipiteno (Sterzing), Lasa (Laas) and Covelano (Göflan), starts managing the extraction-department at the White Water Quarry (Weißwasserbruch) of "Laasa Marmorbruchbetrieb in Laas". However, under the Italian administration, Gasteiger could no longer manage the company from its Munich headquarters. Alongside, he lacked the necessary funds and corporate structures to manage the White Water Quarry (Weißwasserbruch) in a profitable way. The close cooperation started with the Viennese engineer Francini solved Gasteiger in his own way. In May 1925, he converted his company, which was controlled from Munich, into the Italian "Lasa – Industria di marmo Società a.g.l." and involved his employee Francini in the company with 10 percent. Taking advantage of his experience in the White Water Quarry (Weißwasserbruch), as early as autumn 1926, Francini introduced Gasteiger to his new project for a rational transport system. Francini had realised that efficient extraction-, removal- and transport-techniques were crucial to a successful business. Once again, Gasteiger set off in search of investors and succeeded. A lively exchange of letters between Mathias Gasteiger and Karl Francini, suggests that Gasteiger had been looking for investors in London and Stockholm. And of course, Gasteiger also wanted to use his investors to relieve the company from old debts. His idea: investing in modern mining technology and machinery and create revenue. When the “I.G. Farben" group decided to build a new admin-block Frankfurt am Main, it asked Gasteiger to provide Jura marble (from the Gasteiger quarry in Gundelsheim near Treuchtlingen in Middle Franconia) and Lasa marble. And that’s how Gasteiger met Dr. Ernst Schröder, a true marble enthusiast. He was fluent in Italian and had an excellent relationship with the fascist potentate in Italy, was already working as a designer in Mussolini’s rehabilitation project of the Maremma marshes in southern Tuscany. Schröder was very interested in Gasteiger's plans to establish a marble mining and processing-industry in Lasa (Laas). When it came to find new investors, Schröder used Francini’s mining and transport projects for his future plants and included a number of case-studies regarding extraction potential and processing possibilities. Schröder handed Francini's project and calculations over to Carl Wölfel, a well-known expert in the mining and processing of natural stone. The previous year, Wölfel had successfully founded the "Vereinigte Fichtelgebirgs-Granit-, Syenit- und Marmorwerke AG" ("Grasyma") in Wunsiedel and had excellent contacts with potential investors. Wölfel and Gasteiger organised a meeting with Kurt Richter, director of the Munich-branch of private Berlin bank Hardy. Richter also involved his uncle, secret advisor Dr. Hans von Flotow, who was general manager of the Hardy Bank in Berlin. The Sullivan Investment Bank in New York was also involved in this process. The vision: promoting mass production of the white marble of Lasa as a building material for the flourishing and prosperous U.S. market and identifying potential U.S. investors with strong capital to create a large industry in Lasa (Laas).

The future (and the capital) are in the U.S.A.

The project was met with great favour in the United States, where the economy was currently going through a very prosperous phase – also known as "Prosperity". Many investment banks had committed to invest capital in new profitable foreign companies. Lasa marble was destined for America. In a certificate dated 21 May 1928, the Lasa marble came out on top of Carrara marble for its resilience to weather and pressure. That's when Sullivan sent English mining expert A.W. Ibbet to Lasa to carry out an expert assessment. In his report, Ibett certified substantial short-term gains for all U.S. investors. The hope was that, using modern industrial processes, Lasa could extract from 80.000 to 100,000 m³ of marble in just a few years. This was the same amount Carrara was currently exporting to the U.S. The "conservative profitability calculation" of Borgia, New York’s prime marble expert, yielded a gain of nearly $1 million per year for each 10,000 m³ of Lasa marble. This was reason enough for investors to grant the sums for future investments. The negotiations between Gasteiger, Wölfel, Richter, Flotow and the American bank Sullivan were successful. As early as August 1927 the share capital of the Ltd. founded in 1925 by Gasteiger and Francini was increased from 50,000 to 500,000 Lire. In summer of 1928, a participating company called "International Marble Corporation (I.M.C.)" was founded in Wilmington (Delaware) to market and process Lasa marble in the United States of America. The company's capital was $2 million. On the 25th of 1928, the legal representatives of Mathias Gasteiger and Karl Francini meet in Milan and convert the limited company into a public limited society, paving the road for the current incarnation of the Lasa marble industry. Both the objective and vision of the company haven´t changed since: exploiting the largest white marble deposit in the world. In line with this attitude, on the 30th of May 1929, the S.A. Lasa Marmo signed a contract with Josef Lechner Jr. for the exploitation and extraction rights in the Jenn Cliff, Zirm Cliff and Mahdboden Cliff Quarries (Jennwand-, Zirmwand- und Mahdbodenwand-Brüche). The contract expired on the 31st of January 1954. Ninety years later, the main destination of the marble is still the same: NYC, USA.

However, the foundation deed of the 25th of September 1928 was just one of the corner stones. During two extraordinary plenary sessions in March and July 1929, the statute was adapted to the new requirements. The share capital of "Lasa" was increased to 5 million Lire. On behalf of Hardy, Carl Wölfel deposited 1,600 shares of 100 Lire each. On the other side, Milanese lawyer Roberto Pozzi on behalf of Mathias Gasteiger and Major Knight F. Grammacini on behalf of American investors deposited 1,500 shares each, while Engineer Karl Francini deposited the remaining 400. All shares were linked to the Hardy Bank by a separate agreement. On this occasion, the head office was transferred back to Lasa.

Mathias Gasteiger, who was technically the rightful founder of the current Lasa marble industry, was a shareholder of the "Società Anonima Lasa per l’Industria del Marmo" and of the American "International Marble Corporation (I.M.C.)" until his death in July 1934. Dr. Ernst Schröder took over the position of general manager in "Lasa Marmo", while engineer Karl Francini was appointed technical director of the company for a period of two years.

"I've had the feeling for a while, that the gentlemen want to exclude me." Mathias Gasteiger, 1928

The commercial correspondence between Mathias Gasteiger and Karl Francini suggests that the first years were rather turbulent. The main investors were strongly against including Gasteiger in the management board. On the 13th of 1928, Gasteiger wrote to Francini: "For some time I’ve had the feeling that the gentlemen want to exclude me. They mentioned the possibility of purchasing sculptural marble and initially refused to give me a discount; this should be authorized by a resolution of the supervisory board. But this might just be a pretext; for the time being, the gentlemen obviously have more decisional power. However, as a shareholder, I am technically second in line and also have my rights. But at the moment I have to say yes to everything and just shut up; you will understand me.”

And also, Ernst Schröder was soon going to feel the power of the lenders. On the 18th of June 1929 he was forced to leave his chair. Other directors (Boskamp, Speidel, etc.) followed, most of them appointed by the leading investors in the financial world. In May 1931, engineer Antonio Consiglio, who had previously been technical director of the "Società Marmifera Nord Carrara", was called to the young marble industry in Lasa. The extracting-methods he’s learned in Carrara finally produced the quantities of marble the financiers were demanding.

Sources: Archive Lasa Marmo SRL, book "Marmorspurensuche", Hansjörg Telfser