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Monday, April 14, 2008

"Why is everything brick?"

That is a quote from a new St. Louisan, as found on this topic on the Urban St. Louis forums.

And it's a valid point. More so than almost any other city, St. Louis's cache of historic homes has a decidedly pronounced bias towards brick.


Fortuitously, the St. Louis Public Library can tell us just why:


Several factors led to St. Louis's brick atmosphere. First was ready availability: St. Louis was underlain by dozens of high-quality clay deposits. Dogtown and the Hill were both neighborhoods shaped by immigrant groups who moved there to work the clay mines.
To put some numbers behind the words:

By 1839, [St. Louis's] brickyards were turning out better than 20 million bricks a year.


Certainly, though, 19th century builders would have wanted to cut costs and avoid masonry construction in a working class area. In many cities, wood frame buildings were common. In St. Louis, though:


In 1849, the steamboat White Cloud caught fire and drifted onto the riverfront wharves; a third of the city was destroyed in the subsequent blaze. A hurriedly-passed local ordinance forbade the construction of wooden buildings, and St. Louis became even more predominantly brick.


I think we're blessed as a city for this ordinance. Sure, some blocks border on monotony at first glance, with almost too bulky rows of ruddiness dominating sometimes intimidating streetscapes. Perhaps a New Orleans inspired splash of color (through frame or stucco/paint) might spice up a couple of these more robust-looking streets.


Really, though, it's those red bricks that scream St. Louis.


I can't tell you how many times I drive through the streets of New Orleans and am simply in awe of the liveliness of the blocks, both in color and human activity, and in architectural diversity as well.


But as my mother, who came to New Orleans for her very first visit back in January, noted of New Orleans: it's pretty, it's eye-popping but it doesn't look as impressive as St. Louis.


I took her words to mean that it seems like St. Louis's brick-laden blocks took more craftsmanship and appear more sturdy and serious than the whimsy of the Crescent City. And so, while New Orleans has one of the most enviable housing stocks in the country, there is something to be said of the presence of St. Louis's brick Victorians and bungalows; their ability to command respect even when they've been allowed to precipitously deteriorate.


Enough on that. I was quite surprised to see that "St. Louis bricks" were not featured on the site of the largest historic brick supplier in the country, Gavin Historical Bricks in Iowa City, Iowa. This company offers several types of salvaged (rustled?) bricks from "towns all over the Midwest."


Sure says a lot about the economy of the Midwest, doesn't it?


Chicago is featured pretty prominently.
These are "Antique Chicago Blended Cobblestones"--




These are "Old Chicago Brick Floor Tile"--



Are these more accurately "Urban Renewal" bricks? Probably.
Lastly, one interested, rather than averse to St. Louis bricks, must check out St. Louis Bricks blog--a catalog of all the interesting masonry acrobatics this fine red (and tan and brown and yellow, etc.) brick city has to offer.

1 comments:

Deborah said...

I just love your blogs. You are truly a genius regarding architecture and the adoration of the bricks you so love to talk about. The city of St. Louis will be so lucky to get you back with your compassion, dedication and knowledge of the structures. Keep up the good work Matt!

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