A look at the basic brick
I grew up in a “Mill” city in Massachusetts. Wherever you walked you were usually next to a large “brick” factory building. The local library was created from differ kinds of stone and most of the houses were made of wood. Later, living in a rural environment, my walks had me going along back roads that were lined with walls of field stone.
An article in the NY Times by Christopher Gray who wrote about the “human touch that is all over brick” got me thinking about the many buildings I have photographed in NYC. I can’t remember when I ever thought of looking at the brick.
I am reproducing his article so you can get a sense of your surroundings and maybe even look more closely at the handiwork of our past artisans. I know that in future walks, I will be paying more attention and hopefully capture some brick patterns that I can share with my readers.
“Stone leaves me cold. Yes, Connemara green marble can be luscious, and the fossils in Indiana limestone may be mesmerizing, but the setting of stone — massive hunks of rock, which must be derricked into place — removes all sense of handwork. A stone wall is the creation of machines.
On the other hand, the human touch is all over brick. It is not difficult to imagine a mason setting each one, squishing down the mortar and filling the joints, moving on to the next, and then starting all over again. Any brick wall is barely a handshake away from the people who, a few months or years or centuries ago, created it; one degree of separation, if you will.
This sense of antiquity is best displayed in Roman brick, usually 12 inches long as opposed to the more common 8 inches. This kind was used before the Romans, and it is not clear how it developed in the ancient world; perhaps in drying, the thinner form was more forgiving in shrinkage. But somehow the empire put its stamp on it, and the part-ruined buildings of Classical Italy are full of these long, flat shapes: the arches of the fourth-century Baths of Diocletian come to mind.
In New York, Roman brick came to be used in all sorts of ways, but the kind I like is all over Park and West End Avenues, where it was fashionable in apartment houses of the early 20th century. The brick at 960 Park Avenue, on the 82nd Street corner, has deep-struck joints; the mortar has been raked out, leaving the brick projecting. Because the brick is irregular and on the thin side, it has a fragile air, as if it might snap off.
Although red brick was the standard in New York until after the Civil War, a quest for variety began in the 1880s. That’s when dappled iron-spot brick was introduced. The 1894 Dakota Stables, a masonry masterpiece of orange iron-spot trimmed with salmon-colored brick, stood at Amsterdam Avenue and 77th Street until a few years ago. Although it was an obvious development site for two decades, only a passing effort was made to save it.
Another striking orange iron-spot brick structure in New York is still with us: the delicate Church of the Holy Trinity on East 88th Street, between Second and First Avenues. Built by the Rhinelander family in 1897 and designed by Barney & Chapman, this is a complex arrangement of French Gothic forms, more like a small town than a single structure, perhaps the best such assemblage in Manhattan.
In addition to iron-spot, it has Roman brick. Instead of the thick joints used at 960 Park Avenue, the architects laid the brick more tightly here, contributing to what The Brickbuilder magazine described in 1899 as “a harmony of color that is only surpassed by nature’s inimitable autumn foliage.”
The flat arches over the basement windows are worth a look, too. The bricks were shaped to form wedges laid one next to the other, spanning the opening. The delicacy of such work is often astonishing; another example is the curved arch on the old stable at 75 East 77th Street, where the bricks reduce to an amazing thinness.
Neither thin nor delicate, clinker brick is the Marlon Brando of masonry: misshapen, blackened in the kiln, historically regarded as trash by brickmakers. The architects George and Edward Blum were among New York’s most versatile designers in brick, and clinkers did not escape their imagination, especially at the 1930 apartment house at 405 East 54th Street, at First Avenue.
The First Avenue side is all storefront, but the brick on 54th Street was laid every which way, a hypnotic whirl of dark red, purple and black chunks of misshapen brick, 95 percent of which would be rejected for a standard colonial-style house. The Blums’ client could afford this technique only on the lower floors. Above, the rubble falls into line — throwaway brick is expensive!
If clinker brick is the Wild One, brick set in the crisscross pattern called diaper work is like a ballerina. In New York the grandpappy of diaper work was the 1865 National Academy of Design at Park Avenue South and 23rd Street, reminiscent of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
Not everyone loved the crisscross design, covering the entire second floor. The Real Estate Record and Guide could hardly bear to look at it, describing it in 1868 as “architectural delirium tremens, where variegated bricks make up a sort of mosaic front.”
The academy building is long gone, but the Upper West Side has several diapered apartment houses, the Allenhurst, at Broadway and West 100th Street, and the Peter Stuyvesant, at Riverside Drive and 98th Street. The Peter Stuyvesant was designed in 1908 for a group including James T. Lee, a grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
There, the crisscross covers the top three floors, writ very bold because the building is so tall. Surrounded by great bosses of polychrome terra cotta and underneath a deep green copper cornice, the bricks softly stair-step up the facade. There must be thousands; each one was set by a human hand.”