[ToC]

 

THE HANDS THAT TOUCH THE BRICK

Michele Herman and Sarah McElwain

I'm not sure how I got so lucky, but I live in an apartment with exposed brick walls in a converted spice warehouse in Greenwich Village. Having grown up amid shiny new postwar things, I suppose I was destined to love rough old ones. Our brick is a warm, granular, vari-hued orange, as full of bubbles as a good yeast bread and sometimes burnt like toast. Some bricks are pitted or burled or missing a corner, or have a path running through them like a dry river bed. The brick is held together with pebbly, sloppily applied mortar—a spice warehouse built in 1898 was not aiming to impress anyone.

I love my brick best at sunset when I go into the living room and turn on a couple of table lamps. My eyes, having accepted the flat white face of the computer monitor as the world's backdrop, come home to rest gratefully on the earthen walls. The palest orange bricks glow as if they're still cooling from the kiln. Our pictures hang from iron nails that came with the apartment, shoved into spots where a chunk of mortar fell out or in old holes someone bored into the brick. I wish there were someone still alive to ask what the holes were for.

We also have two windowsills of exposed brick, one of them beside the desk in the tiny room where I write. Just six inches from my chair is a living lesson in 19th-century building methods. Because we are on a low floor and the exterior walls are load bearing, the window is set into a wall as thick as my arm is long, forming an accidental window seat of brick. On the exposed tops of the bricks, I can read the names of four manufacturers. Over the years I've written a fair amount about local history, and often when I get stuck with whatever I'm working on, I run my hand over the bricks, wondering where they came from and whose hands touched them before mine.

In a city where you're often hard pressed to find any actual earth, it's amazing how many buildings are made out of it. According to my unscientific survey, 94 percent of the buildings in the Village and Chelsea are made of brick. Whatever isn't brick is either new glass or old stucco, and if you pull off the stucco you'll probably find brick underneath. Even the fancy new Superior Ink townhouses just off the Hudson River waterfront—named for the factory they replaced and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet—are brick, albeit brand-new brick that appears to have been whipped by some kind of pitiful distressing machine to approximate vintage Village brick.

In fact, if you're anywhere in New York City that isn't dominated by glass towers or in almost any other old city this side of the Mississippi, it's likely that within a foot or two of where you're sitting right now there's a brick wall, and if you poke your head out the window to the street or the backyard or the airshaft, what will you find? A sea of brick, except that brick isn't anything like a sea. It's small and stubbornly rectilinear and made of earth and stays in exactly the same place, often for centuries. And that's another reason I appreciate it so much—it has a steadfastness that's second only to rock.

or Christmas my older son, who knows me well, found me an  inspired present. It's not just a book about brick; it's a book about the history of the great Hudson River brick industry, written by architect George Hutton, who practically grew up at the Hutton   Company, his family's venerable brick-manufacturing plant in Kingston. Thanks to Hutton, I finally have answers to many questions that have rattled around my brain for years as I've sat at home and walked the streets of my city: where did all this brick come from? How was it made? Wasn't there some more efficient way to get buildings built? And why is some of it so gorgeous, to my eyes at least, while some (what I think of as parking-garage brick) so uniform and charmless?

I now also know, as I long suspected, that it's no coincidence that the brick inside the hangar-like buildings of the Dia: Beacon art center, about 60 miles up the Hudson, looks identical to the brick inside my apartment, also hard by the Hudson. It's probably also no coincidence that the Dia buildings were once Nabisco plants, like the factory that used to be contiguous with our building and the Chelsea Market buildings just north of us. (I liked imagining that my building supplied Nabisco with its cinnamon and nutmeg, until, alas, I looked up the ingredients of Nabisco's cookies and crackers and couldn't find a single product that lists any spices.)

To oversimplify a little, here is where the brick came from. The banks of the Hudson River roughly between Haverstraw and Albany used to be massive bluffs of clay, in some places up to 200 feet high. From the late 18th to the mid-20th centuries, both sides of the river were thick with brick factories, mostly family run and employing waves of newly arrived workers, including the usual Irish, Italian and African-Americans but also Hungarians.

echanization came along in stages. But the prototypical West Village brick, the kind that fronts the humble houses built between the 1820s and 1850s, was made largely through the labor of men and mules. The men scooped up the clay, mixed in a couple of additives (sand to reduce shrinkage and coal dust to increase the internal temperature of the brick, thus cutting the firing time in half) pressed it into iron molds that made nine or 10 bricks at a time, dried and cooked it in huge kilns, and shipped it downriver so that bricklayers could build the city.

For a long time this was a beautiful symbiosis: upstate had plenty of what downstate needed, and the Hudson was full of barges bearing brick. But then, early in the 20th century, the situation got messy. Immigration slowed, stalling the demand for new buildings. Manhattan began to run out of undeveloped land. Cheap imported bricks flooded the market. The clay began to run out and manufacturers had little success stretching it with new additives.

hen, in the 20's, concrete block made from fast-setting Portland cement became available, and nothing was ever the same. The industry kept rallying, most notably to produce enough bricks for the gargantuan Parkchester apartment complex in the Bronx (1938) and then Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan (1947). The Hutton Company, founded in 1865, held on longer than many, but finally gave up in 1965, making it the longest-lived Hudson River brick manufacturer owned by one family.

It turns out it wasn't just hometown pride that made me partial to the local clay. Hudson River clay was exceptionally good clay, formally categorized as strong and plastic (easily molded and finely grained). Though gray-blue in its natural state it turned red when fired. The clay had only one flaw, occasionally fatal: when it got swept down by the glaciers it picked up some pesky calcium from limestone and oysters.

But I'm glad for the softness and the calcium because they meant the clay didn't lend itself to extrusion. And herein lies the answer to my question about brick aesthetics: the orange brick that's so prevalent in the Village, that glows in sunlight and never ceases to please my eye even over long expanses, is molded. Brick with sharp, regular edges and striated or indifferently sliced faces (and with telltale round holes running through the interior) is forced through a tube called a dye and cut with wires, much like a hard-boiled egg slicer.
 

Thanks to Hutton, I know all kinds of new things. I know that "face" brick is the finer grained product generally reserved for building facades and that the rougher and lumpier (and much more lively-looking) stuff in my apartment is "common" brick. I also know that the recessed rectangle  in the top of the brick with the name or initials of the manufacturer in raised letters is a "frog," and that bricks were one of the first products to carry a brand name. Thanks to a website called brickcollecting.com that makes me look like the merest dabbler, I've been able to trace the provenance of three of the four brands of brick that appear on our windowsill frogs. So now I read the Braille of my S&H, W&F and Lahey bricks and know that they were made from clay in or around East Kingston, Haverstraw and Newburgh.

Aside from my own apartment, some of my favorite brickwork is found on a slightly deranged apartment house façade a short walk south of my apartment, in the segment of Seventh Avenue South that was rammed through the Village in 1917 to connect Seventh Avenue to Varick Street above the IRT subway line. Bricklaying is generally a decorous craft, following one of several simple patterns of "stretchers" and "headers." But the unknown artisans who built this building doodled with bricks.

Instead of tossing the occasional bad brick ("lammie" or "clinker"), they flaunted them by letting the headers protrude in random spots. Some are charred and swollen as a marshmallow left too long on a bonfire. Others look more like a slice of charbroiled steak only in reverse, black on the inside but still rare around the edges. The occasional irregularly shaped dinner-plate-sized slab of fieldstone is set willy-nilly into the facade. One slab that's rounded on top has its own miniature brick arch above it; another wears a brick fez at a rakish angle, a third sprouts brick hair standing on end. Elsewhere the façade is interrupted, for no particular reason, with a brick cross or a brick diamond or a pair of brick quotation marks.

To cheer myself up when I had the flu recently, I did a little research. The building was built in 1940, and the architect, I.L. Crausman, better known for his fine art-deco buildings in the Bronx, died years ago. But I found his son William. I was feeling overloaded from Mr. Hutton's book on minutia like kiln temperatures and the average price of a brick in 1909, and was hungry to talk aesthetics.

Crausman was happy to oblige. He told me that a decade after the Seventh Avenue building, his father designed the family a house in Rockland County in a similarly fanciful style. He was a teenager at the time, but he still remembers the Italian bricklayers with their limited English. "Each one would be like a Modigliani or Rembrandt," he said. "He would build a 50-by-50 foot section and call my father to look at it, so proud. I could walk around and know which bricklayer did which section. Everybody was an artisan."

I'm well aware that most people don't walk around their neighborhood communing with the building materials, and that most people don't have a stash of conversational gambits involving brick (would you like to know the difference between English and Flemish bond? I've been known to ask at parties). But what could be more stirring than a great metropolis totally dependent on blocks of baked earth made by and designed to fit in a man's hand?

 

 

 

 

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