Have you ever noticed that in Chicago, no matter how interesting and high-quality the brick on a historic facade is, the brick that’s on the secondary elevations is kind of, well, not so interesting and high-quality? What you’re seeing is a, Chicago-specific brick type. DYSV could go on and on about proper mortar, pointing, reasons for color variation, etc., but we’re not. We’re gong to keep this one short and sweet – just a brief dispatch on what Chicago common brick is and how it came to be.
During Chicago’s late-nineteenth century building boom, the city’s brickyards were all in competition to provide the best, most beautiful and uniform bricks for the cheapest price. This coincided with a trend in house construction in which homeowners and their builders would take exterior walls within a few inches of the lot line to maximize living space and still allow for light to enter the side elevations. That is, city code required that houses in some neighborhoods didn’t touch so that inhabitants had light and fresh air on all four sides of the building. As a result, except for corner properties, three of the four elevations of these houses were almost completely hidden from the street. The front facades would typically feature some really spectacular regular and decorative pressed brick that was quite pricey. Unlike the handmade brick available up to that point, pressed brick was extruded through a hydraulic press and cut to a standard size. But whereas mechanization and mass production of this nature made pretty much every other product in history crazy cheap, crazy fast, pressed brick was actually one of the more expensive varieties on the market. Homeowners were reluctant to spend a lot of cash on high-quality bricks that no one would ever see, so brickmaking companies found a solution in Chicago common brick, and the rest is history.
Rather than using nice pressed brick, which is characterized by its sharp edges and deep red color (but not always – as brick buffs know), brick companies started churning out common brick, which is made of indigenous clay and therefore comes in a range of colors, from salmon pink to yellow to tan to brown. Pressed brick also requires firing at a very even temperature, and in order to achieve that, the best bricks needed to be placed in the middle of the beehive kiln, where the fire was “baby bear” — not too hot, and not too cold. The bottom of the kiln, closest to the fire, would be stacked with what are called clinkers. Clinkers are over-fired bricks that become incredibly hard, durable and dark in color, and they were often used in chimneys or in brick sidewalks. But at the top of the kiln, bricks wouldn’t receive as much heat, and the resulting product was lighter, slightly softer bricks. In order to get good bricks, you had to sacrifice a full third of the kiln, and sell off another third for a very specific purpose, and the supply often exceeded the demand.
Soft, inconsistently-colored common bricks had no real use, until enterprising brickmakers marketed them as Chicago common brick — perfect for your secondary elevations and light on your wallet. Soon, Chicago common brick started popping up everywhere, and now you’ll even see it on the secondary elevations of corner properties. And because the elevations that used common brick were already seen as inferior to the other elevation(s), masons tended to be slapdash at best when it came to applying mortar with common brick. You could have beautiful, smooth, blood red pressed brick with 1/4″ butter joints on the front of your house, and a hot mess everywhere else. And it was fashionable. History, man.
Perhaps the best place to see how and where common brick was used in Chicago is an El ride through one of the city’s older residential neighborhoods. From up high, it’s easy to see the delineation between primary and secondary facades, and as the track gets dangerously close to buildings, you’ll get to see the wide variations in color found in common brick. Not to mention that a good about of El track snakes in and out of alleys and side streets, where you’d be more likely to try to save some cash in your building material of choice. And speaking of savings, $2.25 for a lesson in architectural history AND a cross-town ride? Thanks, CTA.