Lafayette Square Can Hit Like A Ton Of Bricks (Part 1 Of 3)

“Architecture starts when you carefully place two bricks together. There it begins.” -Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

You build with what you have at hand. St Louis has been geographically gifted for growth by sitting atop two dandy sources of construction materials – limestone and clay. Function also leads to fashion, and you only have to stroll around Lafayette Square to witness the flights of imagination launched by architects working with fired clay.

The walls of a frame house left to nature will last about five years before falling apart. The walls of a brick structure can stand for a hundred¹.  Old home preservationists get the benefit of a head start in St Louis City, and we often talk about an otherwise decrepit house as having “good bones”.

The area of Manchester Road paralleling River Des Peres between present Kingshighway and McCausland was a rich source of brick clay. About two miles wide, and four miles long, the seam of high quality clay ran generally from one to ten feet thick². This district was mined using shafts and slopes, often blasting for easier removal, Brick factories set up as close to the source of supply as possible. Still called Cheltenham today, the area attracted Irish and Italian immigrants to work the deposits. In turn, clay mining and brick making helped establish both Dogtown and the Hill, which flanked the mines to the north and south. These mines were worked from the 1850’s into the 1940’s.

Sketch of fire brick works, pre-1904, from “The Clay Working Plants Of St Louis”. As early as 1839, St Louis brickyards were turning out in excess of 20 million bricks annually.

“In 1849, the steamboat White Cloud caught fire and drifted into 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.”³

Firebrick from St Louis kilns proved suitable not only for buildings and streets, but also for the sewer lines under the fast-growing metropolis. St Louis truly was (and remains) a brick city.

In this detail from an 1874 Currier and Ives print, note the distinctive terracotta shade of the brick city.

Ready availability, low cost of production and transportation, and a friendly zoning ordinance teamed up to promote a city architecture of striking variations on the singular theme of brick.

You won’t find such an array of styles within a single building material as with St Louis City and brick. Pittsburgh and Baltimore might come close, but walk Benton Park, Downtown, Lacledes Landing, Soulard and Lafayette Square, then find another city like this. We take it for granted since it surrounds us like air and water – part of our urban environment.

Check out the video below, for a view of what brick has meant to St Louis.

(KETC Brick By Brick feature on Living St Louis 2008. You Tube.)

On January 10th, 2018 KWMU radio and Don Marsh presented an episode of the excellent St Louis On The Air  series that discussed Evens-Howard Place, an area approximately where the Brentwood Prominade is today. It was a vibrant middle-class African American neighborhood also engaged in fire brick production.

In our next essay, we’ll take a deeper dive into a specific and influential company with Lafayette Square roots; The Hydraulic Press Brick Company. Stay tuned.

Thanks to:

(1) Urbanist Dispatch

(2) Rome of the West (Blog)

(3) Dotage St. Louis (Blog)

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