Next time you walk around the neighborhood, have a look at some of our brickscape. You’ll see many St Louis companies represented in our paving bricks. Then consider our exterior walls — today’s facing brick is an aesthetic compromise designed to lend a historic look, rather than much supportive strength. Our early buildings were brickfests by comparison. The cross-section pictured here is provided by a decrepit building at the foot of 18th at Chouteau. Brick is solid stuff, and its sheer volume in use is a testament to the affordability of something locally mass-produced.
Well beyond St Louis, when you touch an early 20th-century red brick building in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or Dallas you may again be close to your own roots as a St Louisan. Bricks produced here were exported everywhere. The strength and distinctive terracotta hue of St Louis brick made it a ubiquitous material for prestigious civic construction.
It’s become a somewhat involuntary export lately. St Louis City in 2017 had nearly 25,000 vacant or abandoned properties.¹ As the city loses population and other cities grow and thrive, a black market has developed for high quality low-cost brick wrested from abandoned buildings. Turn of the century housing often falls victim to wholesale “brick rustling” in North St Louis. Setting fire to an isolated structure is one ploy to ease the task of brick thievery. When the fire department battles the blaze, cold water hitting the hot walls pops the brick from the mortar, making the whole structure prone to collapse. Later, a cable strung between windows and tied to a truck takes down the wall. Soon, the bricks may be headed down the interstate to Texas or Louisiana. The loss of back walls from abandoned homes has become so prevalent on the north side, that what remains of a structure is known locally as a “doll house”.
Lafayette Square has lost its fair share of significant brick structures – the Sheble House, Barlow Mansion, and Nicholson Estate come to mind. While enjoying the old-time craftsmanship and solidity of our remaining original homes, an appreciation of brick is certainly integral to it.
Lafayette Square has become the backdrop that gets into one’s bloodstream. If it’s not romantic, why do the wedding parties line up each year for their pictures in the Park? What many of us can’t see clearly today are the years of sustained effort expended in bringing the grand houses, and Lafayette Square itself, back from the brink of ruin. Our neighborhood was nearly written off in the 1950’s when a St Louis plat map labeled this area “Slum D”. This could easily have been lost to the effects of State Highway 755, the North-South Distributor.
The Lafayette Square Restoration Committee is a collective name for several generations now, picking up a shared responsibility and carrying it forward over the last 49 years. The value of your membership https://lafayettesquare.org/product-category/memberships/ continues to be well and truly returned.
I recommend this article for a deeper look at the importance of brick to St Louis, and a good discussion of brick theft. It also makes reference to an excellent documentary, Brick – By Chance And Fortune. The Story of Brick in St. Louis, filmed by St. Louis’s own Bill Streeter. You can stream this 2011 feature from Amazon.
1.) Riverfront Times – January, 2018