Why Our Bricks Have No Frogs

Bricks
To the reader unversed in brick terminology, the title of this post probably seems nonsensical, so we direct your attention to our primer on brick frogs before you go any further.

brick-frog

To briefly recap, frogs are indentations made in the bed of a brick that have the following practical advantages: 1) they reduced the amount of clay needed to make a brick, 2) they lightened the brick 3) they created a better key for the mortar to adhere to, 4) they offered a surface for the brick maker to impress his name upon, acting as an early canvas for advertising.
We are most concerned with this last item, the branding potential of a lowly brick. First a bit of history: brick frogs seem to date the late 17th century, but only came into use in the US during the late 19th century. The Hudson Valley region, which supplied most of the bricks to the voracious New York City building market, saw a progression of bricks featuring a brand on the surface of the brick (as seen below) to a recessed frog, to even deeper frogs (seen further below).
embossed-brand

(Image courtesy of brickcollecting.com)

recessed-brand

(Image courtesy of brick collecting.com)

The recessed frog seems to have become popular (for Hudson Valley brickmakers and others) around the turn of the century. To supply the booming NYC market, hundreds of brickmakers lined both banks of the Hudson all the way past Albany, sending their bricks to the city by barge.
brick-beach

Bricks from an old brickyard in Kingston, NY lining the western bank of the Hudson (Image courtesy of brick collecting.com)

Here, you can imagine the branded frog playing an important role: amid the atmosphere of fierce competition in a booming industry, the frog allowed proud brickmakers to advertise their name and catch the eye of builders. Imagine you’re a bricklayer for a 20 story building, and you’re handling thousands of bricks a day, all of them marked with the name “MASSEY”. The name impressed upon the brick probably becomes impressed upon your mind, and when your current load runs out, who’re you gonna call?
In New York City, virtually every old building brick you come across will have one of several hundred brands on it.  In Baltimore, brick hunting can be an exercise in frustration, because it seems there are hardly any bricks with frogs and/or names on them. Sure, you’ll see a “CALVERT” or a “HOMEWOOD” occasionally, maybe an “OXFORD” here or there, but that’s about it. During our deconstruction projects, we’ve handled well over one million bricks, and the tally of bricks with frogs stands at: zero. What gives?
reclaimed-brick-dc

All these beautiful bricks, but not a frog in sight

What follows is only a guess, but a quasi-educated one. We’ve mentioned that frogs became popular during the late 19th century, so it pays to see what was going on in the Baltimore brick biz around then. Turns out something momentous was taking place:
In July of 1899, the Baltimore Brick Company was formed when it bought up almost all of the competing brickmakers in Baltimore, essentially becoming a monopoly in the Baltimore brick game. Along with several other smaller firms, the Baltimore Brick Co. absorbed these fine brick manufacturers: Baltimore High Grade Brick Co., A. & F. Wehr, Weaver & Harman, Maryland Brick Co., Pitcher & Creager Brick Co., Wm. H. Perot, Jas. R. Busey & Son, Smith & Schwartz Brick Co., H. W. Classen & Co., Cromwell Bros., John A. Knecht & Sons, Druid Brick Co., Dan’l Donnelly & Sons, John A. Allers & Son. In the map of East Baltimore below, from 1876, you can see the Donnelly, Smith, Robinson, and Perot brickyards.

brick-map

In this map of the same area from 1906, you can see “Baltimore Brick Co.” scrawled over the entire area.

1906-brick-map

The formation of the Baltimore Brick Company is a prime example of industrial consolidation, as behemoths were created from the agglomeration of many humble enterprises. Three years after its formation, the Baltimore Brick Co was churning out 150,000,000 bricks per year.
To be sure, some venerable Baltimore firms resisted the lure of the mighty BBCo; Burns and Russell, whose bricks were used in the construction of the Shot Tower, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Old St. Paul’s Church, remained in business, as did several specialty clay companies. But it’s fairly safe to say that any rowhouse built in the city after 1900 used common bricks supplied by the Baltimore Brick Company.
Which answers, partially, why we believe our bricks have no frogs. One of the main attractive features of the frog, the ability to promote a brand, would probably have been deemed unnecessary by the BBCo, as monopolies generally don’t need to advertise! This alone probably wouldn’t account for the lack of a frog in our Baltimore bricks, but it certainly seems like a plausible factor.
baltimore-reclaimed-bricks

Frog-less Baltimore bricks, undoubtedly made by the Baltimore Brick Company

The Baltimore Brick Company, by the way, operated in the city until 1968. It’s tricky to pin down exactly, but it seems like parts of the company were eventually swallowed up by larger regional players, which were then themselves ultimately swallowed up by a massive multi-national brick company.

Brick + Board is Here!

Brick + Board
Of all the questions we get asked, perhaps the one most frequently posed is, “so, what do you guys do with all that stuff?” When you deconstruct a house, you’re left with a pile of materials that is essentially the same size as that house, if slightly consolidated. Our job doesn’t end when the house is fully deconstructed; we’ve still gotta figure out what to do with literally tons upon tons of salvaged building materials.

reclaimedbrick

Fortunately for us, the materials we salvage are some of the nicest stuff on earth. Heart pine flooring, hand-molded brick, and rough-sawn lumber are hard to come by these days, and we’re thrilled that we get to lay our hands on such beautiful stuff.

heartpineflooring

Fortunately for you, there’s now a convenient outlet for these materials! That outlet is Brick + Board. When a century old Baltimore rowhouse reaches the end of the line, its bones deserve to live on, and we take pride in harvesting, preserving and preparing these materials for their next hundred years of life.

 

Ghosts of Etting Street

Ghosts of Baltimore
Etting Street is the first block that we’ve done on the west side of town, so we’ll be dealing with different housing typologies from older eras, different builders, and a different set of folks who lived in these houses.
We’ve been working on the 1800 block of Etting Street, which appears to have been built around 1890. Before we get into the folks who lived there, it’s worth remembering the man whom the street is named after (many thanks to this Baltimore Heritage profile for info!)
etting.jpg

Solomon Etting. (Image courtesy of pafa.org)

Solomon Etting was a Jewish merchant and politician who moved to Baltimore from York, PA in 1791. Etting was a prominent citizen of Baltimore, a successful businessman who eventually joined as one of the founders of the B&O Railroad. Even with his successes and high standing, Etting was banned from holding office because of his faith. He thrice petitioned to be placed upon the same footing as other citizens, and was thrice denied. When the Jew Bill (yes, it was actually called that) was passed in 1826, it enabled Jews to hold public office, making Maryland the last state to grant these rights. Etting, thirty-five years after he arrived in Baltimore, won a City Council seat and was one of the first Jews to hold elected office in Maryland.
ettinggrave

A tombstone from the Etting Family Cemetery showing the “Etting” surname. (Image courtesy of http://explore.baltimoreheritage.org/items/show/507)

Etting created the Etting Family Cemetery when his daughter, Rebecca, died in 1799. This plot is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Baltimore. Among the burials is that of Zalman Rehine, who is reputed to be the first rabbi to come to America.
Now let’s discuss some of the folks who lived on the 1800 block. In 1910, it appears that all of the families living on this block were either listed as being Black or “mulatto.” Thus far, all of the blocks we’ve worked on have been in East Baltimore, and were originally built to house arriving European immigrants. The 1800 block of Etting is the first block that we’ve worked on that was built to house African-American Baltimoreans.

ettingmap1896

The 1800 block of Etting lies within the Upton neighborhood, which was one of the most affluent African-American neighborhoods in the country at the turn of the century. While many of the city’s prominent African-American citizens owned property in Upton, it was by no means exclusively wealthy. “The Bottom” referred to the southern and western portions of Upton, and it was here that many in the black working class lived. The 1800 block of Etting was within this region. A quick look at the jobs of inhabitants of that block confirms this: waiter, cook, laundress, seamstress pop up again and again.
Priscilla Burnette was a cook who lived at 1807 Etting Street in 1900. Ms. Burnette was 40 years old, widowed, and lived with her daughters Minnie and Berthe and her son William.  Ms. Burnette’s neighbors were also cooks, as was her daughter Minnie.
1807 etting

1807 Etting is the formstoned house to the left. (Image courtesy of Google)

Now here’s where it gets interesting. The 1900 census lists another Priscilla Burnett (no final ‘e’ in this surname), 44 yrs old, also widowed, who is listed as being a live-in “servant” and a cook for Israel Rosenfield and family. The Rosenfields lived at 2221 Eutaw Place, a large three-story brownstone in Reservoir Hill, just half a mile from 1803 Etting. This Priscilla Burnett, however, is listed as being white.

2221 eutaw.jpg

The two Priscilla Burnett(e)s have nearly identical names, similar ages, identical jobs, are both widowed, and live within a half mile radius of one another. We’re left with a couple options here: either there really were two people with insanely parallel lives, or it’s the same Priscilla Burnette listed as living in both places.
I think the second option is far more likely. But if that’s the case, why would her race be listed as “black” for one address and “white” for the other? This could be a simple clerical error, it could be that Ms. Burnette could “pass” for white, or it could be that the Rosenfields’, for some reason, declared to the census-taker that their servant was white. The 1910 census does not show a Ms. Burnette at either address, and it reveals that a new family had moved into 1807 Etting Street.
etting1807

The living room at 1807 Etting in its current state.

The Pavers of Baltimore, Part 2

Baltimore Lore, Bricks
Way back when, we highlighted one of the pavers that sits below our long-since-asphalted streets here in Baltimore. These pavers were used to pave streets before asphalt became commonplace in the 1920s.
We briefly discussed how a paver (also called a ‘block’) operation required more sophisticated machinery and infrastructure than your average brick operation. Because of this, Baltimore actually imported much of its stock of 10 lb pavers. Today we’ll look at another block that can be found under the streets of Baltimore.
up-FG4ISPHIURNMR7JK-2
The town of Windber, PA started as a company town for the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company (see what they did there?). The company brought over large amounts of Eastern European immigrants during the early years of the 20th century to work in the mines, and by 1910, the town that had formed only years earlier had a population of nearly 10,000.

windber-eurekamine

Windber became a minor boomtown, with sawmills and brick manufacture joining coal mining as the main industrial activities. The W.P. Kelley Brick Co, which got off the ground in 1901, seems to have been behind the “Windber” paver brand.

windber paver.jpg

Next to the “Windber” name, you can see the four ovular lugs that acted as natural spacers when these pavers were laid on their edge, as seen in the photo. You can also just make out smaller circular bumps in the top corners of the paver: these were caused by indented screws fixed to the face of the mold.

News About the Novaks!

Baltimore Lore, Ghosts of Baltimore

2308 madison entry novak

Over a year ago, we spotlighted the man who built the houses we deconstructed on Eager Street, Frank Novak. Legend has it that Novak built 7,000 rowhouses in East Baltimore, beginning in 1899 with the 700 block of Patterson Park, and moving north and east to help construct Baltimore’s rapidly developing suburbs.
Several months ago, we got an email from Elizabeth Day,  Novak’s great-grand-niece (Novak was her father’s great uncle), who shared some family history with us. She told us that her father, James Scroggs, had come across the blog and had enjoyed reading about his great uncle’s role in shaping Baltimore. We sent James a brick from one of Novak’s houses, and he more than repaid us with the wonderful history that follows:
Frank wasn’t the only entrepreneurial Novak: in 1907 (the same year the houses on Eager Street were built), Frank’s older brother Joseph opened a saloon at 2308 E Madison Street. Joseph ran the saloon until Rudolph, a younger brother, took it over in 1913. Rudolph ran the joint until 1920, when Prohibition forced him to convert it into a soda/fountain. James recounts that, “my mother’s recollections of the place were of a friendly neighborhood gathering place, a kind of ethnic pub where her mother and aunt cooked up Czech delicacies.”
James’ mother was named Florence, and in the photo below you can see her with her cousin Mildred Raborg in front of Novak’s Saloon. The photo was taken in 1918.

'18 Mildred Raborg & Florence Novak at door of Novak Saloon

James also sent along a photo of the same address nearly 80 years later:

2308 Madison St in 1996

Here’s what the intersection looks like today:

2308 madison

You can see that some of the original details remain: the ornamental brackets supporting the entryway are still there under several coats of paint, as are the marble slabs framing the entry landing.
James ended his email by noting that “Frank Novak seems to have been a very modest man. He deserves more credit.”
James also sent along Frank Novak’s obituary, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a later post.

Now You Can Buy Our Beautiful Materials!

Brick + Board
If you’re a friend of this blog, you’ve heard us rave about the superior quality of Baltimore bricks and the incomparable beauty of 130 year-old lumber. You may have thought to yourself, “hooooooweee I’d like to get my hands on some of that!”
We’re happy to announce that now you can! Details Deconstruction is spinning out a new social enterprise focusing on the materials we salvage, the stories they tell, and the work we do to prepare these materials for their next lives.

reclaimed flooring baltimore

Brick + Board will be marketplace for reclaimed bricks, lumber, flooring, architectural details and more, but it will also be a training program: using the bounty of raw material that we harvest in Baltimore and beyond, we’re excited to start training folks in basic carpentry, woodworking, and milling. Our plan is to bring skilled industrial work back into the heart of Baltimore.

reclaimed brick stacking

The materials we salvage were milled, molded, and installed in Baltimore by Baltimoreans. Now, a century later, a new group of Baltimoreans is reclaiming these materials, brick by brick.
Check out our new Facebook page by clicking HERE!

Bricks & Snow Removal in Baltimore

Baltimore Lore

 

1922 snow baltimore

Removing snow by the cart-full in Baltimore in 1922. (Image courtesy of http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2016/01/baltimores-biggest-snow-storms/#2)

During these wintry times, when the majesty of falling snow has given way to the dread of dealing with mounds of it, let us pause and recall that our aching backs and calloused hands are nothing new, that our forefathers and mothers had to shovel out their wagons, de-ice their single-pane windows, and plow, or rather roll, the streets with snow rollers.
Until 1862, when Milwaukee adopted the first snow plows, snow rollers would be used to compact the snow, making streets passable. These rollers actually made the streets more passable, as the compacted snow served as a perfect surface for ski and sled-mounted vehicles.
Besides the rollers, cities heavily relied on their citizenry (and occasionally their police forces) to remove the snow. Snow was a major physical obstacle, something that appeared somewhat regularly and had to be regulated as such.
In the Baltimore of 1858, this regulation came in the form of Ordinance No. 33, Sec. 31. The broad ordinance was designed to “restrain evil practices…and to remove nuisances.” Sec. 31 dealt with snow removal from footpaths, and mirrors modern regulations: essentially, folks were required to clear the footpaths that fronted their property within three hours of snow falling.

brick and snow regs

What’s odd is the placement of this Section: it comes directly after Sec. 30 (not the odd part) which deals with brick kiln regulations! One can imagine the drafters of the city ordinances creating their list of nuisances, and saying, “Heavens yes, we must certainly regulate the foul odours and displeasing smoke coming from those brick kilns. Hmmm, you know what else is equally as problematic? Snow!”

Ghosts of Port Street: Part II (Port Street Wire Workers, Part Deux)

Ghosts of Baltimore
In the last Ghosts of Port Street, we featured Stephen Bohdal, a humble wireworker whose experience ultimately paid off when he created a patent for a “Combined Coat and Skirt Hanger.”
Bohdal lived at 900 N Port Street, and just next door, in 902, lived the Widra family. In 1910, the Widra family consisted of Peter, his wife Rose, and their three children, Rudolph, Charles, and Helen. Like his neighbor Bohdal, Peter was a wireworker. In fact, the two neighbors owned a wire works together at 717 E Fayette Street, appropriately named Widra and Bohdal.

902 n port

It seems the neighbors eventually went their separate ways, as both Widra and Bohdal opened their own businesses. Peter Widra & Company Ornamental Wire Works specialized in elevator cars, lawn settees, and bank railings, among other things. They operated out of a factory at 516 Ensor Street.

widra wire baltimore

By the time the 1920 Census was taken, Peter had died, and Rose was running the business. The family still lived at 902 N Port, though Rose’s mother, brother, and niece had moved in. Charles, who at 15 was the oldest Widra son, did not enter the family trade, and instead worked as a clerk at an insurance agent. In 1930, Charles had moved out to the suburbs where he worked as a press operator at an aircraft factory. By 1940, he had moved back home to East Baltimore, though he kept his work as an aircraft mechanic.
902 port rear

The rear of 902 Port after we took off the roof, peeled up the flooring, removed the joists, and manually took down the walls.

One imagines that the work of an aircraft mechanic must have been somewhat of a natural extension to the work of a wire worker. Maybe it was in Charles Widra’s blood? In looking at the earliest listing for the Widra family, the “d” in the name seems cut short, almost to the point that it looks like an “a”. The name seems to be written as “Wiara”. This could be the case, of course; perhaps the immigration official or census taker or whoever first wrote down the name “Wiara” wrote it in such a way that it looked like “Widra” and the new name just stuck. It is quite possible that the family’s original name was “Wiara”: in old German, it means “wire”.

widra wiara

 

 

Baltimore Wallpaper Archive: Pt 16

Wallpaper Archive

wallpaper 16

This one comes to us from a house in East Baltimore built in the late 1880s. It features a peaceful scene: cherry blossoms, a man wearing what looks to be a kasa, in a boat on a lake, a pagoda in the background. It might seem odd that a house in a bustling American metropolis would be pasted with pastoral depictions of what was then a world away, but this wallpaper was likely part of the Japonisme craze that took hold of Europe and the US during the late 19th century.
Until the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854, when the US effectively forced the Japanese into opening its ports, Japan had followed a strict, 220 year-old policy of seclusion. After the announcement of the treaty, Japanese decorative arts, flooded European and American markets. A fascination with all things Eastern led to widespread adoption of Japanese patterns for furniture, textiles, prints, and yes, wallpaper.

Better Know A Brick: Part 5- Face Vs. Common

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Bricks, Reclaimed Bricks
A brick is a brick is a brick. Or is it? Here we must take issue with this hasty Gertrude Stein-ism and declare that there is a massive amount of variety in what most might consider to be just another pile of bricks.
It’s no secret that bricks vary from region to region (thanks to differing clays, sizing standards, and traditions of either using, or not using, a frog) but even among bricks laid in the very same house, there is quite a diverse mix on display.
face brick vs common brick

Cutaway of a corner rowhouse showing three types of brick: face brick up front with a thin layer of white lime-Portland mixed mortar, common brick directly behind it with sloppy mortar work, and ‘hard’ brick for the side wall.

Before delving too deep into the nuances of kiln placement and firing temperature (saved for a future post), let’s begin with apples and oranges, the face bricks and common bricks.
Common bricks make up the vast majority of the Baltimore rowhouse. While there are various types of common bricks used to create the party walls, rear wall, and interior wythe of the front wall, they are all essentially the same brick with the same dimensions and basic properties. These bricks can be crude affairs: sizes can vary by a 1/4″ from brick to brick and corners are often imperfect.
Common Brick Side 2

This group of common bricks, (post-salvage and dry stacked without mortar) shows their irregular nature. Some chips and cracks occur during the salvage process, but these bricks were born imperfect.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, common bricks, in Baltimore and elsewhere, were almost always made relatively close to the construction site, probably within a span of a couple miles. Before widespread use of the automobile, these bricks would have been carted by mule, so proximity was key. Once they arrived on site, they’d be laid rather quickly in thick mortar beds.
Why the thick beds? Pardon the following SAT question: Gustav the bricklayer is making a wall. Bricks cost 5 cents apiece, and mortar costs virtually nothing. He can use either 1/16″ or 1/2″ mortar beds: which will allow him to use the least amount of bricks, thereby saving a ton of money?
brick thick mortar bed

Common bricks in situ, showing super fat and sloppy mortar beds.

Beyond decreasing material needs, thick beds enabled the mortar to set consistently around the rough edges of the common brick, allowing for straight courses.
Now let’s move on to face brick, a different beast altogether. Face brick is used on the…face of our rowhouses. These bricks are harder, more standardized, and more durable than your garden variety common brick. Whereas common bricks were often made from clay that had received minimal screening, face bricks were composed of finer clays that were less contaminated with pebbles and other impurities. They were fired at higher temperatures for longer, making them extremely solid and near weatherproof. Check out some examples in the gallery below:
The crisp edges of face brick meant that thinner mortar beds could be used to beautiful effect. Around the turn of the century, face brick were often laid in a thin stripe of a lime-Portland cement mix.
During the 19th century, Baltimore became famous for its pressed face brick and shipped the beautiful product up and down the East coast. By 1910, however, trade winds had changed, and the city that had once been a foremost producer of face brick became a major importer of it, as train cars full of face brick from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio flooded Baltimore. As new rows popped up along the city’s eastern and western peripheries, the houses were fronted with the telltale yellows and browns of PA and OH bricks. These bricks are nearly indestructible- if you see a Formstoned house on one of these rows, you’re witnessing the work of a damn good salesman.
iron spot row

Row of homes in East Baltimore with iconic iron-spot face brick