Anatomy of A Rowhouse Roof: Part 1!

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a solid roof to a structure, but let’s try: the roof is the most important thing in the history of buildings, ever. Ok, so that might be a stretch, but it’s not that much of a stretch.
The basic function of the roof is to protect the building (and its inhabitants) from the elements, be they rain, snow, wind, sun, dust, you name it. In our work, we often see what happens when a roof is compromised. As soon as water is able to penetrate the building envelope, the condition of the interior deteriorates rapidly: water trickling down party walls causes bricks to erode and plaster to crumble. These bits then accumulate on soaked floorboards, which themselves sit on water-logged (and therefore rot-prone) joists. After a decade or so, you’ve got a pile of mush surrounded by brick walls.
roofless rowhouse

All that’s left of this roof system is a lone rafter. It’s likely that this roof has been gone for some time, as virtually none of the interior of the building remains. 

Having established the importance of a roof, let’s turn our attention to the way that late 19th and early 20th century rowhouse builders built these things. There’s more variation than you might expect, so we’ll tackle this subject by looking at different blocks of houses.
First up is the 1500 block of E Federal Street, built around 1888.
skeleton of roof

You can see the long purlins spanning across the beefier rafters. Towards the top left of the frame, the purlins end at the cornice.

In this framing system, 2.5×8 rafters spanning the width of the house are pocketed into opposing party walls every five to eight feet. Purlins, 12-16′ long 2x4s spaced every two feet run front to back, spanning three rafters. In other words, the purlins span from one rafter to another, bridging and, because of the long span of a relatively flimsy 2×4, bearing on a third rafter in the middle of the span.

IMG_4535 2

Atop and perpendicular to the purlins, 1″ thick roof decking spans from party wall to party wall.
roof decking

Atop the purlins is 1″ thick pine roof decking. 

What’s notable about this framing system is the significant spacing between the beefy rafters. The long purlins are being asked to do a lot of work holding up the roof decking, tin, and tar. Supporting this weight, the purlins flex downwards. If the purlins are supple, they’ll bend and transfer weight to the rafters. If the purlins are brittle, they’ll crack.
tub framing

The rafter closest in the frame is buckling under all the weight it’s had to carry over the years. 

If I had to bet my ducats, I’d say that the builders of these houses thought they could get away with using as few 2x8s as possible, relying on cheaper 2x4s to carry the load. The results are mixed: true, most of the roofs in the houses we worked in were intact, but all of them showed seriously stressed rafters or purlins. Even if the initial framing was sturdy enough to support the original roof coverings, it’s clear that it was not up to the task of supporting decades’ worth of additional layers of tar.

roof framing

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

New Series: Lumber Stamps of Baltimore

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Baltimore Lore, Reclaimed Wood, Salvage
Old houses are filled with treasure. Sometimes, that treasure takes the form of old letters, photographs, newspapers, and other odds and ends that attest to the human presence that once filled a home. In the salvage world, the bounty is in the building materials themselves, the wood, brick, and stone that spent generations as parts of a house.
Occasionally, the treasure occupies both categories, and that is what we are concerned with here today.
Behold the scrawled name of Heise & Bruns, a lumber company that operated in our fair city from the 1860s to the 1920s, and the stamp of William Applegarth & Son, a shipping and commission house incorporated in 1850.
It's hard to make out, but this joist features the stamp of "Wm. APPLEGARTH & SON" and the painted names of "Heise & Bruns"

It’s hard to make out, but this joist features the stamp of “Wm. APPLEGARTH & SON” and the painted names of “Heise & Bruns”

First, let’s examine Heise & Bruns. The firm was started by German immigrants William Heise and John Bruns in 1862. Their offices and yard were at the intersection of Concord and Eastern Avenues (currently the site of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technolody, in Harbor East).
In this map fro 1876, you can see the location of the Heise & Bruns yard and offices. (Map courtesy of the Huntingfield Map Collection from the Maryland State Archives, made available to us by the always helpful, generous, and inspiring Eli Pousson from Baltimore Heritage)

In this map from 1876, you can see the location of the Heise & Bruns yard and offices. (Map courtesy of the Huntingfield Map Collection from the Maryland State Archives, made available to us by the always helpful, generous, and inspiring Eli Pousson from Baltimore Heritage)

The yard was the largest in Baltimore, occupying 30,000 square feet, with room for one million boardfeet of lumber. As you can see in the schematic below, from old Sanborn insurance maps, at Heise & Bruns, they did it all: in addition to fulfilling the raw lumber needs of a growing city, the firm produced doors, windows, trim, lath and shingles.
sanbornweb01In Baltimore, Gateway to The South, Liverpool of America, a monograph from 1898 extolling the virtues of this bustling city, the authors were kind enough to note that “Mr. Heise is one of Baltimore’s progressive and enterprising younger business men, and the firm as a whole, are gentlemen of that leading and public-spirited class which is accomplishing most towards keeping our city at the the front in trade and commerce and bringing its resources and advantages most prominently to the attention of the country at large.”
William Applegarth & Son made their money operating ships up and down the Atlantic Coast.  William was from a prominent Maryland family; he quickly moved from captaining ships to owning them, and eventually he became a master broker, overseeing a sizable fleet. In 1860, the value of William Applegarth’s real estate was listed as $13,000, while his personal wealth was estimated at $10,000.
In addition to ferrying loads of salt from the Caribbean and granite from Port Deposit, the Applegarth concern sent schooners up the Susquehanna towards the rapidly denuding pine forests of Pennsylvania. The image below, from the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, shows how the tall stands of Eastern White Pines that flourished in much of the state were clearcut, yielding boatloads (literally) of valuable lumber that made its way to cities across the Midwest and East Coast.
William died in 1873, but his sons Nathaniel and Thomas operated the company long after his passing out of their offices at 507 E Pratt, just down the street from the Heise & Bruns lumberyard.
It seems likely that our joist was stamped by the Applegarths as cargo, then painted with the Heise & Bruns name once it had been taken into inventory, or perhaps once it was being ready to be sent to a builder. After the joist had been set in its pocket, it would have had lath and plaster applied to its bottom and floorboards nailed into its top; strip by strip, board by board, the names on the joist would have been obscured as the piece of wood completed the journey from raw material, to usable lumber, to an invisible structural member of a Baltimore rowhouse.

Let’s Learn About: Wane

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Reclaimed Wood
We resisted calling this post Wane’s World, so we’re already off to a good start. What is wane? Or, more specifically, what is wane as it relates to wood?
The word itself is familiar enough, as in “waning strength” or “wax and wane.” The etymology is worth exploring- “wane” comes from the Old English “wana” meaning shortage or defect, which in turn comes from the Germanic “wano” which roughly translates to insanity.
Wane is shown as the dark triangle on the right (Image courtesy of

Wane is shown as the dark triangle on the right (Image courtesy of

In the wood world, wane is a rounded corner on a piece of milled lumber caused by the natural contour of a tree. In other words, wane is what happens when a tree isn’t quite big enough to yield that last piece of square lumber. Wane doesn’t necessarily weaken a piece of wood, but it does decrease the surface area for fastening floorboards and lath.
This stud features a couple waney patches. This is as the result of the knot you see towards the bottom of the piece, which would have grown into a branch, thus creating a bulge in the tree.
This stud features a couple waney patches. This is as the result of the knot you see towards the bottom of the piece, which would have grown into a branch, thus creating a bulge in the tree.
We come across quite a bit of wane. In some cases, traces of bark help us identify the species of tree which gave its life to become a stud or joist.
wane bark stud

From looking at the inner bark on this patch of wane, we can tell that this stud came from a loblolly pine tree.

In the woodworking world, there’s a strong demand for live-edge furniture, that is, furniture that features the outermost part of the tree, bark and all. This furniture is usually made from slabs from felled trees, but maybe a “wane-edge” cottage industry will crop up, too.

It’s Time We Talked About Formstone Pt. 1

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
baltimore formstone row

(Image courtesy of

We like to talk building materials here at BBBB, and we’ve regaled you with tales of joists and studs, bricks and belt courses, struts and cut nails. But we’ve yet to discuss one of the most iconic building materials Baltimore has ever known, the material John Waters called the “polyester of brick”: Formstone.
Formstone has achieved Kleenex-like name recognition, but the word is merely one brand name among a host of other stucco products such as Rostone, Perma-Stone, Fieldstone, and Tru-Stone.
Formstone was but brand name among a host of several stucco products

Formstone was but one brand name among a host of several stucco products

Formstone was patented by Albert Knight, a native Baltimorean, in 1937, but a similar product had cropped up 8 years earlier in Columbus, Ohio. Knight’s patent, granted while he was with the Lasting Products Company, was for a “Process of Making Artificial Stone Wall Facings.”
The product was applied to building facades thusly: wire mesh was fastened to the facade of a building with small nails inserted into mortar joints. Successive coats of plaster were then applied until a desired thickness was reached. Formstone installers then got to work creating the distinctive stone-like appearance with molds, rollers (for texture) and implements for scoring the stucco to create faux mortar lines. The stuccoed facade was then often colored to suggest a wall made from several types of stone.

formstone diagram

Formstone appealed to both form and function-minded folks. Advertisements touted the product as being a wonder-solution to the persistent problem of brick maintenance (we’ll explore this claim in Part 2 of this series). But the product also offered an instant transformation: a simple brick structure could quickly become an imposing stone-fronted masterpiece. As Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward note in The Baltimore Rowhouse, Formstone salesmen did brisk business in neighborhoods in East Baltimore that were filled with Eastern European immigrants; the authors suggest that these folks may have been drawn to a product that recalled the stone buildings of the old country. Belfoure and Hayward share a quote from one satisfied customer:
“It looked like a shantytown when it was red brick. The man came and Formstoned it…made it look like Hollywood. That’s the God’s truth.”
Formstone (and similar products) can be found in cities up and down the East Coast, but it feels particularly Baltimorey. Some folks estimate that over 50% of the houses in the city are Formstoned.
Fatz removes Formstone from one of our houses

Fatz removes Formstone from one of our houses

On Eager Street, 27 of the 35 houses had Formstone on them. In the next chapter, we’ll explore why only 1/5 of Eager Streeters went without Formstone, and why they may have been the sensible ones!

Herringbone Struts

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Reclaimed Wood
As Edward J Burrell tells us in Elementary Building Construction and Drawing (1891):
“When common joists are used for spans of more than 9 or 10 feet, there is a want of stiffness, and a tendency for them to turn over sideways. This may be remedied by herringbone strutting.”
A cross section of a herringbone strut system from 1892

A cross section of a herringbone strut system from 1891

Herringbone struts are diagonal members, generally placed in an “X” configuration, that are fastened between joists. By tying one joist to its neighbor, herringbone struts firm up flooring systems. As Burrell alluded to, they also prevent joists from warping or twisting over time.
The joists in the houses on Eager Street stretch 12 feet from pocket to pocket. While this span pales in comparison to some of 16′ wide houses we see in the West side of town, builders nonetheless thought it prudent to include blocking between the joists.
eager street herringbone
Herringbone struts also made it easier to run pipes and lines because they could be run along the joists without having to drill through solid blocking. In the days of knob and tube electrical wiring, when joists were riddled with holes for wiring, herringbone struts made a lot of sense.

herringbone struts

Herringbone struts required an extra degree of craftsmanship, as well. To fix the struts snugly, a beveled cut had to be made on each side of the piece- without the use of a fancy whiz-bang $600 compound miter saw, this was no small task. We’re glad Frank Novak’s crew made the effort, because 107 years after they were laid, our joists are straight as can be without a twist or warp in sight.

baltimore reclaimed wood

Early 20th Century Labor Costs

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
What’d it cost to build rowhouses similar to the ones we’re deconstructing on Eager Street? To answer this question, and just about any other question having to do with rowhouses, we turn to Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward’s The Baltimore Rowhouse, the absolutely essential reference for all things rowhousey.

Buy this book.

When construction began, basements had to be dug. Laborers were paid $1.25 per day, and a team of nine fellows could do the job in two days.
On Eager Street, the next step would have been to lay the brick foundations. Bricklayers were typically paid 60 cents per hour, tying them with plasterers as the top earners among the tradesmen.
brick foundation

After basements were hand dug, bricklayers laid a foundation of extra-hard bricks fired at high temperatures. They were typically paid 60 cents per hour for their work.

As joists were laid, carpenters would have become involved- they made 50 cents per hour.  It’s possible there were several classes of carpenters, much in the same way there are now: framers for the joists and studs, finish carpenters for moldings and trim, cabinetmakers for cabinets and fixtures. Or, it’s possible that a crew of versatile craftsmen were capable of fulfilling all of Frank Novak’s carpentry needs.
exposed joists
After the bones of the house had been assembled, plasterers (60 cents per hour) would have entered the picture. The common laborers who helped all these tradesmen usually earned 33 cents per hour.
Missing from the above-mentioned tradesmen are dozens of specialized artisans and craftsmen who contributed to rowhouses across the city: lathers, tinners, plumbers, carters, glaziers, etc.
Charles Belfoure and Mary Ellen Hayward gleaned the figures above from the records of Edward Gallagher, one of Frank Novak’s biggest competitors. Gallagher’s building costs amounted to roughly $1.18 per square foot. Novak claimed that his costs were 70 cents per square foot, so it’s safe to assume that he paid his workers significantly less than the rates above.

So Who Built Our Houses?

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
Throughout this blog, we’ve often said things like “the folks who built our houses” or “the builder decided to do XYZ”. We’ve been coy. It’s time to talk about Frank Novak, the man who built the 2300-2400 blocks of Eager Street. This post is largely indebted to Mary Ellen Hayward’s essential book, Baltimore Alley Houses.

A 1906 map showing development creeping east across Patterson Park Ave. The 2300-2400 blocks of Eager Street do not yet exist, but occupy the space directly below the Union Railroad tracks (Image courtesy

Frank Novak was born in Baltimore on March 17, 1877. The Novak family had come to America just two years before Frank’s birth, and had made a home at 420 N Castle Street after living briefly on N Chapel Street. By the time he was 13, young Frank was working as a carpenter’s apprentice.
In 1899, Frank was a 22 year-old carpenter working under August Hanneman, a German builder. Hanneman and Novak had been building two-story houses along the 700 blocks of Patterson Park and Madeira Streets. Sadly, Hanneman died when the block was half-finished and Novak became thrust into the role of builder.

The 700 block of Madeira, where Frank Novak took over from August Hanneman in 1899 and began a long career as a rowhouse builder

Novak wasted no time, buying the rest of the block from Hanneman’s widow and then buying 35 lots along Madison, Madeira and Collington Streets. He sold his first house in July of 1900 and then moved on to the 800 blocks of North Patterson Park and Collington, eventually acquiring and building upon dozens of blocks to the north and to the east.
In 1904, Novak built 14 homes on Bradford for $10,000 total, or around $700/per. Three years later, he built 22 homes on Montford between Ashland and Eager for $20,000 total.
We couldn’t find a direct reference to Novak building on the 2300-2400 blocks of Eager, but based on the development of the surrounding blocks described above, it seems almost certain that he’s our builder. Then there’s this brief mention in The Plumber’s Trade Journal from 1908 that seems to confirm our suspicion:


You can see that Frank Novak (misspelled “Novah”) is listed as the builder of 2321 Eager Place. Based on the construction dates of the surrounding blocks, it seems likely that the beautiful block of homes you see below was built in late 1907 into 1908.
The houses on Eager Street were the nicest Novak had built to date and represent a maturation in style from the earlier houses he’d built, but are distinct from the houses he would become most famous for, the brown Roman-bricked rows you see below that fill entire neighborhoods of East Baltimore.


We’ll get into some more specifics about Novak’s building practice in a later post, but for now just know that Novak went on to become known as “The Two-Story King of East Baltimore,” with nearly 7,000 rowhouses attributed to him.

Round Arches

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
A few weeks ago, we presented a brief course on the belt course, noting that the Cockeysville marble featured in the houses on Eager Street sets them apart from houses on neighboring blocks.
Today we’re going to look at another architectural feature that makes the 2400 block of Eager Street special: semi-circular round arched windows and doorways.
But first, a word about rowhouse hierarchy. Not all rowhouses were created equal; in fact, builders would generally develop several styles that catered to clientele with varying wallet thicknesses. Within the space of a city block, these different styles were (and still are) on full display. This phenomenon is perhaps most pronounced in parts of West Baltimore- take the block just to the south of Union Square, shown below:
Imposing three-bay wide, three-story houses with top-of-the-line materials and fashionable detailing lined main streets and parks (a la the 1500 block of W Lombard below) and were intended for wealthier folks.
Smaller and less ornate three-story houses sat on parallel streets, like the 100 block of S Stricker seen below, and were targeted at folks with more modest incomes. Comparing the photos above and below, you can see that the houses on Stricker are shallower, shorter and narrower, and lack the marble stoops and substantial cornices seen on the Lombard houses.
Smaller two-story houses sat along the alleys that cut through blocks, like the 1500 block of Lemmon Street below. These homes were built as no-frills workforce housing.
lemmon st
In West Baltimore, this rowhouse hierarchy can be pretty easy to spot. Out in our neck of the woods in the Milton-Montford neighborhood, the task is made a bit trickier because almost all of the houses are two-story and there was less of a wealth discrepancy among inhabitants than there was in the West Baltimore neighborhoods of the mid 19th century. Without the gimme three-story houses denoting the creme de la creme, one must look for other cues, which brings us back to those round arches on Eager Street.
The 900 block of Bradford Street was built just before the 2400 block of Eager Street. On Bradford, you can see that the doors and windows feature flatter segmental arches with a curve that is only slightly pronounced.
On Eager Street, the doors and windows feature the round half-circle arch you see below. This is not a jaw-dropping difference, but it is significant- along with the marble stoops and belt courses, these round arches signify that the houses on Eager featured higher quality materials and more advanced building techniques than their predecessors. While it’s not as obvious as the discrepancy between the three-story monsters on Lombard the humble two-story dwellings a hundred feet south on Lemmon, these subtle architectural differences likely corresponded to small differences in price and, perhaps, clientele.
The round arched doorways were fitted with a wooden transom casing that tied into the brick. This casing was pieced together from a dozen or so curved pieces of wood.
The craftsmanship involved in creating the casing (as opposed to a relatively simple flat lintel or unsupported segmental brick arch) suggests that extra costs may have been incurred during construction to add details that might have allowed for higher sales prices. In a future post, we’ll explore why it’s also likely that the semi-circular arches were the work of a builder growing ever more confident in his craft.

So Whats the Big Deal About Longleaf?

Anatomy of A Rowhouse
Way back in the way back, we talked about the tree species that collectively form the group known as Southern Yellow Pines. Remember? We talked about how most of our joists were various species of SYP: shortleaf, loblolly and slash pines. We did, however, leave one species out of our discussion of SYP, promising that we’d dedicate a separate post to it. Two months later, we’re delivering: here is the post about Longleaf Pine.


Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) is a tree among trees: virgin trees once grew to up to 150 ft tall with trunk diameters of nearly four feet. “Palustris” refers to swamps or marshes, and represents a significant taxonomic error made by esteemed Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who first “discovered” the species during winter flooding and mistakenly assumed a marshy habitat.
Longleaf forest once dominated the Southeastern region of the US, with an estimated 90,000,000 acres of tall, straight, sturdy trees creating a supply of lumber that was seen as essentially inexhaustible. Fast forward to the present, and only .01% of those old growth longleaf forests exist.

This photo from 1906 gives you some sense of the scale of old growth longleaf pines (Image courtesy of

In the reclaimed wood world, longleaf represents the gold standard of pines- because the tree grows slowly, it creates an extraordinarily tight grain with pronounced resin in latewood growth rings. High resin content, which made the tree especially useful as a source for pitch and turpentine, makes longleaf lumber wonderfully fragrant, and unusually heavy and hard. For a so-called softwood, longleaf lumber is just about as hard as some maple species.
02_Endgrain - Reclaimed Long Leaf Pine

Longleaf lumber can be identified by its uber tight grain, pronounced latewood, unusual heaviness (owing to such high resin content) and beautiful scent

As a general (though not ironclad) rule, first floor flooring in older houses was milled from harder woods than second floor flooring- higher foot traffic meant that first floors featured oak, ash, maple, and other hardwoods while second floors usually got softwoods like pine and fir. Though hardwood species were predominately used in higher end houses, the rule of using harder wood on the first floor often applies in more modest old houses. On Eager Street, most of the first floors feature longleaf flooring, while the second floors are various softer SYP species.


In 1907, when the floor was laid, longleaf pine was certainly a lower-cost alternative to hardwood, offering comparable hardness at a discounted price. One hundred odd years later, longleaf is a low-cost alternative no more, fetching a pretty penny as one of the more desirable reclaimed wood species. It’s not hard to see why: a quick pass through a planer knocked off 107 years of footfall and dust, resulting in the gorgeous board you see on the left.