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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
In 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.
The house at 900 N Port Street was only a year or two old when the 1910 census was taken. In that house lived the Bohdal family: Stephen, the 26 year-old head of the household (at least as listed on the census) lived with his wife, Eva, who was 28. The two of them had emigrated from Austria several years before, and lived with their three daughters, Annie, Antonie, and Mary. Filling out the household were Stephen’s mother, Dora, his brother, Michael, and a boarder named Jack Kardos. Oh wait, there’s more- Charles and Rose Nence, another Austrian couple, lived in the house, as well.
That makes 10 folks sharing the 900 square feet or so of 900 N Port Street.
Stephen Bohdal was a wireworker, as was his brother, Michael, and their boarder Jack. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what sort of wire factory these fellows worked at- turns out that there was once a television show that had something to do with Baltimore and wire, so a Google search for “Baltimore + wire” isn’t too helpful.
But wireworking was once a popular trade here in Baltimore; window screens, steel cables, telegraph lines all relied on folks like the Bohdal brothers toiling away in wire factories.
But Stephen Bohdal would not toil forever: by 1913, Stephen Bohdal owned a wire factory at 701 Ensor Street, and by 1930 he owned a bigger factory and was living down in Curtis Bay.
To what do we attribute his success? All those years messing with wire seemed to have paid off for Mr. Bohdal, as his familiarity with the material resulted in him being awarded a patent for a “Combined Coat and Skirt Hanger” in 1925. See his fantastical contraption below:
Things have wrapped up nicely on Eager Street, which means it’s time to introduce our two newest projects: the 900 block of N Port St and the 1200 block of N Bradford St.
Port Street (above) is a familiar scene for us, as it’s just around the corner from the 2400 block of Eager Street. Bradford is a few blocks to the north, on the other side of the train tracks, but very much in the same neighborhood as our other projects. The blocks are shown below in a 1915 map.
The houses on both blocks sure do look familiar, and for good reason: it appears as though both blocks were built by our old friend Frank Novak. The houses on Eager Street were built between 1907 and 1908, and it seems that the 900 block of N Port followed shortly thereafter. 1200 N Bradford was built around the same time, perhaps several months after Port Street was completed. By this time, Novak had essentially laid claim to this section of East Baltimore, so it’s safe to assume that he’s our builder.
Between the two blocks, we’ll have 19 more houses to deconstruct, which should provide us with a steady supply of work and salvaged materials, but also a fresh batch of the stories that these buildings tell.
Documenting an ongoing project through a blog is often an exercise in pacing: there can only be so many breathtaking, white-knuckled, big-reveal wowza posts, so a reliable bench of less revelatory material is necessary.
In ordinary circumstances, our last post on brick fingerprints would serve as the “gee, cool!” post. Some less thrilling content might follow in the days to come, while we held on to the next crowd-pleasing post for a later date.
These are not ordinary circumstances. Today is June 22nd, 2015. Presented without further comment is something we found on site today:
File this one under Things You Don’t Find During Traditional Demolition- bear with me:
By the time our bricks were fired in 1906, mechanization had made significant inroads in the brick industry. Throughout the mid-19th century, both American and English brickmakers cum inventors devised machines to hasten the brickmaking process, harnessing steam power to drive an ever-evolving array of fantastical contraptions like the one you see below.
The machines performed many of the duties once assigned to workers: rather than being hand-molded one or several at a time, machines could produce ribbons of clay that were then cut into dozens of bricks with a quick swoop of a mechanical arm. Other machines pressed clay neatly into molds and sent them along a conveyor belt towards drying racks.
While the relentless pursuit of efficiency and profit resulted in the mechanization of much of the work formerly done by humans, it by no means obviated the need for workers in the brickmaking industry. Around the turn of the century, brickmaking operations often relied on humans to move bricks along from one step in the process to the next; though bricks could be machine-molded or cut, workers often handled the bricks as they were sent to drying sheds and, ultimately, the kiln.
We see evidence of this all over the place in East Baltimore. Every so often, we come across a brick with clear fingerprints impressed upon the surface. It’s highly unlikely that our bricks were fully hand-molded when they were made during the first decade of the 20th century, but it’s certain that they were shepherded along the process by several sets of human hands. Our best guess is that the fingerprints landed on our bricks after they were molded but before they’d been fully dried, when a worker lugged them to a drying shed.
The giants of modern brick production rely on an almost human-less process, with robots and highly specialized machines guiding the brick along a fully automated sequence. There are machines that stamp textures into the surface of the brick, and other machines that spray on layers of dye to give bricks a “historic look”.
The fingerprinted bricks on our sites are constant reminders that in 1906, real people, real Baltimoreans, made these bricks. A year or so after they were made, real people laid these bricks. And now, more than 100 years later, real people are salvaging these bricks.
Things are winding down on Eager Street (stay tuned for more info on the latest block we’re deconstructing!) so we thought it’d be a nice time to go through some numbers. Fear not, arithmophobes, though the following numbers are staggering, no math is involved.
Number of houses deconstructed:
Number of bricks salvaged:
Number of square feet of flooring salvaged:
Number of board feet of lumber salvaged:
Number of nails pulled:
Landfill diversion rate:
Number of tons of salvaged material:
Number of jobs created for BALTIMORE residents: