History

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Philadelphia Brick

April 5, 2024 | by Tim Kerner

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Fall 2023 issue of Context Magazine, a publication of AIA Philadelphia.


To say Philadelphia is a city of brick is almost as obvious as saying the sea is made of water. Philadelphians do not typically reflect on the character of brick because it is so pervasive, but it is worth examining the city’s building blocks more closely. Not only do they originate from the very soil on which the city stands, Philadelphia was a hub of brick fabrication for over 200 years and exported vast quantities across the country. In the closing decades of the 19th century, Philadelphia brick was nationally respected, as was the city’s architecture. And then, suddenly, they were not.

Mississippi River Lighthouse, designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1807 and directed by the Treasury Department to be constructed of “not more than 250,000 bricks from Philadelphia.” The quality of the brick could not make up for the softness of the earth, and the tower sank into the mud before completion. | Image: Public Domain

The connection between Philadelphia and brick began in 1683 when Thomas Holme laid out William Penn’s idea of a “Greene Country Town.” The Great Fire of London had consumed Penn’s home city just 16 years earlier, demonstrating two important lessons–houses should be spaced apart and they should be built of brick. City settlers quickly ignored the first lesson, but the second one endured. In just a few years, Penn could report back to London that his town had “advanced to Three hundered and fifty feven houfes,” with “Divers Brickerys going on…and fome Brick Houfes going up.”

The city was fortunate to be sitting on an enormous deposit of clay, which owed its composition to geological occurrences. About 18,000 years before Penn’s arrival, the southern march of the Laurentide Ice Sheet came to a halt 60 miles north of the future city. As the climate warmed and the glacier melted, torrents of water flowed to the sea. The river we call the Delaware was more than five times wider than it is today and covered most of Philadelphia. Fragments of rock and sand scraped by the glacier’s progress flowed with the thaw and settled to the bottom of the wide river. The sediment accumulated and was compressed into clay over the next several millennia.

Glaciofluvial deposits along the Delaware Valley. The solid lines depict the southern limits of the three major North American glacial events. | Image: Scott Stanford, Ron Witte, Duane Braun, and John Ridge,“Quarternary Fluvial History of the Delaware River, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, USA: The Effects of Glaciation, Glacioisostasy, and Eustasy on a Proglacial River System,” Geomorphology, July 2016

Flash forward to the city’s founding and the colonists were grateful to find perfectly suitable clay just below the ground’s surface. With a few ingredients and a simple process of transformation, they could create the most desirable building material of the time. Clay, water, and dried grass (used as a binder) were thrown into a “ring pit” and churned by a horse drawn shaft. When the mixture became workable, it was pressed by hand into wooden molds and then removed and deposited along the ground to dry. The rectangular chunks of dried clay were later stacked in a brick kiln and fired for several days.

The clay was a drab gray, but the fire transformed it into the orangish-red brick that can be seen on the houses of Elfreth’s Alley and on larger 18-century structures such as St. Peter’s Church, Carpenter’s Hall, and Independence Hall. Colonial brick walls were typically laid in a Flemish bond with lengthwise “stretchers” alternating with endwise “headers” that held the exterior and interior “wythes” of brick together. The ends of the headers were often blackened by glaze or through additional exposure to the fire.

The bricks of Carpenter’s Hall laid in a Flemish bond, completed 1774. | Photo: Tim Kerner

As the city’s population expanded westward from the river, brickyards sprouted in front of the advancing edge of urbanization. These were not the only areas of extraction, however. Each time the ground was excavated to build a new structure, the clay was harvested for use. Brick production increased dramatically over the course of the 19th century. At its height, 50 brickyards employed over 3,000 men and boys, producing more than 200 million bricks per year.

Brick kilns improved with technological advances and, as the fires became hotter and more consistent, the iron molecules within the clay could join more thoroughly with oxygen molecules to form ferrous oxide. This reaction imparted the deeper hues associated with 19th-century Philadelphia brick, which can be seen in the Academy of Music, the Union League, and the sea of rowhouses spanning the city.

The burgundy shades of Philadelphia brick were particularly attractive. As the Evening Telegraph described it, “Philadelphia red brick is as unapproachable in its way as Philadelphia golden butter.” The quality of the brick set the standard by which others were judged. One St. Louis brickmaker boasted that “no brick made, except the Philadelphia Pressed Brick, will compare with those made by our machine.” In the second half of the 19th century, when the national appreciation of brick was especially high, the Philadelphia brick was respected like a fine wine.

Brickyards (in gray) on the Varlé Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1795. | Image: Geographicus.com

Its desirable composition elicited questionable speculation. In 1877, the Anaheim Gazette reported, “In the clay of which the Philadelphia bricks are made, gold was found in the proportion of about forty cents worth to the ton. Each brick contains a sufficient amount of gold to make a glittering show of two square inches, if brought to the surface in the form of leaf.” This claim did not convince any gold prospectors to pan the Delaware River or crack open a brick, but it did contribute to the product’s allure.

The glaciers had not blessed New York City with bountiful clay, so builders purchased their bricks from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and further up the Hudson River. 19-century real estate advertisements provide evidence of the high regard held for baked Philadelphia earth. The most “elegant” homes in Brooklyn were built with Philadelphia brick. Surprisingly, real estate advertisements today fail to mention this asset.

An advertisement published on November 3, 1869 in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for houses built with Philadelphia brick. | Image: Newspapers.com

Large New York structures were also constructed of bricks imported from Philadelphia. The Benedick was designed in 1878 by McKim, Meade and Bigelow (pre-Stanley White) to provide rooms to bachelors and artists, a generally mistrusted segment of the population. The building still stands on the east side of Washington Square and serves as a dormitory and art gallery for NYU. It is currently undergoing an extensive renovation, which has revealed the striking hues of its exemplary brick.

The Temple Court building was constructed in 1881 as an office building in New York’s Financial District. The 10-story facade employs Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival motifs, and the Landmark Preservation Commission considers it the oldest, existing precursor of the New York skyscraper. In 2016, it was restored to serve as the luxurious Beekman Hotel and Residences. After examining its bricks, it is worth visiting the bar within and gazing upward through the rows of silver balconies to the full height of the structure above.

The Temple Court building, now home to Beekman Hotel and Residences, in New York City. | Photo: Tim Kerner

The appetite for Philadelphia brick extended far beyond New York City. In Los Angeles, the Jacoby Brothers building was constructed in 1892 as the largest clothing store in the city. It was declared by the LA Times to be a “triumph of modern architecture… The structure is of iron, Philadelphia brick and ornamental brown stone.” In Pensacola, Florida, the construction of the County Court House was announced by the Pensacola News, which stated it “will add greatly to the architectural beauty of Pensacola… The material is Philadelphia pressed brick.”

The Jacoby Brothers building in Los Angles. Published in The Los Angeles Times, 1892. | Image: Newspapers.com

The appeal of Philadelphia brick ran deeper than its color. The city’s brickmakers were recognized for the quality of their craft, which employed hand labor to a greater extent than was common in other cities. An 1899 report on clay industries of Pennsylvania stated that “contractors and builders… contend that the hand-made bricks are much better than the machine-made ones… hand-made bricks command a better price.”

It may seem surprising that handmade bricks were highly valued at a time when industrial development and mechanization were linked to concepts of American progress. To address this contradiction, we turn to John Ruskin, the renowned 19-century art and architecture critic. For Ruskin, handcraft and the expression of the worker were essential aspects of more humane forms of architecture. Conversely, industrial processes that emphasized standardization and uniformity oppressed the laborer and presented a threat to democratic society.

Ruskin praised Gothic architecture for the freedom afforded to the craftsperson. “Examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.” For Ruskin, the imperfections inherent to the human condition were integral to our conceptions of beauty. “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed.”

A hand-powered brick press. | Image courtesy of Philadelphiaencyclopedia.org

Through their size, heft, and manner of construction, bricks express the relationship to the hands of both the fabricator and the mason who assembles the wall. The color, texture, and form of Philadelphia brick was appreciated for both its physical characteristics and its manner of fabrication, which reinforced the value of handcraft.

Frank Furness was Philadelphia’s most prolific architect of the late 19th century, and he brandished the city’s bricks with bold originality. His buildings can be characterized as Ruskinian Gothic, but Furness embraced new materials and technology. His clients were the industrialists who drove the city’s dramatic 19-century expansion and his architecture reflects the values of the time. Furness’s buildings are a blend of Victorian technology with idiosyncratic interpretations of traditional masonry forms.

Furness’s library for the University of Pennsylvania, now called the Fisher Fine Arts Library, is considered one of the most important works of 19-century American architecture. It can be likened to the offspring of a cathedral and a railroad station with the distinctive features of both parents. On the outside is a towering edifice with stout columns, menacing gargoyles, and great expanses of rough, red brick and terra cotta. Within are vast, light-filled spaces, exposed iron trusses, protruding ornamentation, and botanical interpretations.

Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania was built between 1888-90 and designed by Frank Furness. | Photo: Richard Anderson

Brick adorns the interior walls of the lofty reading room as if to remind scholars of the physical nature of the city in which they labor. The library is an exposé on culture and nature in the age of the steam engine. At its opening, it was praised as the most advanced university library in the country, but the acclaim was short-lived.

Two years later, Chicago unveiled the Columbian Exposition, and the classical ideals of the “White City” captivated the minds of the country. Neoclassical stone facades were designed to cover their brick and iron structures within. Industrial Realism was out, classical perfection was in, and white became the new red. For the next 70 years, American architecture was judged by its adherence to European models and, in Ruskinian terms, the country fell into a period of architectural oppression.

Furness suffered a hard fall from fashion, and his library came to represent all that was wrong with Victorian architecture. A 1908 article in Architectural Record asserted that “nothing more grotesque could be imagined.” Over the subsequent decades, the university treated the building with utmost disrespect, chopping off details, truncating the four-story reading room, and slating the building for demolition. Meanwhile, brickmaking declined in the city and the term “Philadelphia brick” faded into history.

Number of times “Philadelphia brick” was mentioned in national newspapers between 1865 and 1910. | Image: Newspapers.com

The distaste for the contradictions of Victorian architecture endured through the first half of the 20th century. Much of Furness’s work was demolished over these years, and his library languished in contempt. A turning point occurred in 1960 when Denise Scott Brown passionately defended the building at a faculty meeting concerning its imminent demolition. In 1966, Robert Venturi’s influential book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture helped generate renewed interest in the wilder side of architectural history, where the work of Furness dwelled.

After an extensive restoration designed by architecture firm Venturi Scott Brown in the early 1990s, The New York Times declared the library to be “precisely the kind of building that everyone used to hate, and that is now nearly impossible not to love: a Victorian monster, its deep, flaming rust brick and terra-cotta arches… at once hysterical and serene… The restoration has produced a warm, glowing building, a structure that is far softer than any of the photographs, old or new, lead one to expect.”

Philadelphia bricks were an integral component of a manner of architectural expression that reinterpreted traditional forms with modern materials and blended handcraft with industrial processes. Furness’s library is a singularly Philadelphia creation, a celebration of the city, industry, and the pursuit of knowledge. This masterwork of baked earth is a locally-sourced manifestation of the designer’s intense creativity and the builder’s craft. The library is a unique expression of its place, and its walls are a record of cultural, industrial, and geological histories. The building stands today as testament to the values embedded within its brick.



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About the Author

Tim Kerner, AIA is principal of Terra Studio LLC and an adjunct professor of architecture at Temple University.

6 Comments:

  1. John Egan says:

    Shout out to my fellow Philadelphia AIA Urban Design Committee colleague! Well written homage to Philadelphia brick and Frank Furness.

  2. S. Lisa Breslin says:

    I enjoyed your article. Having grown up in a brick home in Philadelphia, I appreciate the history. I’m interested in the mortar used in colonial times. I abhor all the new residential buildings popping up in the city but smile if I see bricks. Thank you!

    1. Michael LoFurno says:

      Wow! I really enjoyed this deep dive into the natural, historical, and cultural roots of Philadelphia brick.For Temple University’s 2024 Exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show, we selected and installed hand-molded brick pavers (Glen Gery 53DD)to represent Pennsport. Your article really hit home!

  3. Judith Robinson says:

    Thank you. Love the research from beginning to end!
    Diamond Street Historic District CORRIDOR…

  4. B. Thomas Hankinson says:

    My life was defined by brick.My father was a Union bricklayer, stonemasons and cement finisher. My dad worked for all the great contractors of the era 1948-1970’s. Kelly for Brickwork was on the back of his shirt. I still have a love and appreciation for the craftmanship and beauty of red.

  5. Maryellen Glackin says:

    This was very interesting. We lived in a late 1800’s home in the Port Richmond area. The brick had black flecks that I was told were iron. Given the facts you give here about the clay, this makes sense.
    These were believed to be higher quality bricks, although I’ve never read anything confirming that as fact. Just curious if there is truth to that information.

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