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News > Context Fall 2023 > Uncovering the Philadelphia Brick

Uncovering the Philadelphia Brick

The Furness Library, University of Pennsylvania, 1891. Photo: Richard Anderson
The Furness Library, University of Pennsylvania, 1891. Photo: Richard Anderson

By Timothy Kerner 

One way to stump a bunch of architects is to ask what these three nineteenth century buildings had in common: the Jacoby Brothers clothing store in Los Angeles, the National Lighthouse on the Mississippi River, and the Temple Court building in Manhattan. The improbable answer is they were all built with Philadelphia brick.  

There is no question that we occupy a city with an inordinate number of brick buildings. But it is considerably less well-known that for over two hundred years Philadelphia was a leading fabricator and exporter of brick.1 And this was not just any old brick, it was nationally recognized for its quality of composition, distinctive color, and manner of fabrication. These characteristics were tied to geological conditions, industrial processes, and cultural practices. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia brick was an integral part of an architectural style that sought to blend handcraft and industry with an original expression of place. 

When William Penn and Thomas Holme laid their street grid between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers, they could only hope there would be enough suitable clay to construct their settlement. The Great Fire had consumed London just sixteen years prior, offering an indelible lesson on the dangers of building with wood. In 1685, Penn proudly reported that his town had “advanced to Three hundered and fifty feven houfes,” with “Divers Brickerys going on … and fome Brick Houfes going up.”2  

Penn’s colony was fortunate enough to be sitting on an enormous deposit of clay which owed its physical composition to unique geological and climatic conditions. Eight thousand years prior, the southerly march of the great Northern Glacier came to a halt sixty miles north of Philadelphia. As temperatures rose and the ice melted, torrents of water flowed to the sea. The river we now refer to as the Delaware was five to ten miles wider than its present width and covered the entire area of the future city. Fine fragments scraped from lands to the north settled to the bottom of the river and in a few thousand years the Philadelphia Brick Clay Deposit was formed.  

Colonial settlers found easily extractable clay just below the surface of the city. As the population expanded west from the Delaware, brick yards sprouted in front of the advancing edge of urbanization, as can be seen in the area west of Broad in [Figure 2]. The brickyards were not the only areas of extraction, however. Wherever the ground was excavated to build a new structure or lay pipes in the street, brick fabricators arrived to harvest the clay.3 

Brickmaking did not require complex equipment; kilns were made of the brick itself and the only other materials required were clay, dried grass to bind the clay, and wood for the fire. The clay was thrown into a “ring pit” and churned with water by a horse drawn shaft. The workable mixture was then pressed by hand into wooden molds and deposited along the ground to dry. The bricks were later stacked in a kiln and fired for several days. The raw clay was grey, but it turned orange/red during the firing process. Examples of early Philadelphia bricks can be seen in the walls of eighteenth-century buildings, such as Carpenter’s Hall, the Quaker Meeting House at 5th and Arch, and Independence Hall. These bricks were laid in a Flemish bond with lengthwise “stretchers” alternating with “headers” that bound the wythes of the wall together. 

As technology improved during the nineteenth century, kiln fires reached temperatures of over 2,000 degrees, allowing the iron molecules in the clay to join with oxygen molecules and form ferrous oxide. This molecular reaction imparts a deep red to the brick, which is the color most associated with the renowned Philadelphia brick. At the height of production in the final decades of the 1800s, there were over fifty brickyards in the city, employing almost 3,000 men and boys producing more than 200 million bricks per year. This quantity was sufficient to meet the city’s needs during this intense period of industrial and residential expansion while also allowing for significant brick export. 

New York had not been treated so kindly by the glaciers and was left without a sufficient supply of clay to meet its construction needs. Builders there typically purchased bricks from New Jersey and Philadelphia. The high regard for Philadelphia bricks can be seen in nineteenth-century real estate advertisements. Apparently, the best houses in Brooklyn were built with Philadelphia face brick. [Figure 3]. 

Larger New York structures were also built with brick imported from Philadelphia. The Benedick on Washington Square was designed by McKim, Meade and Bigelow (pre-White) in 1878 to provide rooms for bachelors and studios for artists. It is now a dorm for NYU. The Temple Court office building was constructed in 1881 along an entire block of the Financial District. It employed Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival motifs on its ten-story brick façade and is considered the oldest, existing precursor to the New York skyscraper.5 In 2016, it was luxuriously restored to serve as the Beekman Hotel and Residences [Figure 4].  

New York was not alone in its appetite for brick from Philadelphia. They were in demand across the country by those willing to pay the extra expense. The 1892 flagship store of Jacoby Brothers [Figure 1] — the largest clothing retailer in Los Angeles — was declared by the LA Times to be a “triumph of modern architecture … The structure is of iron, Philadelphia brick and ornamental brown stone.”6 In 1890, the Pensacola News reported that the new County Court House was “a building that will add greatly to the architectural beauty of Pensacola … The material is Philadelphia pressed brick.”7   

Philadelphia brick set a national standard of quality. As a St. Louis brickmaker declared “no brick made, except the Philadelphia Pressed Brick, will compare with those made by our machine.”8  There was an attractiveness to the Philadelphia brick color that was difficult to explain. According to one correspondent, “Philadelphia red brick is as unapproachable in its way as Philadelphia golden butter.”9 Some suspected the attraction could be related to a certain amount of gold within the red. According to an 1877 report in the Anaheim Gazette, “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.”10   

As attractive as it was, the brick’s source of appeal was not limited to its color. Philadelphia brickmakers were recognized for their fabrication expertise, which emphasized human labor and judgement more so than in other cities. An 1899 report on the brickmaking industry 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.”11 This is surprising to hear from a time when mechanization and industrial development were directly linked to concepts of American progress.  

To understand this seemingly contrarian attraction we turn to John Ruskin, the renowned nineteenth-century critic of art and architecture. Ruskin considered machine production contradictory to human nature and nature itself. He equated the demands of mechanical precision with the ideals of perfection inherent in Greco-Roman Classicism, which he considered as oppressive as the machine. According to Ruskin, when the worker is forced to conform to concepts of perfection, there is no room for individual expression. 

Ruskin praised Gothic architecture — especially the Venetian kind — 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.”12 Ruskin considered human imperfections integral to our concepts of beauty. “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed.”13 

Although Ruskin was speaking of ornament and not brick specifically, the connection between bricks and human craft is apparent. Through their size and heft, bricks in general express their relationship to the hand of the assembler. The color, texture and form of the Philadelphia Brick express a quality of craft that is linked to the fabricators and the characteristics of the place of fabrication. 

Frank Furness was Philadelphia’s leading architect of the late nineteenth century, and his Ruskinian Gothic buildings brandished Philadelphia brick with bold originality. Many consider the University of Pennsylvania Library to be his masterpiece, and some claim it as the most important work of nineteenth century American architecture.14  It has been likened to the offspring of a cathedral and a railroad station. This strange creation possesses distinct features of both parents — a towering edifice, stout columns, exposed iron structure, menacing gargoyles, vast light-filled spaces, shadowy recesses, glass floors, and great red walls of brick and terra cotta. The brick is even brought to the interior as if to remind scholars of the material nature of the city in which they labor.  

Furness’s library received national acclaim and was declared the most advanced college library in the country.15 But the popularity was short-lived. Just two years later, Chicago unveiled the Columbian Exposition, which captivated the country with the classical ideals of the “White City.” McKim, Meade and White rose to national prominence and neo-classicism became the desired form of civic expression. Stone façades concealed brick and iron structures within. Classical perfection was in, Industrial Realism was out, and white was the new red. For the next seventy 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. In 1908, a writer for Architectural Record asserted that “nothing more grotesque could be imagined.”16 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 with the depletion of the city’s clay deposits, and the term Philadelphia brick faded into history. 

The classical blinders that obscured the brilliance of Furness’s design were lifted in the 1960s with help from Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. After their firm’s extensive restoration thirty years later, the New York Times declared the library to be “precisely the kind of building that everyone used to hate, and that it 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.”17 

The Furness Library is a singularly Philadelphian creation, a celebration of railroads and industry, and a meditation on 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, and a unique expression of the character of place. We can all be grateful that the Furness Library stands today as testament to the values embedded in its brick. 

 

Timothy Kerner is principal of Terra Studio, adjunct professor of architecture at Temple University, and a member of the AIA Philadelphia Board of Directors. 

 

Citations: 

1. Thomas C. Hopkins, Clays and Clay Industries of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State College, 1899, p. 52. 

2. Harold E. Gillingham, “Some Early Brickmakers of Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1929 

3. Hopkins, p. 47. 

4. Ibid. p. 58.  

5.Landmark Preservation Commission, “Temple Court Building and Annex,” 1998. p. 1. 

6. “Stupendous, A Colossal and Progressive Clothing Firm.” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1892, p. 14. 

7. “Public Buildings,” The Pennsacola News, February 14, 1890, p. 17. 

8. Leavenworth Daily Commercial, February 7, 1869. P. 3. 

9. “New Yorkisms,” The Evening Telegraph, October 20, 1868. P. 8. 

10. “Natural Dissemination of Gold,” The Anaheim Gazette, July 7, 1887, p. 5. 

11. Hopkins, p. 55. 

12. John Ruskin, ‘The Nature of the Gothic,’ volume 2 of The Stones of Venice, 1851. p. 161. 

13. Ibid, p. 171. 

14. Melvil Dewey to Provost William Pepper, 20 April 1887, University of Pennsylvania Archives 

15. Michael J. Lewis, “This Library Speaks Volumes”. The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2009. 

16. Huger Elliott, “Architecture in Philadelphia,” Architectural Record 23, April 1908, p. 296. 

17. Paul Goldberger, “In Philadelphia, a Victorian Extravaganza Lives,” The New York Times, June 2, 1991, Section 2, Page 32. 

 

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