Until I was 7-years-old, my family lived in Philadelphia and, because there were only brick row homes in my tiny universe of five or six blocks, I thought that all homes in the world were made of brick and stuck together!
I learned differently when we moved the next year to a sleepy little town in Virginia where we lived in a stand-alone wood frame house, and for the first time, I was able to walk from the front of my house to the back without going inside it.
I remember that my dad, an old world craftsman and cement finisher, felt that he was no longer living in a “solid” house and kept looking for a brick home until he found it, albeit one with a brick veneer laid on a wood frame.
The creative and historic use of brick first came to my attention when I enrolled at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, where many of the restored 18th century buildings were brick and all the sidewalks in town were paved with the same material. I would walk along the Duke of Gloucester Street with the herringbone pattern of brick beneath my feet, imagining how I would employ this wonderful material in my own home someday.
While brick has been the building block of homes for thousands of years, most home builders now prefer today’s lighter materials and surfaces, and the bricklayer’s skill is a dying art.
Lifelong brick craftsman Greg Meliti from Brewster admits that bricklaying is not what it used to be. “Quite simply, most people can’t build with brick anymore because it’s so expensive. It costs 70 cents to $1.20 a brick now,” he said. “On the other hand, building with brick is a one-time cost that pays for itself because it is maintenance free. But most of my projects today are for fireplaces, chimneys, patios and outdoor paving.”
Diane Tomlinson, an owner of Bedford Stone & Masonry in Bedford Hills, confirmed that most of the brick her company sells today is for outdoor projects. “Of course, there will always be brick homes in the high end, but it makes for a longer, more expensive job,” she said.
Do readers know that the Hudson River Valley was at one time the brick making capitol of the world? From the late 1700s to the 1940s, brick making factories lined the banks of the Hudson River where there are rich deposits of clay, the result of the last Ice Age when a blanket of ice weighing millions of tons crushed mountain rock into rich clay.
Brick had been made for centuries by hand, resulting in irregular shapes, but that changed with the invention of the first brick molding machine in 1830 by Nathan Adams of Newburgh. Followed by other inventions that more fully automated the brick making process, the local brick industry was prepared when a huge demand was created by a terrible fire in New York City in 1835 that destroyed much of today’s financial district.
Centered in the Haverstraw area, the brick industry continued to flourish until 1906 when a terrible tragedy struck. Careless excavation of clay deposits so weakened the soil that a landslide occurred on January 8 of that year, destroying one-third of the town and killing 19 people. Shortly after, cheaper bricks from Europe began to flood the market and the yards in Haverstraw couldn’t compete with them.
At the industry’s zenith, more than 130 brick factories lined the Hudson. Today, according to Tomlinson, most brick produced in America comes from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and North Carolina.
Based on my early fondness for the look of brick, I kept my promise to myself when I bought my home in the suburbs. My first outdoor project was to design and lay a large brick courtyard in the U created in back by the two side wings that extend almost 20 feet beyond the central portion of the house. It was simple and satisfying: just leveling and compacting two inches of crushed granite, and laying the brick on top of it. I made it even easier by forsaking a basket weave for a running bond pattern, requiring minimal cutting of the brick.
That solid and environmentally sound surface has served as our outdoor entertainment area for many a spring, summer and fall.
Those who absolutely must have brick in their next project can reach Bedford Stone at 914-666-6404, and to engage an expert bricklayer, Greg Meliti can be reached at 914-497-1579.
Bill Primavera is a licensed Realtor® affiliated with Coldwell Banker who writes regularly as The Home Guru. Visit his website at: www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and, if you would like to consult with him about buying or selling a home, contact him directly at 914-522-2076.