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Firefighting

St. Louis Brick

Lex Shady & Chris Tobin

Few areas of the country have as many brick buildings as does St. Louis. This can be attributed to two main reasons.

  1. At one time, there were 53 clay mines throughout St. Louis, making it easily accessible, and cheaper than in other areas of the country due to lack of transportation costs. The rapid expansion of the city through the early 20th century made this the material of choice.
  2. The “White Cloud” fire that destroyed 418 buildings on the city’s riverfront in 1849. This resulted in the city creating an ordinance that buildings must be constructed with non-combustible materials.

The use of brick resulted in a city filled with gorgeous architecture, the quality of the brick and the designs that ensued from various mining groups is something you don’t see in most areas of the country. Another unintended consequence of the use of brick is that these buildings typically hold up better to years of decay than do frame ones. For a city who’s population has decreased almost 66% since its high in 1950, this is an important feature. (St. Louis population was approximately 857,000 in 1950 down to less than 300,000 in the 2020 census.)

At one point, there were over 35,000 abandoned buildings throughout the City, most in North City. As with every city that struggles with abandoned structures, there is a subsequent increase in fires. These fires, whether caused by fireworks, weather, arson, or for heating/cooking; can result in heavily damaged, sometimes partially collapsed structures. The cost of renovating or demolishing these can be very expensive, and when in a city struggling financially, results in them left standing as is.

Another interesting feature to the city is the amount of brick theft. Because the brick produced throughout the city was of such high quality, the demand for it was (and still is) high. Brick thievery has been an issue for decades, but reached a peak in the early 2000’s. Brick thieves worked hard to obtain their prize, with entire walls going missing overnight. The city cracked down on brickyards to try and slow the theft, but it resulted in many hazardous buildings spread throughout the city.

There’s a great documentary on the brick theft in the city,

Brick by Chance and Fortune

If you’d like to read more on this city’s unique brick history, check out the articles below.

St. Louis Brick Paradox

http://www.urbanistdispatch.com/2019/st-louis-brick-paradox/


“Why is Everything Brick?”

http://stldotage.blogspot.com/2008/04/why-is-everything-brick.html

St. Louis, Navigating the Brick City

https://www.artpapers.org/st-louis-navigating-the-brick-city/

The Great Fire that Changed the Face of St. Louis

https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/history/may-17-1849-the-great-fire-that-changed-the-face-of-st-louis/article_ff8faca9-1ba5-5f52-9252-e8397b705240.html

One reply on “St. Louis Brick”

The city ordinance after the 1849 fire was ahead of its time. In Massachusetts wood frame ruled and still does. A spring with near drought conditions and June’s record resulted in many structure fires that spread beyond the building origin or unit of origin.

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