masonry, stone, brick, chimneys

Clinkers and Romans

The Arts and Crafts and Prairie styles used brick in distinct ways, but both shared a love of natural hues and unusual shapes.

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By Jay Warren Bright, AIA

This bungalow embodies the canons of brick use in an Arts and Crafts context – rough texture, sloping walls growing from the earth and brilliant color. Photo: courtesy of Douglas Keister

In the late 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement emerged in England and soon after in the U.S., rejecting the High Victorian style. In the early 20th century, the Prairie style branched out from this movement. In light of their historical proximity and especially with many professional designers and craftspeople working within both styles, it is not surprising that they share many common values, as well as some interesting distinctions. Analyzing how each of the styles used brick, which practitioners of both movements consciously chose for some of their best exteriors, provides us with a basis for the discussion of the two architectural styles.

Architects of both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Prairie style had a reverence for the “honest” use of natural material and craftsmanship – especially the use of brick and the work of skillful masons. Using natural hues and soil, which embodied and evoked the earth, to make building materials expressed aesthetic integrity to practitioners of these styles. Both styles fitted houses to their landscapes and often extended the house architecture outward with building elements that enhanced and organized the site. Interesting bricks – iron spot, different colors than the often-used red and special proportions – were chosen.

The Arts and Crafts house brick extended into the landscape through walks, walls, steps and raised corner blocks. The emphatic, extended brick caps are not only texture makers, but also shadow makers. Photo: courtesy of Douglas Keister

The Arts and Crafts Aesthetic
Within these concordant aesthetic ideals, there exist important differences in practice, especially in the use of brick. Although there are a variety of Arts and Crafts house prototypes, the early 20th-century Bungalow variations show some of the best examples of the rugged, textured brickwork that epitomizes Arts and Crafts hand-built values.
The Arts and Crafts movement preferred comb-scored, rough and patterned brickwork. Thick, dark, chunky bricks stamped with designs and distressed bricks with cracks, warps and splits were prized. Sometimes bricks were skittled or laid at odd angles in a regular wall or even protruded to create more shadow. Plaques and tiles were often set within brick fields, which themselves might contain borders, basket weave, soldier courses and other displays. In the extreme, natural fieldstone was introduced. Sometimes, strict horizontal coursing was abandoned in favor of expressive waviness. Battering (sloping) brick foundation walls rose to support first floors and porches, indicating affinity with the earth, as well as suggesting that the building was born of the soil. The use of “thickish” brickwork could result in dark, lumpy house masses that architectural historians describe as mass-positive objects with more interest in the thing than the space around it.

These unusual bricks with stamped diamonds are outstanding examples of the Arts and Crafts style’s love of surface texture.
This early transitional Frank Lloyd Wright house in Hyde Park, IL, illustrates unusual two-tone brick banding and the signature wide overhangs, which would become even more pronounced in the Prairie Style.
Photo: courtesy of Emmy Bright

The Prairie Style
Prairie Style practitioners saw a chance to improve upon the ideas of the earlier Arts and Crafts style. The Prairie aesthetic moved even further away from common red-orange brick in favor of earth tones, such as yellows, tans, browns and even gray. Brick aesthetics, both in choice of material and installation, changed significantly to emphasize the Prairie Style’s signature cubic precision and horizontality. Extending walls from inside to out, with windows ganged midway to evoke spatial continuity, resulted in substantial increases in daylight and crispness. Spacially, there was more interplay between solid and void than in the earlier Arts and Crafts style’s focus on the building as an object or a silhouette.

Straight, low site walls stretched out through the landscape to anchor the house to the “prairie” – more of an idea than an acknowledgement of the usual suburban lot where most of these houses were situated. Masonry terraces, walks and low steps extended from the house geometrically to emphasize harmony with, and impose order upon, the landscape. Limestone or concrete planters and urns punctuated the corners and wall terminations and also drew attention to entries and steps. Cubic buttresses bookended long, low, very flat brick walls, strengthening the ideas of unity and solidity. Horizontality was evoked in many ways beyond the obvious overhangs and bands of windows. Brick massing from low-perimeter site walls topped with long cap stones or concrete led to terraces and porches that screened building walls and shafts, which held up roofs that pinwheeled around impressive central chimney masses.

Prairie Style architects chose thin, long Roman bricks with precise, unscarred faces to achieve blocky masses and length. Horizontal gray or tan mortar joints were raked back from the brick to create shadow lines. In contrast, vertical joints were struck flush and sometimes even colored to match the brick.

Although this is handsome and appropriate for interior uses such as the hearth, fireplace and inglenook, it usually wasn't the best practice when used outside, because it allowed water or ice to sit on the upper surface edge of the brick and erode both the mortar and the brick. This deficiency was somewhat offset by choosing hig- quality, dense, non-absorbent, hard brick. Neither the raked nor flush joint is as weather proof as the tooled, compressed, concave joint, which was used routinely throughout history and is now used to restore some Prarie-style horizontal joints. Nevertheless, the craftspeople were instructed to emphasize the horizontal, ribbon coursing lines that were so important to the aesthetic. The best example of careful brickwork is found in the quintessential Prairie-style home, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago. Reddish-brown vertical mortar matched the adjacent brick and finished flush to create continuous stripes of horizontal color. Although the careful use of two mortar colors was not common, many Prairie-style architects made similar aesthetic choices, using browns, tans and beiges in masonry work to link more strongly with the visual appearance of the earth. This allowed them to avoid the dark, fortress-like feel of earlier styles to further announce their new, distinguished look.

Both the Arts and Crafts movement and the Prairie Style used bricks and their expressive potential to achieve both aesthetic and conceptual goals. From a common source, each style pushed in different directions through their choices of materials and details.

Jay Warren Bright, AIA, provides historic building architectural services, addressing issues through technical analysis of chronic problems, historical research and adaptive reuse. He is registered in the state of Connecticut and is a certified historic architect by the state's historical commission.

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