Look Again; What Did Our Early Buildings Really Look Like (Part One)?

Look Again; What Did Our Early Buildings Really Look Like (Part One)?

Architectural historian, and co-founder of Archipedia New England, Brian Pfeiffer presents the first in a series of blog posts that highlight his research on the exterior treatment of early American masonry structures, and question the work of early preservationists whose restoration choices have shaped perhaps inaccurately the way we see and preserve some of our greatest historic buildings today.

The Brick Market in 1937 when its painted surfaces still emphasized the Classical architectural details (HABS, A. LeBoeuf, photographer)

Success has allowed historic preservation to rest on its laurels and many ideas that have remained nearly unquestioned for more than a century. One such area is the care of pre-1800 masonry buildings. Comprising some of our most important historic and architectural monuments, the majority of these buildings no longer resemble their historic appearances and have been “restored” to appearances that would puzzle to those who created them.

The Brick Market in 1982 after forty-five years of weathering and repair to soft-fired bricks

Since the late nineteenth-century historic preservation has been guided by a near religious zeal in the removal of coatings from masonry. The Arts & Crafts Movement with its romantic wish to expose underlying red bricks as an “honest” expression of handcraft, regarded these coatings — paint, lime wash, tinted stains, linseed oil  as a form of vandalism and set about removing them. They did not bother to question the origin and purpose of the coatings. In 1910, the Old State House had its coatings removed under the supervision of Joseph Everett Chandler with the expressed goal of bringing it back to its old surface. In 1911, the Old South Meeting House followed suit and by 1923 Faneuil Hall had been stripped of paint at the urging of the Boston Society of Architects to restore the bricks to their original color. A small number of architects and antiquarians were expressed their skepticism but did not prevail.

An oblique view of soft-fired bricks showing surfaces that have been shattered and patched due to unprotected exposure to weather

The Brick Market (1762) in Newport, Rhode Island offers a clear example of the severe change wrought by paint stripping. Once exposed, much of the building’s soft-fired brick could not stand up to the weather, and wooden fastening blocks that had been protected by paint for one hundred seventy years were exposed to decay. Designed by Peter Harrison to appear as an evenly colored stone-like body with pedimented window surrounds, Ionic pilasters and a classical entablature picked out in a light color, the building now appears as classical ornaments stitched on to a worn tweed coat with its less-than-perfectly coursed brickwork of uneven bricks.

Nailing blocks for architectural trimmings coursed into brickwork in order to conceal them from view when covered with paint

The changes brought about by stripping old masonry buildings were not merely aesthetic. The various coatings that once created aesthetic variety on these buildings served useful functions in protecting the buildings from weather and in dispersing rainwater across a broad surface from which it could evaporate more quickly. These practical qualities were overlooked, creating unnecessary damage. Perhaps the time has come to take a backward look at how these buildings functioned and to document those rare places in New England where early building finishes remain undisturbed. Archipedia New England has embarked on this exploration. Over the next couple months, we will offer some of the discoveries made by our architectural sleuths and contributors in the hope they may prod a re-appraisal of this aspect of preservation practice.