A stroll through history on the brick pavement of Redbud Alley
Here's a trivia question: What do the cities of Athens, Canton, Massillon, Nelsonville, Portsmouth and Zanesville have in common with the history of German Village?
Hint: You can find the answer by taking a walk along Redbud Alley from Jaeger Street to City Park Avenue. Look down and you can find the names of all these Ohio cities permanently stamped into the pavement beneath your feet.
Don't let the modest appearance of Redbud Alley fool you. Okay, there may be a few weeds and trash bins, but this back-street passage is actually an outdoor museum. On permanent display is an amazing collection of antique bricks from Ohio's golden age of brick manufacturing. Members of the I.B.C.A. (International Brick Collectors Association) swoon over names like Metropolitan, Nelsonville and Athens Block, and those are just a fraction of the artifacts on display. Could there be a story behind -- or beneath -- this mlange of fired clay?
A century ago, Columbus, like most cities across America, was engaged in a virtual frenzy of street paving. People recognized the benefits of paved streets well before the appearance of the automobile. (A contraption that an elderly relative of mine referred to as "the machine" -- as in, "Your father took me downtown in the machine today.")
As American cities prospered and grew in the late 19th century, residents were quick to notice the advantages of a solid road surface: Wagons could deliver heavy loads of coal without sinking into the mud. Pedestrians could run errands without needing a fresh change of clothes when they returned home. Buggies passed without raising clouds of dust, making the air easier to breathe and reducing the time spent beating one's rugs.
On a less practical level, but just as important, city dwellers found paved streets aesthetically pleasing. Brick streets were a sign of civilization; they distinguished the urban landscape from the barnyard.
An 1899 magazine article entitled "Brick Paving in the Middle West" captured the feeling this way: "The people of this region are restless and remarkably progressive. The towns and cities are ambitious. Paved streets are to be ranked with public libraries, lecture courses, art collections, and similar institutions as important factors in the betterment of town life."
Leaf through any engineering journal from the dawn of the last century and you will find articles discussing the relative merits of various paving materials. You will also notice how even stern and sober city engineers employed adjectives like "handsome" and "attractive" to describe their cities' newly paved thoroughfares.
From the Gay Nineties to the Roaring Twenties, the paving material of choice in American cities was brick, and the best brick for this purpose was called "vitrified block." These bricks were vitrified, or glass-like, because they were fired for long periods at extremely high temperatures, in excess of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which caused the grains of clay to melt and consolidate into a dense, nearly indestructible mass. Vitrified blocks required special types of clay, and the best was a silica-rich material called shale, of which Ohio enjoys a natural abundance.
The first vitrified block in the U.S. was reportedly made in 1887 by the Malvern Clay Company near Canton, and its superiority was immediately recognized. It was harder and stronger than ordinary construction brick, significantly cheaper than granite or other natural stone, and far more durable than asphalt, which was faulted even in horse-and-buggy days for its tendency to develop cracks and potholes. When people saw that vitrified brick could last for years with minimal maintenance, manufacturers sprouted like dandelions in April. A particular concentration developed in Ohio's Hocking River valley, where furnaces and coal mines had dotted the landscape for years.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Ohio produced more than a quarter of the country's paving bricks. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500, was paved in 1907 with No. 1 Nelsonville Block from Nelsonville, Ohio. Although most of the racetrack was covered with asphalt years ago, racing fans still affectionately use its original nickname, "the Brickyard." You can find the same Nelsonville Block in Redbud Alley, and samples have been found as far away as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.
When was Redbud Alley paved? It's difficult to pin down a specific date. Experiments with brick paving in Columbus go back as far as 1883, but most streets in the central city were paved between 1890 and 1910. In 1908, a laudatory article in "Municipal Engineering" noted that Columbus issued paving contracts for more than 130 streets that year, including portions of Deshler Avenue, Jaeger Street and Mohawk Street in the area we call German Village. The bricks in Redbud Alley were probably laid around the same time.
In the heyday of brick paving, Columbus typically awarded a separate contract for each street and the contracts usually specified a particular brand of brick to be used, which could vary according to market availability and inventory. No single manufacturer could possibly supply enough bricks to meet the needs of a city as large as Columbus. In the case of Redbud Alley, it appears that odds and ends left over from other projects were used.
How can we tell? Luckily for us, the workers strove to economize and laid the bricks on their sides for greater coverage. As a result, many show their manufacturer's marks. During a recent stroll, I counted no less than 18 different brands of brick in the alley, and in the interests of preserving this historical record -- but mostly just for fun -- I here provide a list of names along with their probable places of manufacture:
Athens Block (Athens); Bolens Block (Zanesville); Hallwood Block, Pat. (Columbus); Harris Brick Co. (Zanesville); Hocking (Logan); Hocking Valley (Greendale); Massillon Block (Massillon); Metropolitan Block (Canton); Nelsonville Block (Nelsonville); Peebles (Portsmouth); Portsmouth Block (Portsmouth); Scioto (Scioto Furnace); S. Webster Brick (South Webster); TB Townsend (Zanesville); Townsend Z.O. (Zanesville); Trimble (Trimble); Wassall Block (Glouster); Zanesville Block (Zanesville).
My list is probably incomplete and I invite the curious and the idle to conduct their own inspections to see how many marks they can find. It's fun. Rest assured, however, there is no need to rush. Take all the time you want. Barring an earthquake or collision with a celestial body, those bricks will probably be there a hundred years from now.
Dennis J. McCann is a German Village resident.