As everyone knows, bricks play an important role in creating the charm and historic ambience of German Village. The immigrants who settled the Old South End were thrifty, hardworking folks who built things to last, and they liked to build with brick. Visitors today invariably comment on the attractiveness of our neighborhood's old brick homes, sidewalks and streets.

As everyone knows, bricks play an important role in creating the charm and historic ambience of German Village. The immigrants who settled the Old South End were thrifty, hardworking folks who built things to last, and they liked to build with brick. Visitors today invariably comment on the attractiveness of our neighborhood's old brick homes, sidewalks and streets.

Brick is more than just a style, however. Like any construction material, brick has particular physical properties with advantages and disadvantages. Construction materials are chosen to meet particular needs in a particular time and place. In other words, they have historical context, and this context confers a significance that goes beyond mere appearance.

The first recorded use of brick as a paving material in the United States occurred in Charleston, W. Va., in 1870. It is said that an industrious contractor named Mordecai Levi undertook to pave a block of Summers Street without help or encouragement from the town's officials, who probably joined spectators in ridiculing the effort. City administrators doubtlessly frowned on the idea of squandering public funds on a foolhardy experiment. As one city engineer from that era wrote: "Engineers as a class are proverbially conservative. They never do anything without a precedent."

To the surprise of his skeptics, Mr. Levi's experiment showed promising results. A few years later, the city decided to extend the brick pavement at public expense, and other Midwestern cities began to follow suit: Bloomington, Ill., in 1877; Columbus and Wheeling, W.Va., in 1883; Steubenville in 1884; and Zanesville in 1885. Surprisingly, New York City and Philadelphia came late to the parade, reserving judgment on brick pavement until 1887 and 1891, respectively. Let this bear witness to an often-ignored fact: Midwesterners sometimes have something useful to teach their East Coast cousins.

Records indicate that Columbus' first brick pavement was laid on Spring Street, between High and Third streets, in 1883. However, the city's paving program (if one could call it that) was painfully slow to get off the ground.

A local pioneer in the field was Capt. Nathan B. Abbott, a Connecticut native who learned the construction trades after the Civil War and founded one of Columbus' first paving companies (getting in on the ground floor, as it were). As a contributor to Alfred Emory Lee's "History of the City of Columbus," Abbott reported that Ohio's capital city, possessing a population of over 75,000, had a scant five miles of paved roads in 1886, consisting of a patchwork of rotting wood blocks, miscellaneous stone blocks, coal-tar and Trinidad asphalt.

The year 1886 was a watershed, however, for the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill laying the groundwork for radical urban change. The Taylor Law, named in honor of the bill's prominent Columbus sponsor, authorized municipalities for the first time to issue bonds for street improvements. The bonds would be paid through tax assessments on property, and owners could pay the assessments over a 20-year period, greatly reducing the financial burden on individual homeowners.

By all accounts Taylor's plan was a smashing success. In just five years, Columbus boasted over 88 miles of newly paved streets at a capital expenditure of over $4-million. Nearly all these streets were paved with the new material of choice - brick. Mr. Abbott, whose firm performed much of the work, reported that high-quality brick paving cost $2.10 per square yard, including grading and curbs, which amounted to an assessment of about $200 for the average city homeowner in 1892 dollars.

At that price, brick paving cost significantly less than stone or asphalt and residents saw an immediate jump in their property values, such that the improved streets, according to Abbott, practically paid for themselves.

There were a few glitches to be worked out. Some of Columbus' early brick streets deteriorated faster than expected because they were laid on an unstable sand base. Early paving bricks were also porous and vulnerable to frost damage. Then, in 1887, vitrified brick was invented and manufacturers began making the product from Ohio's plentiful shale and fire-clay. These bricks were fired in kilns at extremely high temperatures to create an impervious, glass-hard brick with a crushing strength more than twice that of concrete.

One local historian in Athens County, extolling the quality of the brick made in his hometown, exclaimed: "Nelsonville, O., Is In the World Forever! You may destroy this city, Nelsonville, Ohio, but you will never be able to take it out of the world This product is unchanged after fifty, sixty and seventy years NELSONVILLE WILL BE ON EARTH PERMANENTLY!"

The invention of vitrified brick was a great economic boon for Ohio. Not only was the product invented here, but Ohio's abundant deposits of shale and fire-clay guaranteed that manufacturers would invest millions of dollars and employ hundreds of workers to produce it here. With the widespread use of brick paving, untold thousands of men across the state and country were also employed in the labor-intensive task of laying brick on streets and roads.

When you look at one of the handsome brick streets that have survived the onslaught of time and traffic in Columbus, bear in mind that each brick, weighing up to nine pounds, was individually put in place by human hands.

The overall effect of brick paving in Columbus and other cities was startling.

"No sooner is a street paved than a general improvement follows in other respects," Mr. Abbott wrote. "Houses are remodeled, lawns are beautified, trees are planted and pride in general appearance stimulated. The entire character of the architecture of our buildings has changed since street improvement began."

Changes in urban lifestyle occurred as well.

"Formerly there was no comfort in driving over the mud-burdened streets and pleasure driving was rare. Now every family that can afford it keeps its turnout, and the city is gay with equipages of all kinds. All of these things have had an exhilarating effect on the general business of the city."

Mr. Abbott was probably biased, being in the paving business himself, but we can excuse his enthusiasm because many others told the same story. The use of durable, economical brick paving brought cleanliness, improved hygiene, jobs and economic development, civic pride and improved quality of life to city dwellers.

What more could one ask from a humble block of clay?


Dennis J. McCann is a German Village resident.