Downtown Fabric: Tapestry in Brick

William Steinhurst

You see what you know. - Frank Stella
[Building is] an act which in an important way goes beyond functional necessity: the response to climate or weather, the finding and shaping of building materials, are a creative partnership with the natural world, through which people develop their intellect and skills. This process is an act of self-creation . . . - Bill Riseboro

About this Exhibit

NOTE: Each small image is a link to larger version or a collection of related images
Brickwork surrounds us as we go through our business day, shop, or dine, the rarely noticed architectural idiom of the Montpelier's commercial district. It speaks of our lives in offices, stores and apartments; of entrepreneurs, contractors, and masons; of ambitions, traditions, and even humor. Many downtown buildings speak some dialect of the visual language of masonry; a few paraphrase it in wood or stone. The resulting conversation is worth listening to.
This exhibit explores the styles of some brick structures that give Montpelier's central downtown its distinctive atmosphere, and the details that ornament them, tie them together or set them apart. For this essay, I have defined "downtown" very narrowly, extending along Main Street from Barre Street to Langdon Street and along State Street from Main Street to just past Elm Street-a small part of Montpelier and, certainly not exhausting the city's repertoire of great brick buildings. But in only four or five city blocks, we find over one hundred and fifty years of styles and technologies. There are varied kinds of bricks-traditional red, yellow and glazed. There are lintels, pilasters and cornices in fancy brickwork, stone, cement and cast iron. And we see stylistic references to ancient Greece, the Renaissance, Victorian Europe, the high International Style, and even today's ironic post-modernism.


This exhibit is not an essay in architecture or history or even architectural history. Nor does it seek a definitive statement about our city or any part of it. Rather, using some of the tools of photography, I have tried to explore the heart of downtown and how its component structures work visually, both alone and with or against each other. I hope that some of the sights shown here will lead to insights or, better yet, questions for the citizens and business owners of Montpelier.
For further information about this exhibit or specific images, call 802 223-2417 or email wsteinhu@together.net.
An album of images and text from the exhibit will be donated to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library.
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Montpelier Community Arts Fund. Assistance and advice from William Conger, Eva Schectman, Philip Robertson, The Drawing Board, the Art Resource Association, Jo Steinhurst is gratefully acknowledged.
All text and images © William Steinhurst 2000.

Speaking Parts

Brick buildings-singly, in pairs and longer rows-dominate the central downtown. Standing at intersection of State and Main, we can see both the severe, almost Medieval silhouette of "Cool Jewels" and the City Center's mixed quotations of hard edged Art Deco. In between, we see a number of styles tracing most, but not all of those seen around the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The "Coffee Corner," despite its add-on bay windows, shows a highly detailed broken pediment with dentils and other detailing of a Federal-style type. The Blanchard Block and most of the buildings facing it across Main Street, as well as several on State Street, have the bracketed cornice, arched windows with decorative "eyebrows" and recessed entries of the commercial variant of the Italianate style popular around the county in the mid-1800's. City Hall is lighter, more delicate, with a highly symmetric profusion of classical details in a Renaissance Revival style and an appropriately light colored brick. On the opposite side of Main Street, one commercial block echoes City Hall's lighter brick, finer detailing, and smoother façade, interprets the Italianate form in a much more restrained manner than its neighbors.
At the other end of the downtown, the federal office building's post-International style boxy white brick contrasts sharply with the Court House's interpretation of Greek Revival in brick and white painted wood. (The Court House's peculiar combination of a classical structure with a French ornamental cupola may be an example of the "Parvenu" style that became widespread from 1850 - 1885.)
The downtown's brick buildings vary widely, but seen in rows or groups their use of brick and relatively consistent scale give the area a cohesion not often found in commercial districts. Looking slightly farther afield, additional brick structures provide a transition to the granite and marble of the Capitol District. Some of these are the green and white brick Art Moderne Capitol Theater, the Second Empire 110 State Street, the older-styled Thrush Tavern, the carefully reconstructed and extended Pavilion Office Building, the very recent 112 State Street bank and office building and the Romanesque 114 State Street. Farther down State Street, there are several additional brick gems on the south side of the street.

Words and Phrases

Brickwork has its own vocabulary of rhythms, shapes, colors and details. The smaller images shown here are digital prints from an informal survey such details from buildings in Montpelier's downtown.

Bonds

Masons lay bricks one by one and have a variety of choices in how to orient each brick in its course or each course in a wall. The patterns formed by these choices are called bonds. Veneer walls can be only one layer deep, but when a wall is structural two layers of bricks, one behind the other, are needed for stability. But to gain that stability, the mason needs to tie the two layers together. One way to do this is to lay some courses of bricks perpendicular to the wall face. This is called an English bond. Alternatively, each course can have alternating orientations for the bricks, making a short-long-short pattern called a Flemish bond. Walls without any perpendicularly laid bricks are called American or common bond. Examples of these variations are shown in several of the nearby frames.
Bond patterns in high class brickwork can become very elaborate. These fancier bonds are often seen in brick walks and around tree plantings, but can greatly enliven the texture of a building wall. Few examples of decorative bonding were found in downtown, but those on the south side of State Street near MacPherson Travel and the State Street Market are distinctive.

Cornices

Cornices are a much more common form of fancy brickwork in Montpelier's downtown commercial district. Most of the Italianate style buildings have cornices, ornamental developments a the top of a wall or other structure, built up of corbelled brickwork. Other's have cornices of wood or metal flashing or a combination of the two. Main Street between State and Barre Streets seems to have been the home to a decades long competition in this field. Some are semi-classical interpretations, while others aspire to a virtually Baroque complexity of pilasters, niches, friezes, arches and dentils.

Windows

Perhaps it is our probably innate tendency to see faces everywhere, but a building windows catch our eye as they were themselves gazing out at us. So it seems appropriate, then, that the buildings in our downtown lavish much attention on their window "treatments." Arched windows, some segmented or arched in stone, are especially prevalent in the Italianate style buildings. Others, apparently of somewhat later construction have cast iron or cast cement arches, eyebrows and other details. Flat arches and some round ones, often with contrasting stone or cement keystones or imposts can also be seen in newer commercial buildings, especially along the south side of State Street.

Doors

Doorways, like windows, add an anthropomorphic feature to a façade, taking on great visual importance. And, as they did with windows, the designers and builders of many downtown buildings paid special attention to entrances. Before the recessed entrances typical of the Italianate style, simple flush doors seemed sufficient. Later buildings, such as the Rialto and Union Blocks, were provided with elegant classicizing doorways of molded cement, decorative marble and high quality woodwork. Across the street, there is preserved an example of an ornate cast iron front with a not too discordant modern anodized metal and granite replacement storefront. Entrances in radiacally modern or, even postmodern styles may be found in the rear of the refurbished fire station and the main entrance to the City Center.

Signs

Faint signs remain in the downtown of a once popular art: painted advertisements on brick walls. I was able to make out only two, both badly faded. Look closely between the two pairs of windows in the old garage building for the very faint remains of an especially interesting example. And near that one, both in this show and out on the street, is the a partly intact example of another past form of advertising sign-cutout raised letters mounted on a signboard-hanging on a faux brick sheet metal wall. Today, chalk drawings (and more problematic spray paint graffiti) have been making regular appearances in more irregular signage.

Questions

In this project's spirit of exploration, it seems fitting to end with open questions rather than conclusions.
Who were the masons? Where were they from? How were they organized?
Did they bring their techniques and styles with them or learn them here?
Where were the brickyards? Who worked there?
Who financed, designed, commissioned and owned these buildings? What plans did they have for them? How has ownership changed and why?
How did Montpelier's downtown escape the "glass box" syndrome? Was it chance or preservation? What can we learn from that history?
Why brick at all? Why is there so little granite and marble in this part of Montpelier when there were so many granite sheds here and in Barre?
How have these buildings been occupied, adapted, and altered over time?
What kind of future do our brick buildings have? How durable and adaptable are they?
How can future development in downtown complement and learn from these styles and structures?
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