The quality of masonry in the built environment has dropped significant in the past century.
I would like to blame this on the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party and William Wirt, unfortunately for my desire for a tidy history, that was in 1832, and preceded the decline of masonry by about a century. Furthermore, freemasonry and stonemasonry in practice are not terribly related by this time (though freemasons were once stonemasons back in the 14th century). Freemasons like George Washington did little actual brickwork.
So instead, let’s turn to the rising price of labor, as men who once would have become stonemasons, as their fathers were, were instead attracted to other businesses, and the real estate sector found that high quality detailing was no longer worth the premium it cost. Today, masonry is often a non-structural skin which is pre-manufactured, what my wife calls “brickaneer“. Yet even pre-manufactured brick veneer seems to lack style, and is just a boring layer. Better perhaps than some alternative skins, but nothing like it once was.
The more interesting question is perhaps why the market doesn’t reward aesthetics on the exterior of buildings now, when it once did.
Consider the four apartment buildings shown below, they are all in the same Powderhorn Park neighborhood, of similar size, but were built in different decades. The level of detail on two of them is far greater than the other two. At some point interest or willingness to pay for Masonry detail failed. This is unfortunate.
New buildings don’t do much better. Compare some 21st century structures with Thresher Square. Whatever you think of aesthetics, detail is clearly lost. Perhaps there were many older simple buildings that were just lost to history because of their unimpressiveness, and only the best bits were saved. I think it is more significant though than just survivor bias. No new construction seems to have the same level of exterior architectural detail we once saw.
For all the attention to detail paid to computer design, where has the real architecture gone? I am not a huge fan of Victorian frills. Bauhaus aesthetics were a response, simplifying the ornate form without function, but seemed far more skilled than what we get now. Why did detail (not frills, but details) never recover. Notably, the cornice disappeared with masonry. Whatever we call late 20th century and early 21st century architectural styles, future decades will not appreciate the way we appreciate the surviving buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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