Where have all the masons gone?

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.

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

 

The Edge on Oak Street
The Edge on Oak Street
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory

3 thoughts on “Where have all the masons gone?

  1. I suspect a lot of this is de-unionization. To do detail, you need a master bricklayer who can be told the result you want and knows how to achieve it. If you’re paying that guy’s wages anyway under the union contract, there’s much less added expense to do the detail rather than a plain facade.

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  2. At the turn of the previous century (early 1900s), material was expensive and labor was cheap. Thus you had a labor force that would gladly execute ornate brick and stonework and it didn’t cost the builder significantly more. Today, material is cheap and labor is expensive. This, combined with economic analysis tools, developers often know that ornate brickwork (or even just respectably well detailed brickwork) is extremely expensive, and it is also “unnecessary” as it doesn’t result in a higher return on the initial investment of building construction.
    Brick is still used because it is durable and “maintenance free”, but it is most often utilized to its lowest possible potential as a cladding, not as a decorative element. It is used for its attributes, not for its potential.
    The ornate brickwork that we admire from the past was often executed in “landmark” buildings, where the developers and building owners wanted to make a statement. Lesser brick buildings of the past were often much more simple, although still perhaps of richer character than todays lesser buildings. We still see nicely detailed brickwork on today’s more significant buildings, but it isn’t really a fair comparison to hold up a low-budget brick apartment building from today to a more significant building from the past. The sociology of building has changed as much as the economics and trade skills.

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  3. I think Elden largely nailed it. You have to also factor in the philosophical change urged in by the early modernists, who despised any kind of detailing. They pushed the building professions in a direction away from the kind of masonry that now we tend to admire.
    One other economic factor: Today, far more $$ go into up-front costs for building construction than ever used to in the past. When you factor in design fees, permitting, financing, etc, it’s a big chunk, and that cost has to be taken out of somewhere. All too often, it’s taken out of design and construction quality. Now, if that weren’t as common would we see better detailing? By and large, probably not since the whole building culture has changed. But it is certainly a factor.

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