Friday, May 01, 2015

Bricks & mortar & paint ...

Once upon a time I read a memoir whose title I can't recall that involved, if memory serves, a large Mormon family somewhere in the West. The author wrote that his or her mother never spoke ill of anyone and had the uncanny ability to find something nice to say about everyone --- no matter what. So her kids decided to trick her into saying something nice about the devil --- and were successful.  

This is not a suggestion that Old Scratch was involved in the former owners' decision a couple of years ago to paint the vintage brick Storie Building on the west side of the square bright yellow and red --- but they did do it without warning on a Sunday morning and at least one or two people were heard cussing in their pews after that.

There were all sorts of good reasons not to paint the building. Among them, the original brick surface was in good condition. And the Storie Building was just one in a procession of four buildings --- Lockwood, Storie, Oppenheimer and Hollinger & Larimer --- all built in 1904 after a big fire and carefully designed to be complementary but individually distinctive with subtle variations in architectural detail and brick color. The nearly half block formed one of the best nearly unaltered processions of turn-of-the-century commercial architecture in the region.

Plus, Chariton Area Chamber/Main Street --- where the mantra is "economic redevelopment through historic preservation" --- was just starting to work on raising public consciousness about the fine buildings in the Main Street District.

If nothing else, that red and yellow paint job caused the most conversation about a building on the square that had been heard since restoration of the Charitone was announced. There, I've said something nice.


Anyhow, the new owners --- who have scrubbed the interior of the old building from top to bottom, redecorated and re-equipped the first-floor restaurant area and obviously are focused on making the Casa de Oro's mark with fine food and good service rather than paint --- now are covering the red and yellow with a more subtle blend of cream and brown. That's an approximation of the original surface. They didn't like the colors they inherited when they bought the building either.

While it would have been nice to see the bright paint removed and the original surface restored, that's a time-consuming and expensive process involving solutions gentle enough to dissolve paint without damaging brick and lots of hand labor. A little like hand-stripping a vast piece of furniture. So once a brick building has been painted, the most practical solution is to just keep painting it.


The basic rule involving a brick building in good repair is to have it tuckpointed when necessary, but otherwise leave it alone. The basic rule when faced with a painted brick surface is to be gentle.

It's useful to understand that brick has a hard baked-on surface that protects a softer interior. If a painted brick surface is sandblasted, for example, or attacked with a power washer, that surface is likely to be damaged --- especially if the brick is very old --- and it will begin to deteriorate.

Never under any circumstances attempt to seal brick --- or apply a rendering surface like stucco over it. Bricks have to breathe. If you seal them up behind stucco, for example, they can't. Moisture collects and contracts and expands as temperatures change. Eventually the bricks will pop. 

If you're tempted to stucco, go look at the back wing of the Piper's building, much newer than the front part but covered with cement many years ago. Now, as the bricks pop, the cement is falling away.

There's no good reason, barring natural disasters, why Chariton's fine old buildings shouldn't survive for hundreds of years --- if tended to properly. We're still almost a brand new part of the developed world around here, 160 years or so, and I don't think that possibility has quite sunk in so we tend to be careless with what we've got.

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