Friday, August 25, 2017

Crying over spilled brick ...

Milk actually was the commodity cited in the old admonition, "No use crying over spilled ...." --- spoken now and then by my late mother after one disaster or another (and by me, too). But who can help but lament the fall of a landmark, which happened on the south side of the square early Wednesday.

Known when it was built as the Gasser Block after George F. Gasser, the baker and grocer who commissioned in it 1875, it was the oldest building on the south side of the square, occupied most recently by the Sportsman Bar. The building had been vacant for a number of years, its owners incapacitated, without funds and in nursing homes.

More about the history of the building may be found here in a "Chariton's Square Deal" post I published during 2012.

It became evident last winter and in the early spring that a portion of the alley wall north of the exterior stair was bulging outward. During April, a large area of that wall blew out at ground level, destabilizing the northeast corner of the building. What happened this week probably was inevitable. Those old walls were three bricks thick and wonderfully constructed, but very heavy, and without visible means of support, eventually crumbled and collapsed.

It's hard to say what caused the problem initially. Several of us sidewalk superintendents speculated that the basement wall had failed, but just a few weeks ago brave souls actually entered the basement and discovered its walls to be sound.

The building is constructed of what's known as "soft" brick, manufactured locally. George B. Routt was the brick-maker as well as the chief mason for the building. His kilns were located on the Chariton River bottom just southwest of town. And there are some indications in old newspapers that he had a few problems keeping up with demand. 

The Chariton Leader reported in its edition of Oct. 23, 1875: "The workers on Gasser's fine new building on the South Side were compelled to stop work for the want of more brick this week. Work will be resumed as soon as Routt gets his brick kiln burned."

There's nothing the matter with these old bricks and, if properly cared for, they'll remain in service for centuries. But neither the simple recipes used to form them nor the heat generated by wood-fired kilns could produce anything to match the rock-hard bricks manufactured by high quality operations today.

The key is periodic and appropriate tuckpointing, using an equivalent of the original lime-based mortar that allows the bricks to expand and contract and to expel absorbed moisture. Replacing old soft mortar with hard cement mortar that neither expands nor contracts and rendering --- covering brick with cement or other substances that trap moisture behind them --- both can be deadly.

A part of the northeast alley-side wall of the Gasser Block had been rendered with cement many years ago and that may have contributed to the collapse, especially as the concrete began to fall away and large amounts of moisture penetrated behind it. Who knows. It's unlikely there'll be an autopsy.

It seems likely that the city now will acquire title to lot upon which the building stands and have it demolished and carted away. The owners can't afford to do that either.

I think we should lament the end of a fine old building, but the useful questions is, "What do we do now with the fine commercial lot that will be available once the Gasser Block is only a memory?"

And, by the way, if you know the owners of one or more of the fine remaining brick buildings located on the square or elsewhere in town, say "thanks" the next time to see them for their part in maintaining our collective built heritage.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the bricks should be sold to sentimental patrons, to help fundraise the cleanup!

Anonymous said...

How about a nice "pocket park" ?

Dee Mc said...

Thanks for this great article! Very informative! Dee McKnight

Gary Pepping said...

So sad but it needs to come down for safety reasons.