Behold the Lowly Concrete Block

This blog post is a condensed and edited version of an article that appeared in the May 2016 issue of STRUCTURE magazine, published by the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations (NCSEA), and is adapted with permission. The original article can be viewed here. Stay tuned to find out how the architectural concrete block came into vogue midcentury.

It wasn’t so long ago that a concrete block would not care to show its face in polite society. [1] This proclamation formed the lead of an extensive article, “Behold the Lowly Concrete Block,” in the March 1956 issue of the architectural journal House and Home. The celebratory article argues that concrete block was “one of the most glamourous and flexible building materials at our command.” Today, concrete block is most-often associated with utilitarian structures, cost-effective construction, and back-of-house uses where the simple block construction is left exposed. However, excitement about a material that could be molded into any shape and combined into any form, was a common sentiment both in midcentury architectural journals and in the 1860s to 1900s, when concrete block was a fledgling building material. This article provides a short history of the development and use of architecturally designed and exposed concrete block.  Two cases in the Minneapolis area represent the two transformational moments in the use of concrete block – a development of single family and row houses built in 1885, and the 1963 Hoffman-Callan Printing Company building.

Early Years of Concrete Block

 A page from the 1915 Sears, Roebuck and Co. “Concrete Machinery” catalog featuring the various face places available for purchase for use with concrete block machines.

 A page from the 1915 Sears, Roebuck and Co. “Concrete Machinery” catalog featuring the various face places available for purchase for use with concrete block machines.

Concrete block first entered the public market in the 1860s, when a number of proprietary systems for the manufacture of precast concrete blocks were developed on the East Coast.[2] However, wide-spread production of the material did not begin until 1900, when Harmon S. Palmer patented a cast-iron block machine with a “removable core and adjustable sides.”[3] Concrete blocks could be cast with a variety of faces, the most popular being “quarry faced stone,” which caused the material to be commonly be referred to as “imitation stone” during this time period.

The development of imitation stone systems was an important innovation in building design and construction. With the purchase of an imitation stone molding machine, individuals had the opportunity to build their own structurally sound and architecturally fashionable homes. Concrete block machines could be found for as little as $12.50 in the early 1900s (approximately $300 in today’s dollars), and were available for order from popular catalogs such as Sears.[4] In fact, Sears produced a specialized concrete machinery catalog between the 1900s and the 1920s, touting concrete block and the related production machinery as a sound investment. “The manufacture of concrete blocks and other concrete products is profitable, weather you manufacture them for your own use or for sale. If for your own use you can make them during your spare time, on rainy days or whenever it is impossible to look after your regular work, thus realizing a profit or gain which otherwise might be lost.”[5]

A two page spread of advertisements for concrete blocks and concrete block machines from a 1907 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

A two page spread of advertisements for concrete blocks and concrete block machines from a 1907 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

In Minneapolis, these precast concrete blocks appeared in residential construction as a replacement for more traditional (and expensive) stone construction. An early pioneer in concrete block design and construction for the city was the Union Stone and Building Company, led by local real estate entrepreneur William N. Holway. An article from the October 1, 1885 issue of the Minneapolis Daily Tribune expresses the community’s excitement about imitation stone’s arrival in the area.

One of the progressive institutions of the city is the Union Stone and Building Company. The company secured the ‘Pierce Patent’ for artificial stone and immediately opened an extensive factory and yards at Third Street and Twenty-Sixth Avenue North, where they have given employment to 125 men in the manufacture of stone, and 150 more as carpenters, masons, etc. in the building department. In the stone business the company makes a specialty of their building blocks, which are handsome, durable, and cheap, and bound to be the building material of the future.[6]

A single family home built by the Union Stone and Building Company, currently recognized as local historic landmarks by the City of Minneapolis. Learn more at the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission’s website. 

A single family home built by the Union Stone and Building Company, currently recognized as local historic landmarks by the City of Minneapolis. Learn more at the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission’s website. 

The Union Stone and Building Company proceeded to build a notable development of single family homes and row houses near their yards that is now recognized as a local historical landmark. The development was unique in the Minneapolis area, and the local newspaper described it as both a novelty and an asset:

A group of row houses built by the Union Stone and Building Company, currently recognized as local historic landmarks by the City of Minneapolis. Learn more at the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission’s website. 

A group of row houses built by the Union Stone and Building Company, currently recognized as local historic landmarks by the City of Minneapolis. Learn more at the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission’s website. 

Any one [sic] who will take pains to drive to Third Street and Twenty-Sixth Avenue north will be richly rewarded. Houses of slate-brown and other colors meet the eye, built of beautiful substantial stone. Odd designs may be seen, such as imitation of log houses, etc. It is well worth a visit, and the company is doing much to build up that section of the city.[7]

Of this development, a line of row houses fronting 26th Avenue North and a number of single family homes along Third Street North and Fourth Street North are extant. Each building was designed by a different architect, though the overall development shares similar architectural details including their side hall plan, fenestration patterns, multi-gabled roofs, and dormers on primary façades.[8] Another common element, projecting pointed quoins at the corners, are likely the cause of the newspaper’s description of the structures as “odd imitation log houses,” but also foreshadow the flexibility in shape and form of the blocks that architects would realize later in the Midcentury.

After the initial enthusiasm of the mid- to late nineteenth century, concrete block seems to have faded from favor with the public and the design professions. In the Twin Cities, the use of exposed concrete block in residential structures never gained particular popularity, and has since generally been relegated to use in foundations and other covered applications.

[1] “Behold the Lowly Concrete Block,” House and Home 9, no. 3 (March, 1956), 142.

[2] Ann Gillispie, “Early Development of the ‘Artistic’ Concrete Block: The Case of the Boyd Brothers,” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 11, No. 2 (1979), 47.

[3] Pamela H. Simpson, “Cheap, Quick, and Easy: The Early History of Rockfaced Concrete Block Building,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 3 (1989), 109.

[4] Sears, Roebuck, and Company, “Concrete Machinery” Catalog, https://archive.org/stream/ConcreteMachineryTriumphWizardAndKnoxBlockMachines/ConcreteMachinery-TriumphWizardAndKnoxBlockMachines#page/n0/mode/2up

[5] Ibid, 2.

[6] “Union Stone & Building Co.,” Minneapolis Daily Tribune, October 4, 1885, 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] City of Minneapolis, Designation Study: Concrete Block Rowhouses (300-314 ¼ 26th Avenue North), unpublished.