There are a number of older houses in town built with oversize bricks. I first noticed them in the early 80's in the developments off Riverside when I was working remodeling homes. There are also a number of them in Island Home and between Magnolia and MLK.
The houses I've noticed are all in great shape for their age, I'd say they were built in the '20s at the latest. The houses I've been in were well designed and hadn't been "improved" or remodeled, suggesting an architect and his building crew may have been involved in construction.
Do you know where the bricks were made? Why an unorthodox size? An architect's trademark or signature?
With all the red clay around there must have been many kilns throughout the
county 100 years ago.
Dear Mr. Harriman:
Our favorite place to consider the evolutionary history of brick in Knoxville is inside the Bistro at the Bijou. When you're in there, you can read the non-linear history of the 194-year-old building, and the history of the Knoxville brick industry. There is no better place to contemplate bricks over a cold ale.
The natural red clay did influence the early development of the local manufacture of brick, which was in itself significant in Knoxville's economy for many years, but it also influenced our own architecture. In much of America, bricks were expensive, shipped from afar. In some old cities, from New England to New Orleans, older buildings tend to be mostly wood. Here, brick was more common. Blount Mansion was built of wood, and Ramsey House of stone, but of Knoxville's other very-old houses and buildings most are made of brick. The brickishness of the older parts of town, especially downtown and UT, strikes some architecturally observant newcomers as distinctive.
Private builders before the Civil War didn't always observe standard sizing for bricks. They made the bricks on site, often with the help of slaves, in whatever size pleased them. The bigger the bricks, of course, the fewer you needed. You just had to be able to carry them. Like a lot of pursuits hereabouts, brickmaking became more industrial, and more standardized, after the 1850s, when the railroads came through.
Many bricks were manufactured by homebuilders, and some brick and lumber men went into the homebuilding industry, as did Mr. S.T. Atkin, one of Knoxville's first manufacturers, who ran a lumberyard downtown by 1860 and also several brickyards in the vicinity.
Jones Brickyard was on the northeast side of town in the 1880s, near the current location of Caswell Park; they also ran a brickyard on the south side of the river, and at their height, manufactured about 8 million bricks a year. Even more prolific was the Knoxville Brick Co., which ran a major facility in Powell. They were able to manufacture bricks even faster, about 135,000 bricks a day, sometimes with an output of 12 million a year. Even in the 1890s, Knoxville Brick had a reputation for innovation, and a stimulating variety of styles.
Of course, this may not answer your questions. It's hard to be specific without more specifics, and we can only guess which houses caught your attention. But we suspect the architect and builder were conveying some willful eccentricities, and maybe showing off some of Knoxville's brick versatility.
Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph.Z.
Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.