Ask Doc Knox:

The Curious World of Knoxville Brickmaking

Doc Knox: 

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.

Vincent Harriman 


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. 

Yours,

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.

Comments » 2

  • August 21, 2010
  • 2:12 PM
charles crawford writes:

Doc Knox.

I used to own a house at 2343 Washington Ave. I believe it is called the park neighborhood off of Magnolia Ave. Anyway this house was built out of the most unusual brick i have ever seen. This house has a sister house 2 doors down. Both are identical on the outside with slightly different floor plans for each. construction on both was in 1891.
The brick used is much like a cinder block except bigger. The hollow center runs horizontal, not vertical like a modern block. This brick has a glazed finish and is of a dark maroon color.Several sizes were used in the construction for different applications. Corner blocks, foundation blocks, even a pavi The foundation block that can be seen in the basement is huge. I have not seen another house in Knoxville consructed of this block, the closest thing I've seen made of this unusual brick/ block are a number of silos in and around Knoxville. When I lived in the house, from 1980 till 1991, I tried to do reasearch on both of these houses as well as their construction material. I didn't get far. I have numerous photos on both houses inside and outside for future reference.
Do you have any knowledge on these houses. Thanks Charles Crawford

  • September 23, 2010
  • 1:01 PM
Metropulse writes:

Dear Mr. Crawford:

The doctor indicates with a shrug and an evasive cloud of Havana smoke that he has little to add to his original reply. However, our house expert on renovations is Mr. Matt Edens, says he has also observed the brick in question used in silo construction.

“In fact, the material was commonly referred to as ‘silo tile,’” Edens writes. “Why the stuff was popular for silos, I have no idea. Rodent proof? Cheaper than regular brick?”

He also found an interesting clue as to why your former home, at 2343 Washington Ave., might have been built of an unusual material. He says his information shows it was built by a William Steward, who was an employee of the Knox Stone, Sewer, and Tile Company—and that a co-worker built its near twin at 2331 Washington Ave. Perhaps the company offered an employee special on silo tile.

One could learn more about these gentlemen through the resources of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, located on the third floor of the East Tennessee History Center.

Sincerely,

Bondo Kurbooli
Authorized Research Eunuch

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.