The Twelve Bricks of Christmas

The Masonry of Denver would like to wish you and your loved ones a Happy Holidays.  I would also like to thank you for reading my blog over the past six months.  It has been a wonderful gift to me that others find this stuff interesting, too.  (Or at least you’re good at humoring me, which I also appreciate.)  Thank you.


And now, introducing The Twelve Bricks of Christmas, Denver-style.  Sing along with me!

(Starting at twelve, to avoid alienating all of my readers.)


On the 12th Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Cool Iron-Spotting


Bricks with wire-cutting


Bricks so uneven


Bricks made by flashing


Bricks with wee dimples


Bricks so red it’s pleasing


Bricks with green glazing


Frogged Paving Bricks!!!


Bricks laid in thirds


Clinker brick


Bricks that I love


And a striped brick that’s spirally.


Orpheum Theater

Besides the Old Chaffee County Court House, that we looked at on Wednesday, two more buildings struck my fancy when we were in Buena Vista over the weekend: the Orpheum Theater and the former Colorado Highway Department building.

The Colorado Highway Department Building is a one-story former garage building that until this spring housed a bar, roadhouse and event center.  Based on its design, it was probably constructed in the 1930s or 40s, but I am not sure its exact construction date.


It’s a cute little brick building with the words “Colo. State Highway Department” painted in green and white on the brick fascia.  Note the corbeled cornice made of brick above the sign band.


I did not find the building all that interesting until I turned the corner.


The side wall has this striking brick that I find to be much more interesting than the red brick used on the street façades.  The side of the building was built using a mixture of buff, tan, peach, and light grayish brown brick, all with iron spots on their surface giving the brick a wonderful texture.  In addition, it is a flashed brick with dark brown, light brown and peach-colored marks on some of the stretchers. It’s such a vibrant, warm brick that reminds me of sunshine on the dry, grassy foothills.


The other building that really struck my eye was the Orpheum Theater.  This gambrel-roof building was constructed in 1910 by a gentleman known as ‘Skinny’ Pyle.  Mr. Pyle, an auto dealer, occupied most of the ground floor using different portions of the floor for his home, an auto parts dealership, and his Model T showroom.  The Orpheum Theater was located upstairs.  It hosted plays, dances, silent movies, ‘talkies’, and community events from 1910 until about the 1960s.  You can see the backstage fly loft, clad in metal, on the east end of the roof.


Eventually, the theater was sold to investors who just about gutted it to turn it into apartments before their development plans failed.  In 1994, new owners bought the empty property and have been restoring it for two decades, reopening it as a theater and community event space in 2003.

The Orpheum Theater looks like a simple, rusticated stone building, perhaps made out of sandstone or rhyolite, right?


It’s not.  It is made out of cast-concrete units, known as cast stone.  These masonry units have a rough concrete surface, and if you look closely at the photo below, it is clear that the cast-stone units were all cast using the same mold.  In addition, the units were put together using a gray mortar similar to the concrete in color, with a beaded-edge mortar joint.


The pier at the west end of the building has a hand-inscribed date ‘stone’ indicating the Orpheum Theater was built in 1910.  It also says “B V F. C” or “B V E C” below.  BV must be Buena Vista, but I’m not sure what EC or F.C refers to.


There is also a little glimpse of the past on the east side of the building.  The east façade is stuccoed, but the stucco is failing at the center revealing an old hand-painted sign.  I am so curious to know what it advertised.


Sloppy Mortar

Let’s look a little more closely at mortar – a key component of masonry construction.  Most of the time when a brick wall is laid up, mortar is installed flush to the face of the brick, or perhaps it has a concave or an incised appearance.  But sometimes you see sloppy mortar that projects out past the masonry, such as in the photo below.


Usually when you see sloppy mortar on a wall, it is a clue that the wall was never meant to be visible.  When he was erecting the building, the mason of this wall probably took care to create nice, smooth mortar joints at the interior of the building.  But for the exterior, the mason probably could not clean up the mortar joints because there was another wall laid up against it.  His sloppy mortar work was exposed only when the adjacent building was demolished to create this garden.  It was entirely unintentional.

Sometimes, however, sloppy mortar was an intentional choice of the architect.  There is a style of mortar in the Front Range that I have never noticed back east: ‘weeping mortar’.  From what I can tell, it seems to have been popular between the 1930s and 1950s – perhaps even slightly later – and it entailed allowing the mortar to ooze out of the masonry while the wall was being constructed.  I saw this Tudor-Revival style building with weeping mortar joints on the University of Colorado campus a few weeks ago.


It was built in 1931 as the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house, and was designed by celebrated Boulder architect Glen H. Huntington [pdf] (not to be confused with his father, Glen W. Huntington, an architect who practiced primarily in Denver).  The house was purchased by CU in 1970 and currently serves as the University Administration Building.  It was made using beautiful red and brown flashed brick, whose colors are created through a deliberate manipulation of the chemicals and temperatures in the kiln.  You can see the gray mortar ‘weeping’ out of the joints in the photo below.


Usually a mason scrapes the mortar off the brick when he adds a new course of brick, but for this building the mortar spills were left on the brick intentionally.  The same technique was used for the small adjacent building – the University Administration Annex at 924 Broadway.


Weeping mortar gives the masonry an interesting texture, to say the least.  I have seen the same treatment on a concrete block hotel building on East Colfax in Denver, in several mid-century neighborhoods, and on a few other buildings in the Denver suburbs.

UPDATE: I have been asked several times by homeowners whether weeping mortar can be removed. The short answer is, sure, all mortar can be removed (in theory). But I suppose the real answer depends on a the strength of the mortar, and the workmanship of the mason who will be removing it.  Weeping mortar would need to be carefully chipped off with a chisel.  An errant chisel blow to the mortar could chip the face of the brick.  Once the weeping mortar was removed, the mortar between the bricks would need to be cut back at least 1/2″ behind the face of the brick to allow the mason to repoint the mortar with a flush or concave tooling.  Weeping mortar joints are typically wider than the narrow late-19th century “butter” joints, but it would not difficult for a mason who was removing mortar to cut into the brick using a grinder.  Great care would need to be taken to prevent damage to the brick when removing weeping mortar.  In addition, the stronger the weeping mortar, the harder it will be to remove.  Weeping mortar was used on Depression-era and mid-century structures, so I would guess the mortar contained more cement than earlier mortar mixes, giving it strength and durability.  So, yes, weeping mortar can be removed from brick, but as with most repair and rehabilitation projects, it is important to hire a skilled contractor with experience working on older structures.