The asphalt is dry and hard on Monroe and Lincoln streets in downtown Spokane. Men with flamethrowers have baked the paint stripes into the pavement. Traffic – at long last – will flow unimpeded, at least in that part of town.
As the city continues its wholesale, levy-funded renovation of Spokane’s streets, certain questions pop up like potholes in spring: How long will these roads last? Can’t we build them out of something that doesn’t break down after a few years?
Only time will tell, aided and abetted by the punishing freeze-thaw cycle that has given Spokane’s thoroughfares a reputation as rutted puncturers of tires, destroyers of axles and maligners of alignments.
But one thing’s for sure: The new roads won’t last as long as the red brick streets on the South Hill.
The oldest brick streets – likely the oldest streets in Spokane – run for just two blocks on Madison Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues and from Eighth to Ninth avenues. Those streets were laid with brick on Aug. 8, 1906, two years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T.
Take a look at those bricks laid 111 years ago. There are no potholes and no ruts. Another thing you won’t see: any more brick roads being built in Spokane.
There are 40 blocks of exposed brick streets in Spokane, most built in 1910 and 1911. More than 380 acres of brick line the streets of the lower South Hill, with a handful in Browne’s Addition. Countless more exist below a layer of asphalt, their presence evident only through patches they peek through here and there.
In general, the brick roads are in good shape. Asphalt roads, not so much.
Eldon Brown, a longtime city engineer, said if utility maintenance wasn’t required below the road surface, or if snowplows or studded tires didn’t exist, or if manholes weren’t needed, or if brick weren’t so expensive, it would still pave the way.
“We’ve tried to preserve them as best we can,” Brown said of the brick streets. “Traditionally, they provide a real great service.”
But a road is more than a road nowadays. It must sustain the pressures of all types of traffic, from cyclists to semitrucks, deal with rainwater and act as a roof of sorts for all kinds of pipes, wires and other infrastructure necessary for the city to function.
“If you don’t do maintenance activities, I would say no question. We’ve had longer service life out them,” Brown said of the brick streets. “The longevity of those things, if you don’t have go dig in them, is pretty good. They’ve held up.”
Like many American cities, Spokane’s most basic building block is brick. After the Great Fire of 1889 reduced downtown to a charred ruin, brick buildings became the norm. The bricks came from all over the region, but one very local place was a defunct brickyard now called Cannon Hill Park.
In a 1927 Spokesman-Review article about the park, Aubrey L. White, who helped create the city’s park system, said people could “remember the old unsightly hole that was left by the brick makers more than 20 years ago.” White said the brickyard built the Hotel Spokane, as well as the Eagles, Dodd and Fernwell blocks, of which only the Fernwell remains. The “backing brick” of the Review Tower also came from this brick.
In July 1968, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported on the removal of the brick street running up the Monroe hill, from Fourth to 18th avenues. The city gave 150,000 of those bricks to Fort Wright College for paving the first floor and courtyard at a fine arts building.
“We feel the bricks have been tested long enough so that we can use them with confidence,” Thomas R. Adkinson, an architect working on the art building’s design, told the paper. “They are very dense and very durable bricks.”
The bricks, also made from Cannon Hill’s clay, were more than historic, Adkinson said. They were art.
“To make the sand mold bricks, molds were dusted with sand, then packed by hand with clay,” he said. Slightly uneven in shape and form when they emerged from the kiln, “each brick has an individual character like a single tree in the forest,” Adkinson said. “They are a shade of the past.”
That shade goes back to 1879, when a bricklayer named Roberts founded the brickyard. The operation was professionalized when the brickmaker John T. Davie showed up the same year.
The small yard was soon eclipsed due to Spokane’s voracious appetite for brick, which the Washington Brick & Lime company, started in 1888, was happy to appease. When the fire destroyed most of downtown’s wooden structures, the big brick company’s four machines worked at full capacity, pumping out 100,000 bricks a day.
The South Hill brickyard couldn’t keep up, but it kept pumping out its wares until 1910. Two years later, the land was gifted to the city.
“It’s a tangible reminder of where we’ve been, like the trolley lines,” said Megan Duvall, the city’s historic preservation officer, of the streets. “It’s a little bit of the fabric of our history.”
Duvall said there’s no formal policy protecting the brick streets, but the city’s public works and utility department has a master list of the streets put together by Chris Cafaro, a GIS specialist at the city. Workers try to avoid digging up the brick.
“It’s a neat thing that we still have some them. I don’t think it’s something we have to seek out to preserve at this point,” Duvall said.
Mike Taylor, another city engineer, said historical respect is just one aspect.
“It’s a cost issue,” Taylor said.
Laying brick costs twice as much as asphalt, Taylor said, estimating the cost of asphalt at $4 per square foot compared to $10 for brick. “If they don’t have twice the lifespan, then it doesn’t pan out,” he said.
Another complication comes with winter weather. Taylor said brick streets are “a giant pain” to plow.
Asphalt also eases infrastructure maintenance.
“We have a storm system and sanitary system. Every intersection has two manhole lids,” Taylor said. “You got to work around those things. It’s easier to butter asphalt than lay brick.”
Both Taylor and Brown said brick does well for certain situations and is pleasing to the eye. But it would never last on heavily trafficked arterials.
“A residential street, unlike an arterial, might have 300 to 1,000 trips a day,” he said. North Division sees upward of 40,000 trips a day, with freight vehicles that have “several hundred to a thousand times the impact of a car,” Taylor said.
Moral of the story: Streets are going to break. Might as well make them out of something cheaper to replace.
Still, there might always be a place for brick.
“Go look at the old Roman cobblestone roads,” said Cafaro, who put the brick street map together for city. “They’ve been there thousands of years.”
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