If you live in North Texas, you probably live in a brick house.
It doesn’t matter the age of the neighborhood or the price of your house, most homes are brick. And even in modest houses, the level of the masonry work is quite beautiful, with arches, crenelations and intricate patterns on the wall surfaces. This is not common in other parts of the country.
What we have here is very special. Brick homes are in such abundance, they often go completely unnoticed.
We live in the brick belt, which makes brick building materials affordable and plentiful. Acme Brick, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, is the largest brick-producing company in the United States.
The multigenerational tradition of Hispanic masons in Texas brings a skilled artistry to brick masonry.
Geography and geology
Texas produces more bricks than any other state, says Acme CEO and President Dennis Knautz.
The reason is simply geography and geology. As any gardener knows, our soil is loaded with clay, which is not great for gardening but is excellent for brickmaking. There is a large vein of clay that stretches across the United States from Central Texas, across Oklahoma and Arkansas, and up into Virginia and Maryland.
It has, in varying degrees, the right combination of clay, sand and silt for brickmaking. Within the belt is an ideal band called the Wilcox formation that has no iron in it, making it even better for brickmaking. It runs from San Antonio up to Arkansas. North Texas sits smack in the middle of the mother lode of brickmaking clay.
Mother Nature isn’t consistent, so clay is not consistent.
Dennis Knautz, Acme Brick CEO
Most of it is under what the brick manufacturers call “overburden,” a very distressing term for trees, grass and other attractive organic matter.
Once the overburden is scraped off, the clay is removed in a strip-mining fashion that leaves very large terraced pits. Often the clay plays out and the pits are filled, making lakes. Some clay reserves are still producing, though, even after 100 years of mining.
The Acme Brick empire
Fort Worth’s Acme Brick had its start in 1884 when George Bennett, the company’s founder, bought land near the Parker County town of Millsap and began building a brickmaking plant.
The Bennett Plant is still in operation. It helped build much of Fort Worth. Two of Acme’s first big brick orders came in 1902 for the Armour and Swift meatpacking plants in the Fort Worth Stockyards. As Fort Worth grew, so did Acme.
Acme produces the signature brick used for buildings on the Texas Christian University campus — a buff-colored brick made at the Acme plant in Perla, Ark.
Texas Tech University’s similarly colored brick also comes from the Perla plant. The bricks that were made for the first campus buildings in Lubbock are almost identical in color to the ones used now.
“Mother Nature isn’t consistent, so clay is not consistent; it will have slight variations,” Knautz says.
More than 9.5 billion bricks were made in the U.S. in 2005; in 2010, the number dropped to 3 billion.
Many of the newer buildings in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square are made of Acme bricks, as are some of the oldest ones in downtown Fort Worth. One is the Neil P. Anderson Building, once the corporate headquarters of Acme from 1919 to 1952.
In 1976, Acme became the nation’s largest brick producer, and it continues to hold that title. It was operating at maximum capacity in 2005, as were the rest of the nation’s brick plants, when 9.5 billion bricks were produced. Then the economy took a dive and, by 2010, fewer than 3 billion were being produced.
Acme has had to shutter several plants due a 70 percent collapse of its business. But that wasn’t as bad as the business collapse of the 1930s, which saw an 85 percent loss.
Today, Acme has 26 plants and is capable of producing 1.5 billion bricks a year, Knautz says.
The brickmaking process
It takes a week to make a brick once the clay reaches the brickmaking plant, Knautz says. The clay does not travel far. As each brick weighs almost the same before firing as after, most of the clay is harvested within a 75-mile radius of the plant.
3.5The weight of a finished brick in pounds
At the plant, the clay is processed and formed into a brick shape by machines that extrude it into its familiar rectangular shape. Then the bricks are dried until there is less than 1 percent moisture left.
At that point, they are put into a tunnel-shaped kiln. They take a three-day journey through the kiln, where they are heated to 1.800 to 2,100 degrees.
Masons are paid $800 per 1,000 bricks.
Once they have cooled, the bricks, now weighing 3 1/2 pounds each, are ready for shipping.
Tradition of Hispanic masonry
Waiting for the bricks at the job sites are the masons, who will construct the walls. In Texas, it is common to find masons with a Hispanic heritage, according to Manuel Arias, a third-generation mason.
The bricklayers came from Mexico in the mid-1900s, when the post-World War II housing boom began. As the building of both commercial and residential structures increased over the second half of the century, more Hispanic construction workers were lured by amount of work available.
Masons are paid $800 per 1,000 bricks.
The Hispanic masons who came from Mexico were often quite skilled. It was an old building tradition and an honored one in Mexico. The masons who came north often brought skills that they used on residential buildings — putting intricate details along roof lines or on facades.
These details were not on the architectural drawings or builder’s plans; they were added by the masons. They had a skill level that they flexed, and the results can be seen as you walk the local neighborhoods.
One such family of masons is the Ariases. Two brothers, Manuel and Javier Arias, came to Texas from Nuevo Leon in the late 1970s. The brothers’ father and grandfather were masons, and they suspect their great-grandfather was, as well.
The Arias family began working in Houston. Immigration restrictions forced them to return to Mexico, but they came back legally in the late ’80s, and when they did, they moved to Balch Springs, southeast of Dallas.
Javier was the artist, Manuel the businessman. Javier had the patience to do the intricate work, the arches and the fancy detailing. Manuel orchestrated the family business.
As the family grew, two sisters and an uncle began masonry businesses in Balch Springs. Currently, Javier’s original company, A-Star Masonry, is in the hands of Manuel’s son Daniel, and he is the fourth, perhaps the fifth, generation of Ariases in the mason business.
Brick masonry was an old building tradition in Mexico, and an honored one.
The Ariases are doing the masonry work on three new schools in Fort Worth: Alice D. Contreras, Greenbriar and Woodway elementary schools. They are almost finished with the new Bethlehem Community Center on Evans Street.
They got out of the residential masonry business about the time the economy tanked. To spread the business across more platforms, Manuel Arias built a training center on his property, a place where masons can get additional safety training necessitated by state licensing, and a place where aspiring masons can train before they take competency tests.
The work they have done on the center in east Fort Worth required renovation of an old brick building, rebuilding arches and walls to match the original brick work and covering the new extension to match the old building.
Only the new doorways suggest where the renovation work might have taken place. Even the mortar between the bricks has been stained to make the transition as seamless as possible.
Durable and lasting
Brick buildings can last for hundreds of years — even thousands. Some of the first cities were built of brick. The ziggurat of Ur, believed to be more than 4,000 years old, was built of brick, although it has been extensively restored.
What usually breaks down is the mortar. If the mortar is stabilized, there is no reason the bricks can’t last for a millennium or more.
Texas produces more bricks than any other state.
A new book published by Phaidon this year, Brick, edited by London-based architect William Hall with an essay by BBC TV presenter Dan Cruickshank, shows the glories of brick structures both ancient and new.
The ziggurat of Ur is included. So is the Great Wall of China, which is made of large gray bricks.
One of the Great Wall’s bricks is in Acme’s brick museum. What is surprising is that many of the old bricks in this hallway museum resemble bricks used today — they have the same proportion, twice as wide as they are tall.
This very simple rectangular block has been used since before recorded time and it hasn’t changed much. The kilns are more sophisticated to be sure, but the standard brick looks much as it did 1,000 years ago.
What we have surrounding our houses is a building material with a tremendous legacy. These humble building blocks have withstood the ravages of time, weather and humans.
They are composed with great an artistry by skilled hands, and in their own quiet or brash way, are quite beautiful.
- by William Hall and Dan Cruickshank
- Phaidon, $49.95