Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cast Block Houses: Some Examples in the Westcott Area

 
Syracuse, NY. Cast block houses at 887 Lancaster Ave. (above) and 433 Roosevelt Ave. (below).  Photos: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.

Cast Block Houses: Some Examples in the Westcott Area 
by Samuel D. Gruber

Exploring the Westcott neighborhood for the past year while prepping my neighborhood walking tours, I've encountered a lot of  building details that I had previously overlooked.  There all sorts of houses types, building materials, architectural details, and site arrangements that we often take for granted but whose origin and purpose deserve some attention - if only because how curious they at first appear.  In a neighborhood of mostly wood frame houses, brick and stone houses stand out; and hose of cast block - discussed here - even more so.

The most important development in home construction in the19th and early 20th-centuries was the continuing invention, refinement and production of per-fabricated and standardized building materials. Best known of these, of course, are the standardized lumber pieces that could be cut in the millions by power-driven sawmills, shipped by railroad, and stocked and sold by lumber yards strategically located in growing neighborhoods close to actual building sites.  This is the lumber that built the millions of wooden balloon frame houses across America between the 1870s and 1930s.  These are the houses of our "Streetcar Suburbs,' like the most of the neighborhoods in the University-Westcott area that make up so much of our urban housing stock today.  

Not surprisingly, it was the lumber companies that got into the house-kit business and sold many more pre-cut house parts than the big retail companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward - even though those houses are more often mentioned in the historical literature.   Other pre-fab parts were as simple as standard nails and screws, and more intricate metal hardware for hinges, knobs, and grates; as well as standard windows and doors.  The architectural magazines of the period are full of ads that indicate the national nature of the building trades after about 1900.

One standardized building part that has received relatively little attention is the cast block - sometimes referred to as cement block, cinder block, or cast stone block.  This standardized building material first appears in the late 19th century and becomes more and more common in house construction - especially for foundations and garages - through the 1920s.  


 Syracuse, NY. Maryland Ave. Typical cast block house foundation. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012

Syracuse, NY. Clarendon St., cast block garage. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.

In addition to foundations, some builders enjoyed using cast stone for upper walls and in the Westcott neighborhood there are several houses mostly or entirely build up of these blocks.  The walls would be mostly fire-proof and easy to build.  They are strong and can carry considerable weight.  The air in the hollow blocks also can serve as insulation. 


Syracuse, NY. 887 Lancaster Ave. Cast block in upper walls. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Unlike the common gray cinder block that most people are familiar with (and which often contain few or no cinders) the early cast stones actually tried to look like stone - and their outer faces were formed to imitate roughly cut or faceted stone, similar to earlier field stone or cut limestone blocks.  The effect in some houses, like that at 887 Lancaster (and others nearby such as 945 Euclid and 433 Roosevelt Ave.) is a rusticated look.
 
Syracuse, NY. 433 Roosevelt Ave. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.

In the end, the uniformity of the cast stones gives them away, but even this was combated by having a variety of cast stone sizes which could mixed and matched, or in some case single large cast blocks with the facing sides scored in ways that they appeared to made up of several smaller irregular-sized stones.  This is the case at  701 Ackerman, built by Robert Floyd in 1912-13) and at 732 Lancaster, built around 1911. Unless you are actively looking for cast stone it is easy to be fooled when quickly passing by.


 
Syracuse, NY. William L. Huber house,  732 Lancaster Ave., c. 1911.   Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013. 

Syracuse, NY. William L. Huber house, 732 Lancaster Ave., dtl.  c. 1911. The house is especially notable for the use of cast block for the entire first floor. Each cast a stone block appears to be made of multiple cut stones.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.  

 Syracuse, NY. Robert Floyd house, 701 Ackerman Ave.,1912-13.  Garage on left is later addition.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.


Syracuse, NY. Robert Floyd house, 701 Ackerman Ave., dtl., 1912-13.  Each cast a stone block appears to be made of multiple cut stones.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.

Cast stone, like most masonry products, was produced locally.  The cost of transport - even by train - was just too much to make long distance hauling of concrete stone worthwhile.  Almost any locality had the raw ingredients for cast block.

In addition to foundations, some builders enjoyed using cast stone for upper walls and in the Westcott neighborhood there are several houses mostly or entirely build up of these blocks.  The walls would be mostly fire-proof and easy to build.  They are strong and can carry considerable weight.  The air in the hollow blocks also can serve as insulation.


Sears Catalog, 1910 (Dover reprint).  Pages advertising machines for cast block production
Sears Catalog, 1910 (Dover reprint).  Pages advertising machines for cast block production
The Sears Catalog of 1910 offers eight pages of products related to cast block production. Do-it-yourself machines for creating blocks of different sizes and shapes were available for only $42.50 for the hand-operated “Wizard Face Down Concrete Block Machine.”

The Aladdin "Built in a Day" Catalog of 1917 stated that:

"Of course, all excavation and masonry work must be done on the ground.  No money would be saved by including stone or brick or concrete  [in pre-ordered and shipped house kits], but every section of the country produces this material and prices vary but little.  we furnish you with the foundation plan and will give you figures on the amount of material  required for whatever kind of foundation material you decide to use - concrete, stone or brick...."


In Bennett's small House catalog of 1920 most of the houses are shown with cast block foundations.

A number of block houses can be seen in Buffalo.


Syracuse, NY. 433 Roosevelt Ave. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013.

See: J. Randall Cotton, "Ornamental Concrete Block Houses," Old House Journal, XII:8 (Oct. 1984) 165, 180-183

5 comments:

  1. We now manufacture these block in 6 different styles. We ship nation-wide and are also available through special order through Lowe's. Visit our website at www.classicrockfaceblock.com and check us out! Help us spread the word that historic rock face block is back!

    ReplyDelete
  2. The firm increases value of properties by creating customized designs that are well-balanced and tasteful. NYC Residential Architect

    ReplyDelete
  3. I needed to put you a bit of remark in order to give many thanks as before for all the exceptional secrets you have provided on this site. It was quite incredibly generous with you to deliver unreservedly precisely what a number of people could possibly have offered for sale for an electronic book to get some profit for themselves, principally now that you might have done it if you considered necessary. These good ideas also acted like a good way to recognize that someone else have the identical eagerness like my very own to see a whole lot more with respect to this problem. I believe there are a lot more pleasurable occasions up front for people who read through your site. non combustible fireplace mantel

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wanted to develop a quick note in order to appreciate you for the superb advice you are placing here. My long internet research has finally been rewarded with incredibly good strategies to go over with my family and friends. I 'd tell you that we website visitors actually are very endowed to dwell in a remarkable place with so many brilliant individuals with valuable methods. I feel quite fortunate to have encountered your entire web page and look forward to some more thrilling times reading here. Thanks once again for a lot of things. Cast Stone Mantles

    ReplyDelete
  5. I would like to show my thanks to the writer for rescuing me from this condition. Because of searching throughout the world-wide-web and seeing basics which were not productive, I figured my life was done. Existing without the presence of solutions to the difficulties you have fixed as a result of the short article is a critical case, and the ones which may have badly damaged my career if I hadn't encountered your post. Your personal capability and kindness in maneuvering every item was important. I don't know what I would have done if I had not come upon such a step like this. I am able to at this time look forward to my future. Thanks for your time so much for your professional and results-oriented guide. I will not think twice to refer your post post to anyone who would need direction on this issue. Cast Stone Fireplace Mantels

    ReplyDelete