Historic PlasterHistoric PreservationMasonryMiscellaneous

Exposing Brick: What One Preservationist Thinks

Exposed historic brick
I know it is popular, but I’m not a fan.

I realize I will be a voice in the wilderness, but I am not a fan of exposed brick.  As a preservationist I do not advocate destroying a building’s historic fabric to suit current trends. Removing 150 year-old lime plaster to expose brick that was never intended to be seen is, perhaps, the most common example of this.

There are many types of historic bricks but you can sort them into two basic groups: common bricks and face bricks. Common bricks were not meant to be seen and are structural.  They don’t have finished surfaces and are made with unsorted clay so their colors vary.  Since they weren’t meant to be seen, the mortar usually is not raked or finished.  Indeed, many common brick walls have weeping mortar, meaning the mortar dripped and ran down the wall when the bricks were laid with no attempt to clean up the mess.  Exposing this sort of brick would be, in my mind, the equivalent of a home owner in the future exposing the “beautiful” drywall, drywall tape and mud that was meant to be covered with paint and molding.

Face bricks, however, were mean to be seen.  They have finished surfaces and are sorted by color and porosity.  They often have a fine glaze or raked surfaces.  The mortar joints are regular and finished.  They are meant to be seen and the mason took great care to make sure the wall was attractive and tidy.

There are some practical reasons not to expose common brick.  Exposed bricks that do not have a well-fired surfaces tend to create dust.  The mortar can also decay faster if exposed and create even more dust and grit. Exposed brick often is more porous and can absorb moisture from the living space and carry it into the walls, potentially creating problems with mold.

I realize this is a personal choice and everyone is free to do what they wish in their own home or business.  I admit I have my own biases and have never been a fan of “shabby chic,” but it is also true that this sort of thing isn’t consistent with accepted norms of historic preservation.  I also realize that not every house is a museum and that people want to express themselves and their own tastes.  Plaster can be replaced, although the historic value of the original plaster will have been lost. Ultimately, I see it as my responsibility to advocate the principles of historic restoration and preservation and introduce this sort of information into our popular discourse.  So, there you have it.  This will no doubt rankle some, but hopefully someone else out there might reconsider and preserve their historic plaster and keep thier common brick covered.

Leave a Reply