When traveling east on Route 50 out of Washington, you pass several brick buildings on the right, possibly on the grounds of the National Arboretum. The buildings — which are very sinister looking, overgrown with plants and weeds — look like something left over from World War I or II. They appear to be abandoned. Can you tell me what they were used for? Are they part of the National Arboretum?
— Perdita Welch , Arlington
Yes, the distinctive structures are abandoned. And they are indeed part of the National Arboretum, in the sense that they are on land that in 1976 was transferred to the Agriculture Department. This fact is what prompted Stephen Sears to tell Answer Man: “The U.S. government has no problem owning a brickyard, but you don’t see them owning a vinyl-siding plant.”
This was Stephen’s way of touting the superiority of brick over siding as a building material, which, as chief operating officer and vice president of marketing at the Brick Industry Association, he is obligated to do. What you see when you head out on New York Avenue NE/Route 50 are the remains of a brick factory.
In the early 20th century, there were approximately 100 brickyards in the Washington area. Brick is an easily sourced building material. Get yourself some clay, a little sand and some water, and you have the ingredients for a dandy little house that is impervious to the exhalations of hungry wolves.
“Way, way back, they used to have field kilns,” Stephen said. “They’d find clay and fire the brick on site.”
That’s how the bricks for the Gothic revival Center Building at St. Elizabeths were made.
According to a history prepared by Dorothy R. Jacobson and Gary R. Arabak, the New York Avenue brickyard started operation around 1910. The factory passed through several hands until 1930, when the title was transferred to the United Brick Corp.
The process started with clay being dug out of the banks of the nearby Anacostia River. A small train called a dinkey carried the clay to a chamber, where it was pulverized. Water and sand were added, and the concoction was mixed in a pug mill. The wet clay was extruded into long, rectangular logs that were cut into bricks by wire.
The bricks spent time in a drying shed before being transferred to the site’s most distinctive feature: the domed structures known as beehive kilns. The bricks were fired for four or five days, the heat supplied first by coal and later by oil. It took two to three days before the bricks were cool enough to handle.
The bricks of United Brick settled close to home. Local brick magnate E. Taylor Chewning told historians in 1976 that it was rare for United Brick’s product to go as far as Baltimore.
Most bricks went to housing developments in and around Washington, including the Broadmoor apartments on Connecticut Avenue NW and Fairlington and Colonial villages in Arlington. United Brick also supplied brick for the New Executive Office Building and the Court of Claims at Lafayette Square.
By 1966, 145,000 bricks were being turned out every day. But beehive kilns were overtaken by technology. They are incredibly labor-intensive, requiring workers to fill and empty them by hand. That’s expensive, back-breaking work. Modern brickyards use tunnel kilns. Bricks are loaded by forklift, then travel by conveyor belt through the kiln to be heated and fired.
The New York Avenue brickyard ceased operations in 1972. Working machinery was sold to a firm in Johannesburg. There were once 12 beehive kilns, but only three remain.
The site is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not open to the public, as the ground under and around the kilns is unstable. The National Arboretum uses the area around the brickyard as a composting facility.
In a statement, Margaret Pooler, the arboretum’s acting director, said: “Although our primary mission is about plants, the National Arboretum is a part of D.C., and has a role in its history. As such, we recognize that the brick kilns represent an important part of D.C.’s historic manufacturing and industrial sector. Restoration or even stabilization of these structures is beyond the current budget of the arboretum; however, we do value the site and are examining options on how to protect this piece of history.”
To Answer Man, the beehive kilns of New York Avenue resemble a set of tiny Byzantine churches.
“President Washington himself was a big fan of brick,” said Stephen of the brick trade group. “He passed one of the earliest masonry ordinances for fire safety.”
Ironically, Mount Vernon is made of wood.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.