To understand the history of St. Louis’s bricks is to unearth systems of power, economy, dispossession, decline, and manifest destiny; the storybook decorative brickwork we see today becomes a tale as complex—and as sinister—as American history itself.
By Anjulie Rao
St. Louis is startling in its brickwork. Every home, it seems, is built from similar rust-colored bricks. Sometimes I wonder, just as you can see the lights of New York and Chicago from the International Space Station, if you’d also be able to make out St. Louis’ distinct red-hue. Despite the material’s ubiquity, each home is distinct; one residence might have raised thin brick defining the arched doorways, while the house next door uses inlayed patterns to decorate its roofline. Brick dentals, star-shaped bricks, swirled embossed brick—the pervasiveness of the material is matched by its variability, creating buildings as diverse as the bricks themselves.
Brick buildings have re-emerged in the architectural consciousness. In the Windy City, Brick of Chicago provides tours of remarkable and overlooked buildings which feature stone and terracotta; Tuskegee University architecture students studying their historic campus can examine the fingerprints from laborers pressed into clay bricks. In online architecture discussion, brick buildings conjure fantasies of Times When Men Built Beautiful Things With Their Hands. ”Why can’t we,” these posters ask, “return to such simpler times?”
New Orleans-based artist Jackie Sumell doesn’t see the era of brick in such halcyon terms. Though her new project, Freesoilparty, an installation and performance series assembled for this year’s COUNTERPUBLIC triennial of art and design in St. Louis (which closed this month), Sumell is telling a different rouge-colored story—the story of brick theft, the practice of illegally dismantling buildings and selling that iconic material to distributors who then provide said bricks to developers and architects outside of St. Louis. But her project goes beyond the bricks themselves: instead, she explores the material’s connections to the region’s history of displacement and extraction; a city that sits on stolen land is, again, being stolen. To understand the history of St. Louis’s bricks is to unearth systems of power, economy, dispossession, decline, and manifest destiny; the storybook decorative brickwork we see today becomes a tale as complex—and as sinister—as American history itself.
For much of her two-decades-long artistic career, Sumell’s work has addressed issues of incarceration and abolition. Having learned about the Angola 3 movement, she began corresponding with Herman Wallace, one of three Angola prisoners held in solitary confinement for decades. When their correspondence began in 2001, Wallace had been in prison for 29 of his 41-year sentence—most of it spent in solitary. Sumell and Wallace collaborated designing his “dream home” through letters over the course of their twelve years of friendship. The project, The House that Herman Built, resulted in a book, a documentary film, and a traveling exhibition that included visualizations and architectural details. Upon his death in 2013, Sumell found herself revisiting their letters and exchanges, and wanted to continue his legacy.
“I realized how much he talked about plants and gardening; he wanted the house made out of wood. When I first asked him what kind of house he wanted—a man who’s lived in a six by nine cell—he said, I can clearly see the gardens; they will be full of Gloxinia, delphiniums, and roses and I wish for guests to be able to smile and walk through gardens all year round. So I knew there was meaning in gardening,” she explains. Through gardens and botany, Sumell has found a “blueprint for human relationships,” she says, as the natural world both represents and embodies liberation. Since then, much of her work has focused on plant life; notably, her project Solitary Gardens, where she constructed several 6’x9’ garden beds—the same size as prison cells. The gardeners are incarcerated peoples in solitary confinement; they ‘tend’ to the gardens through written correspondence with liaisons.
The opportunity to contribute to COUNTERPUBLIC came from curator Risa Puleo, whose recent curatorial projects had also centered around issues of incarceration and its historical relationship to settler colonialism. COUNTERPUBLIC’s 2023 theme, Reclamations, was an opportunity to stitch those larger themes together.
“There is something deeper that I’m not understanding about how the prison industrial complex and these questions about settler colonialism are entangled,” she says. “I started inviting artists who were thinking about abolition or thinking about settler colonialism, but who are also working in these uncatchable mediums of plants and sounds as to offer us different kinds of ways of thinking through these problems.”
What Sumell and Puleo found through their research on St. Louis was a deeply complicated, embedded history of removal and extraction—not dissimilar to Sumell’s home in Louisiana.
“[Missouri and Louisiana] are deeply connected, not only through the Louisiana Purchase and colonization but through the Mississippi River. And so literally we are sharing the same water and the same soil,” she says. Sumell happened upon an episode of the 99 Percent Invisible podcast about the St. Louis “dollhouses,” homes once occupied by Black St. Louis residents that had been “harvested” for their red, intricate bricks, and sold to developers downriver, “building affluence,” she says, in new home construction under the guise of “reclaimed materials.” But Sumell wasn’t interested in reclaimed materials as part of the 2023 COUNTERPUBLIC Reclamations theme; instead, the bricks “harvested” from St. Louis speak to what, precisely, has been stolen.
Acknowledging that America was built in the stolen lands of native peoples, St. Louis, because of its strategic location along the Mississippi River and thus a hub for production and trade, has a particularly egregious history. The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the violent history of the United States by Walter Johnson (a book that Sumell notes she was asked to read prior to planning her COUNTERPUBLIC project), details how the city’s history of extraction and colonization fueled its growth. Johnson writes of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who were chartered by Thomas Jefferson, to, “enumerate the Indians, announce to them the subordination of their nations to the United States of America, and gauge the economic potential of their lands.” Missouri’s “Indian Laws” of 1845 that banned indigenous peoples from living in the state, and prohibited trading with native peoples, stripping them of economic power.
The economic power St. Louis settlers grew throughout the nineteenth century, was made possible by such dispossession. One major economic engine became brickmaking. After a fire in 1849 that resulted in the loss of nearly $6.1 million of property, the city changed its building code to require that all structures be built from stone or brick, laying the groundwork for the city we see today. St. Louis, “got very lucky,” says Michael Allen, president of the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. The city, he says, sits on the Cheltenham Syncline, a geologic formation that contains myriad unique deposits, most notably high-refractory red clay.
“It was mostly a materials convenience, because there’s just so much red clay here,” says Allen. The plentiful clay deposits led to mining the material within the city, producing open clay mines in places like Dogtown, an historically Irish community. Brickmaking blossomed with the invention of the hydraulic press in 1856, which mechanized the laborious manufacturing process and allowed the city’s bricks to be sent westward as America expanded its territory through violent wars and further displacements of indigenous peoples, bringing to life the country’s zeal for Manifest Destiny.
The brick was useful, says Allen, “where cities are being built out of nothing.”
“In some ways, hydraulic presses, and maybe by association, red brick, is emblazoned in the history of St. Louis as this amazing capitalist commodity,” says Allen. “Brick is one thing that we’re selling to the rest of the country. And it can not only be used here, but we’re one of the few places you could make this brick.”
But brick continued to build St. Louis’s residential and commercial footprint, accommodating a growing population that peaked in 1950. By then, racial covenants had been placed on 80% of the county’s homes, making it a starkly segregated city. The buildings that are currently being dismantled and harvested for their bricks are located on St. Louis’s north side, with a southern boundary of Delmar Road, says RJ Koscielniak, Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Eastern Michigan University (who also hails from St. Louis). North of this street, he says, resides the majority of the Black population, while south of Delmar the population is “60-70% white.” This was not unintentional: restrictive covenants and a voter-approved segregation ordinance ensured such separation.
“Most of the Black population of the St. Louis region lives in North City, but also in the north county suburbs of the city. And there has been white flight that characterized St. Louis, during much of the 20th century,” explains Koscielniak. In Broken Heart, Johnson points to Harland Bartholomew, the infamous St. Louis city planner who would spend his 37-year career systematically demolishing Black neighborhoods. His 1947 Comprehensive City Plan, “built the infrastructure of white exodus,” writes Johnson. Interstate highways he proposed that would connect suburbs with the city, and numerous downtown parking garages that would accommodate the, “quarter million vehicles he imagined would be driving more than 2.4 billion miles annually in and out of downtown.” The plans, Johnson writes, targeted several, majority-Black hundred-square blocks called Mill Creek Valley, just north of Delmar, for destruction and were soon demolished. The decline ensued: Between 1950 and 2000, St. Louis lost more than half its population to surrounding suburban areas; since 2000 that decline has approached 70%.
From Mill Creek Valley to the nearby Pruitt-Igoe public housing development that was built in 1954 and demolished twenty years later, North City’s built environment has been characterized by a history of racialization that has led to abandonment. One can examine the effects of racialized abandonment in the North City neighborhood – buildings in mid-collapse, hollowed-out shells colored by overgrown shrubs. Some of those houses still standing are missing exterior walls; on a recent trip, I saw an entire structure sitting open-faced to reveal interior rooms, still partially intact.
These buildings, colloquially called “dollhouses,” are evidence of brick theft. The material that built St. Louis, that characterizes the city’s vernacular identity, has been quietly disassembled; again, to be sold to build places from scratch. When Koscielniak was a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, he was curious about the brick theft occurring in North City. “When you pass by a vacant residential structure in St. Louis and it’s missing a wall or it looks like the roof is caved in, it’s because somebody stole that building. The idea that somebody is stealing buildings is pretty provocative. And so I started looking deeper into it,” he says.
He found that abandoned buildings were becoming targets of savvy groups who would use a variety of tactics to disassemble a building. To steal a building, one could simply back a truck or large van into a building to loosen walls and facades; or, a more damaging trick, to start fires in abandoned buildings.
“Because of how tight and dense a lot of the historic built environment in St. Louis is, when the fire department shows up, they hose down all of the adjacent buildings because they don’t want the fire to jump from structure to structure. And while this has the effect of ideally preventing that fire from spreading, it also loosens all of the mortar on these structures,” he explains. “After the authorities have left, brick harvesters will show up and they will take their haul and then they will end up at a brick yard.” Koscielniak was able to track the supply chain from St. Louis to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Atlanta.
Sumell also heard about those stolen bricks ending up in a project much closer to her New Orleans home: from that 99% Invisible episode, she learned about the repurposing of stolen brick in houses designed by the architect A. Hays Town—located in Baton Rouge.
“St. Louis had a brick industry that distributed bricks across the Midwest, which is also different from the brick industry that destroyed and extracted value from Black homes and sold those downstream to build neo-plantation-style homes,” Sumell says. Much of this stolen brick, says Allen, is used to build decorative pavers, retaining walls, or non-load bearing facades. But Koscielniak believes that while it’s easy to be sympathetic toward the need to preserve the city’s iconic brick and criminalize those “harvesters,”, that sympathy obscures a far more complicated issue.
“Most of the narrative around this was anti-poor rhetoric. To reduce the problem of St. Louis’s salvaged or stolen brick issue to these bad actors who are just trying to exploit the built environment, it ignores the fact that the vast majority of demolitions in St. Louis are permanent and official, and those bricks still end up in Phoenix,” he says.
While so much ire has been concentrated on the ‘unofficial’ disassembly (brick ‘theft’), he says, Koscielniak’s research this summer confirms that contractors, “don’t charge for taking down specific buildings” or intentionally reduce their demolition rates knowing that they will sell the bricks after demolition. “There are all these records of demolition contracts being approved at zero dollars, because these contractors are essentially saying, ‘This is a six family structure, we’re going to sell the bricks, put the bricks into the supply chain, we will make fifty grand,’” he says. It’s a lucrative business: Koscielniak notes that while Detroit, in the past ten year period, has “roughly 16” demolition contractors working with the city, St. Louis has had 168. “It’s much easier just to sell the bricks as the profit or income stream, than it is to actually deal with with a bidding process. Which basically means that everybody’s accepted that the land has zero value.” The land, he continues, has virtually no value until the building that sits on that land is dismantled.
“Having a market for these reclaimed materials, you’re actually incentivizing the unsustainability of many of the neighborhoods in St. Louis, actively encouraging converting ‘low value property’ or ‘no-value property’ into valuable property through the dismantling process, and then shipping that across the country where it can be enrolled in speculative development projects without taking into account how this process of development is really dependent on a continued process of disruption, formal or informal, in St. Louis,” he adds.
The problem is not the theft itself; it is about how the city of St. Louis has systematically devalued the people who inhabited the land for generations and used their dispossession as a means to create value for wealthy individuals—not dissimilar from the settler colonial conquest of the Missouri valley.
So when tasked with interpreting this dispossession-to-development pipeline that began with the displacement of native people and ends with 21st-century construction, Sumell titled her project Freesoilparty—a nod to the short-lived, Manifest Destiny-era abolitionists of the Free Soil Party.
“They were a political party that moved from upstate New York to St. Louis because St. Louis at this moment was this gateway to the west, and their one single platform political issue was was that they wanted the West to be a slavery free zone,” says Puleo. Their motto, “Free soil, free men, free land” struck Sumell with the irony of removing indigenous peoples from their physical land under the guise of freedom; “free soil” becomes the material—red clay—only made ‘free’ by violent conquest. But the violent dispossession of indigenous peoples was inherently connected to these ideologies of abolition.
“In this abolitionist platform they’re perpetuating: on one hand, trying to ameliorate the white supremacy of slavery but by perpetuating the white supremacy of settler colonialism and asking freedmen to participate in the dispossession of native people,” says Puleo. “So it’s bringing along of formerly enslaved or an abolition of slavery that is still built into settler colonialism.”
With Freesoilparty, Sumell will return bricks harvested from St. Louis back to the earth. Working with brickyards, she acquired dozens of St. Louis Red Queens—a larger version of the common red brick dating back to the 19th century. Each brick was destroyed, crushed by hand or by a steamroller, rendered into dust. Then, the brick was mixed with soils and native seeds, and dispersed throughout the Midwest. The is what curator Puleo calls, “rematriation.”
Repatriation, says Puleo, wouldn’t address the historic injustices in St. Louis—repatriation means returning objects to their cultural patrimony. For them to repatriate the bricks to St. Louis would mean to rebuild the homes that were destroyed. “This idea that we would re-materialize something that would stay materialized didn’t seem to be like the right sort of material consequence,” she explains. “But at the same time it was also not the same ethical consequence.” By rematriating the bricks—by returning them to the earth—Sumell could grapple with the more insidious layers of theft that occurred in and around the bricks, including the land theft during settler conquest, and the theft of wealth from Black residents.
The process was laborious and physically challenging, but resulted in performances held at the site of the former Du-Good Chemicals—a St. Louis-based, Black-owned chemical manufacturer who, says Sumell, produced both ingredients for pest control but also anti-cancer therapeutics. The owner, Lincoln Duiguid, was a key figure in the community, providing living-wage jobs and youth mentorship. After the bricks were crushed and mixed, Sumell will distribute the concoctions back to the former clay mines, and work with St. Louis artist William Travis, who works in rehabilitating pollinator spaces.
Through rematriation, Sumell hopes she can attend to past injustices through liberation—of soil itself, and prescribed economic value systems. While there is no ‘undoing,’ of injustice, Puleo says, there is, however, a space to ‘do differently.’ “I think that’s what Jackie is trying to do differently with these bricks, by taking them out of commerce, taking them out of a site where they continue to extract or accumulate value…put [bricks] through a different system that they can literally change the idea of value around the bricks to something that can be generative.” Like her anti-carceral practice, we are invited to imagine freedom, liberation, and justice through the earth and its flora.
Walking down Cass Avenue in St. Louis’s North City, I came across a building without a front facade. It was laid out upon the ground: rust-colored brick spilled from a large pile and thinned out toward the street. I picked up one brick, broken in half. It was hefty for its size—about six-inches across, just small enough to palm—and it glimmered from the earlier day’s rain. I put that half-brick in my pocket, and kept on walking.
Anjulie Rao is a journalist and critic covering the built environment.