Concrete Block: The Proliferation of an Underappreciated Building Material

  • History   Friday, March 11, 2022   Hayden Bulbrook
161 Caledonia Street constructed in c. 1912-13. July 2021.

161 Caledonia Street constructed in c. 1912-13. July 2021.

Drab, inconspicuous, and utilitarian, concrete blocks have earned a poor reputation and we’ll trace the roots of that. That said, concrete block was a wondrous invention that took the architecture and building world by storm in the early 1900s. Like many early 20th century innovations, concrete block and its use reached our inland city. In fact, a well-known Stratford artist would receive a patent in 1904 for his concrete block invention. Before we get into that and look at a few concrete block buildings in Stratford, we must explore the origins of concrete block and its appeal.

Harmon S. Palmer and the Concrete Block

Concrete is a building material that dates to the Roman era, though its widespread usage did not really occur until the late 19th century. At its simplest, concrete is a mixture of cement, sand, and an aggregate like stone or gravel. Although we can trace the origins of artificial cement, a key ingredient in concrete, to English stone mason Joseph Aspin’s patent of Portland cement in 1824 and while inventors like Thomas J. Lowry of New York patented hollow block concrete as early as 1868, the proliferation of concrete block began at the advent of the 20th century. In 1901, Harmon S. Palmer of Chicago patented a hollow block concrete block. His desire was “to simplify, cheapen, and to produce stronger buildings as well as more efficient in protecting from the elements” with a class of separate building blocks of concrete or the like that “are united to make the desired wall.” Virtually overnight concrete block usage spread across the United States and into Canada – in large part through the violation of Palmer’s patent. Blocks of all different designs and patterns were created. The 1911 Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogue advertised ten decorative face plates including cobblestone, bush hammer, and rope face.

Among those to patent their own concrete block was Peter Dierlamm of Stratford, who became better known as an artist. Differentiating his design from Palmer’s, his block had two interspersed air cavities to prevent moisture build up and provide insulation. With the use of concrete block, Dierlamm stated buildings “will be stronger, more durable, more sanitary, more handsome and more satisfactory than one made of any other material. It will be fire proof, hence lower insurance rates. Age and the exposure to the weather will made the concrete more substantial, while other material deteriorates.” His block design closely resembled another concrete block patent called “Miracle” block, which had a similar vintage, though it is unclear if either inventor copied the other. In the mad dash to produce concrete blocks, ideas and designs were spreading like wildfire.

Commercial, Ecclesiastical, and Residential Concrete Block Construction

114 Ontario Street

Concrete block was most commonly used for foundations, but the following examples show its usage for building envelopes on commercial, ecclesiastical, and residential buildings in Stratford. 114 Ontario Street appears to have been constructed before 1885 as a frame building similar to the adjacent property to the north. Reclad by 1904 with rock-faced concrete block, it was likely one of the earliest buildings faced with concrete block in Stratford. To prevent catastrophic losses due to fire, city bylaws forbade the erection of wooden structures within the city fire limits by 1889. Predating the adoption of concrete block, bylaw 236 stated that “no person shall erect or place any building other than with main walls of brick, iron, or stone.” The Great Fire of 1900 in Paris, Ontario and the Great Fire of 1904 in Toronto may have influenced the building owner to use concrete block as a fireproof cladding.

St Paul’s Anglican Church

St. Paul’s Anglican Church at Waterloo and Douro streets was designed by W.J. Ireland in 1904 and constructed in 1905. In a publication promoting his Triple Wall Concrete Building Block Machine, Peter Dierlamm noted in 1904 that two churches were expected to use his two wall blocks for construction in 1905. This church was likely one of them. Up close, one sees the uniformity of the concrete block molds which were meant to resemble quarried stone.

161 Caledonia Street

161 Caledonia Street was constructed in c.1912-13 for Thomas H. Beattie, a truant officer and former assistant city clerk who had lived at 65 Charles Street. The most ornate extant example of concrete block applied in Stratford, it features an eclectic mix of rock-faced and smooth-faced blocks that vary in size and colour. Stucco was applied to the pediments. Concrete sills and lintels were also used. Its busy massing and texture demonstrate that concrete block buildings could have elaborate designs.

The rapid adoption and innovation of concrete block proved to be its downfall in architectural appeal. Standardization in 1930 made the 8-by-8-by-16-inch block the most common. Consolidation led to the construction of concrete blocks by fewer and larger companies. In this decade, innovations, including new automated machines that used steam to cure the concrete mix, produced only the boring old plain-faced blocks. Changing tastes effectively diminished the production of decorative blocks and relegated concrete blocks in large part to use for cavity walls and side walls. While disregarded today, concrete blocks took the building and architecture world by storm in the early 20th century. By way of commercial, ecclesiastic, and residential design, as well as through patents, they made their mark in Stratford in a concrete way.