Flemish Bond: A Hallmark of Traditional Architecture
Classical Comments by Calder Loth
Flemish bond is a frustrating misnomer because this brick bond is not native to Flanders or even nearby sections of France and Holland. However, it does appear on late medieval buildings in scattered areas of northern and central Europe, particularly Poland. A rough but conspicuous early example is seen on Munich’s famous Frauenkirche, built 1468-88. (Figs. 1 & 2) How and from where it was suddenly spread to England in the early 17th century has not been determined. Yet its association with buildings in the style of contemporary structures in the Low Countries has resulted in its being termed ‘Flemish’ bond. In contrast to English bond, garden wall bond, or even haphazard bonds, which are functional bonds, Flemish bond is a decorative bond, one that lends visual quality to a wall surface. The bond’s alternating stretchers (sides of brick) and headers (ends of brick) form a pleasingly patterned regularity, requiring skill to execute. The discussion below focuses mainly on the use of Flemish bond in Virginia since many well-preserved early examples remain there. (And admittedly, I am more familiar with Virginia brickwork than that in other states). The subject is an extensive one and space in this blog limits me to highlights.
It is generally held that the Dutch House, also known as Kew Palace, in London’s Kew Gardens, marks the first prominent use of Flemish Bond in England. (Fig. 3) Most authorities state that the house was built in 1631 for Samuel Fortrey, a London merchant of Dutch descent. Its Baroque-style curvilinear gables clearly show a Dutch influence even though its Flemish bond is not characteristic of 17th-century Dutch architecture. Moreover, the recent restoration of the Dutch House, which included a historically accurate coating of redwash, makes the dwelling’s Flemish bond hard to see. Nevertheless, from the middle of the 17th century Flemish bond became the brick bond of choice for architecturally refined buildings throughout England, particularly for their façades.
The earliest surviving American example of Flemish bond is found on Virginia’s St. Luke’s Church. Its brickwork is not particularly refined and has been subjected to extensive repointing. (Figs. 4 & 5) Much controversy surrounds the church’s construction date. A long and stubbornly persistent tradition holds that it was built in 1632. The church’s use of Flemish bond on all the wall surfaces except the buttresses (which are English bond) makes a 1630s date highly questionably since Flemish bond was barely in use in England at the time. A more credible construction period is the 1680s, a date range supported by a recent dendrochronology examination. A 1680s date makes the building an interesting architectural anomaly. At once it is America’s latest example of true Gothic architecture but also the country’s earliest example of the newly popular Flemish bond. Because of its retardataire style, St. Luke’s is often described as Gothic Survival. (We might note that a 1680s date makes the church contemporary with London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.)
By the early 18th century Flemish bond became standard for brickwork on refined colonial buildings, especially in Virginia. Important Virginia houses and churches made use of glazed headers to give a lively checkered effect to the wall surface. The use of glazed headers was a practice brought from southern England where many examples are found such as the 1723 Lamb House in Rye. (Fig. 6) A parallel Virginia example is Williamsburg’s ca. 1755 Ludwell-Paradise house where the raking afternoon sunlight creates a sparkling façade. (Fig. 7) Glazing results from the way the bricks were stacked in kilns (or temporary kilns called clamps) for firing. The headers were positioned closest to the heat source and were thusly glazed or vitrified just as a piece of clay pottery would be glazed. A brick, after all, is a ceramic.
Colonial bricks were formed in wooden molds which were dusted with fine sand to prevent the damp clay from adhering to the wood, causing the bricks to have a granular surface. Inconsistency in clay quality and firing temperatures produced irregular edges which resulted in irregular mortar joints. As shown on the detail of the 1734 St. John’s Church in Virginia, the joints were given a more even appearance by scoring with a thin line using a jointing tool resembling an ice skate. (Fig. 8) The scoring also tended to compress the joints, making them tighter. Scored mortar joints are common on 18th-century English brickwork but the joints are generally more even as firing conditions there were less crude. In Virginia, bricks were usually made near the building site. Sites were often chosen for their proximity to a clay deposit.
In colonial Virginia and neighboring colonies, brick kilns were normally fueled with oak. The potassium in oak produced a chemical reaction with the clay resulting in the clear blue-gray glazes on the headers, which provided a rich contrast to the red stretchers. In order to have the headers centered over the stretchers it was necessary to insert a small brickbat or closer near the end of every other course. When the closer is approximately half the width of a header it is called a queen closer. A king closer is two thirds the width of a stretcher and is rarer. The 1763 Pungoteague Church, a detail of which is shown here, is unusual for having glazed queen closers. (Fig. 9)
While Flemish bond was used in the main wall surfaces, the foundation, including the area below the water table (which is marked by the thickening of the foundation above grade) was usually laid in English bond. English bond consists of alternating courses of headers and stretchers, and is stronger than Flemish bond, hence its use in foundations. Glazed headers appear only randomly if at all in English bond. Because of the uneven edges of hand-made bricks, rubbed bricks were used at corners and at window and door jambs to give a building sharp edges and snug fits around its openings. Rubbed bricks were selected for their density and even color, and were rubbed to precise shapes with smooth faces using a special stone or hard brick. The rubbed bricks’ rich red color lent a wall surface handsome articulation. St. Mary’s Whitechapel (1739-41), illustrates the use of rubbed brick corners of maximum depth, as well as the use of English bond below the water table. (Fig. 10)
By the mid-18th century, the stands of oak in eastern Virginia were being depleted. Hence, softer woods, such as pine, were used to fire brick kilns. Pine does not produce the light blue glazes that oak does but instead turns out smutty black headers. Black headers were not considered attractive, thus when a wall was laid up in Flemish bond, the black glazed headers were laid facing inward and the unglazed headers were exposed on the wall surface. This gave the walls an overall even color as seen in Carter’s Grove, completed in 1755. (Fig. 11) Rubbed bricks continued to be used at jambs and corners but the color contrast was not as strong. Carter’s Grove’s wedge-shaped window lintels, called jack arches, make use of gauged bricks, which are rubbed bricks cut to special shapes. The mansion’s pedimented door surround is constructed of both gauged and molded bricks, and is an outstanding example of colonial masonry.
Glazed-header Flemish bond continued to be used in Philadelphia well into the 18th century. However, Philadelphia headers tend to be black rather than the light blue-grays of Virginia and Maryland. This is probably the result of firing bricks with wood other than oak. The black headers are a dominant element of Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall, built 1770-73. (Figs. 12 & 13) Regrettably, much of Philadelphia’s 18th-century brickwork was irreparably damaged by sandblasting during the city’s extensive restorations of the 1960s and ‘70s. Carpenters’ Hall fortunately was spared this misguided disfiguring; its brick surfaces and mortar joints remain in good condition.
The character of Flemish bond changed noticeably during the Federal period. Improved manufacturing processes, particularly in commercial brickyards, produced better quality products. Even in the countryside, more precision in molding and firing was obtainable. Better bricks led to a change in the treatment of mortar joints. A case in point is the fine Flemish bond on Glennmary, an 1837 Greek Revival plantation house in southern Virginia. Its builder, Dabney Cosby, Sr., was a brick mason formerly employed at the University of Virginia where he helped build Jefferson’s designs. At Glennmary, Cosby laid up beautifully crafted even-colored Flemish bond. (Fig. 14) Typical of the period, he used ribbon joints for the horizontal joints, which are flat-faced joints precisely tooled on top and bottom. Glennmary also displays vertical joints consistently thinner than the horizontal joints, a typical treatment. The vertical joints were normally V-shaped as they were too thin to flatten. In most Federal-period buildings Flemish bond was reserved for the façade; common or American bond was employed in the secondary walls.
A customary practice for early 19th-century brickwork was to coat the walls with a redwash and then carefully paint the mortar joints with thin white lines called penciling. The use of redwash served as a form of waterproofing and masked the unevenness of color of handmade bricks. Penciling gave enhanced articulation to the brick bond. In James Gallier’s The American Builder’s and General Price Book and Estimator (Boston, 1836), a price of 3 cents per yard is quoted for “Brick fronts painted one coat, and the joints drawn white.” The term pencil in the period referred to a small pointed brush. We seldom see this treatment preserved intact because it gets washed off over the years. The example shown is on the Jeffersonian Lawn buildings at the University of Virginia (1817-26) and has been protected from weathering by its sheltering colonnade. (Fig. 15)
The use of Flemish bond experienced resurgence in the late 19th and 20th centuries, brought on by the popularity of the Colonial Revival and Georgian Revival styles. The restoration of numerous historic buildings generated an appreciation for historic brickwork, and spurred its replication for new traditional architecture. In Virginia, the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg created a demand for Williamsburg type buildings, many of which exhibited fine colonial-style brickwork. Among the many numerous mid-20th-century Virginia buildings exhibiting traditional early Virginia masonry is the 1951 Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond. Inspired by Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church, Reveille makes use of glazed-header Flemish bond with rubbed-brick accents. (Figs. 16 & 17)
Good brickwork is an art and an essential component of successful traditional architecture. The examples shown here are the briefest sampling of the many interesting early brickwork types found in this country, particularly its eastern half. I hope to show more varieties of this important craft and design resource in future Classicist Blogs.