Where Have All the Masons Gone?

The quality of masonry in the built environment has dropped significantly in the past century.

I would like to blame this on the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party and William Wirt, unfortunately for my desire for a tidy history, that was in 1832, and preceded the decline of masonry by about a century. Furthermore, freemasonry and stonemasonry in practice are not terribly related by this time (though freemasons were once stonemasons back in the 14th century). Freemasons like George Washington did little actual brickwork.

So instead, let’s turn to the rising price of labor, as men who once would have become stonemasons, as their fathers were, were instead attracted to other businesses, and the real estate sector found that high quality detailing was no longer worth the premium it cost. Today, masonry is often a non-structural skin which is pre-manufactured, what my wife calls “brickaneer“. Yet even pre-manufactured brick veneer seems to lack style, and is just a boring layer. Better perhaps than some alternative skins, but nothing like it once was.

The more interesting question is perhaps why the market doesn’t reward aesthetics on the exterior of buildings now, when it once did.

Consider the four apartment buildings shown below, they are all in the same Powderhorn Park neighborhood, of similar size, but were built in different decades. The level of detail on two of them is far greater than the other two. At some point interest or willingness to pay for Masonry detail failed. This is unfortunate.

New buildings don’t do much better. Compare some 21st century structures with Thresher Square. Whatever you think of aesthetics, detail is clearly lost.  Perhaps there were many older simple buildings that were just lost to history because of their unimpressiveness, and only the best bits were saved. I think it is more significant though than just survivor bias. No new construction seems to have the same level of exterior architectural detail we once saw.

For all the attention to detail paid to computer design, where has the real architecture gone? I am not a huge fan of Victorian frills. Bauhaus aesthetics were a response, simplifying the ornate form without function, but seemed far more skilled than what we get now. Why did detail (not frills, but details) never recover. Notably, the cornice disappeared with masonry. Whatever we call late 20th century and early 21st century architectural styles,  future decades will not appreciate the way we appreciate the surviving buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park

The Edge on Oak Street

The Edge on Oak Street

Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp

Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp

Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory

Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory


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17 Responses to Where Have All the Masons Gone?

  1. Julia September 28, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    At first I thought this article was going to be about the Masons temple over on Franklin and Dupont, which seems to be a deadweight of an urban structure–never used, no street level interest, no people going in or out. For decades.

    But this is just as interesting–I like that building design changes over time, but I do wish that designers (architects) were more willing to play around again with details on their structures, whether through masonry or choices in materials. Architectural interest, which older buildings tend to do much better at (but there’s no reason newer buildings can’t!), is a boon to a walkable city, providing interest and beauty for those moving more slowly.

    My prescription would be to avoid giving power to those who spend their transit time driving. What makes for an aesthetically pleasing building to zip by at 20, 30, 40 MPH is much less than what makes a building that is beautiful and well-designed while strolling past and/or (gasp!) entering from the street.

    • Casey September 28, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

      Julia, the Scottish Rite temple is used regularly and is an active org. Just drive by some Thursday evening and you can see how busy it is.

      • Julia September 29, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

        I don’t drive, but I’ve walked by the Scottish Rite temple regularly all times of day and night for decades. I grew up a few blocks from there (still live nearby) and I lived across the street from it for four years. Aside from bagpipe practice in the parking lot maybe once a month in the summer, I never see people who appear to be associated with it anywhere nearby, nor have I ever met someone associated with it. Functionally, it seems like a dead zone/abandoned building (albeit an architecturally interesting and maintained one). I did once see it open, for a garage sale, about seven years ago.

        It’s very unlike the many other religious institutions in the neighborhood where I see people going in and out and milling about on holy days, tours offered, lectures that are open to the public, photos being taken, outreach and interfaith work, serving as polling places, renting space to day cares and schools, etc.

        • Janne Flisrand
          Janne September 30, 2015 at 8:24 am #

          As someone who has lived less than a block away from that building for 19 years, I’m sorry to report the bagpipers have disappeared.

          Casey, the parking lot is full of masonic cars once a week, but having watched that building for 19 years, I’d agree with Julia. I never see anyone coming and going from that building, and I’ll add from personal experience, they’re sometimes actively hostile to their neighbors.

      • Nick M September 30, 2015 at 11:44 am #

        I live down the street from the Scottish Rite Temple and people do go in and out but only through the entrance in the giant parking lot. In three years of living there I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone use the main door on Franklin, although people do sit on the steps to enjoy their Sebastian Joe’s during the summer.

        I use the NiceRide station down the street from the entrance to the Scottish Rite Temple parking lot and probably three of my last ten frustrating experiences with drivers being idiots have been “conflicts” with people going into, out of, lining up to enter the Scottish Rite Temple parking lot. Two were on bikes, one was on foot walking down Dupont to the station. For bigger events there it seems like there is usually an off-duty law officer controlling who gets into the lot but the various police don’t really seem to do anything besides not let people in who lack the right credentials or something. They certainly don’t manage traffic or keep the people pulling into the lot from very casually almost hitting people walking down the sidewalk.

  2. Peter Bajurny September 28, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

    I also appreciate someone asking the question without framing it around greedy developers in the present vs saintly philanthropic master builders of the past. Because I think this is an important question to ask, but nobody seems to really want to engage with it beyond “greed” vs “altruism”

    • Rich Passmore September 28, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

      While I agree, it would be nice to think there is some reason other than financial, isn’t that the primary driver? Tax law, lender’s financing standards, and a desire for competitive lease rates all drive developers to put up a decent enough looking building at a low cost. Unless it’s a corporate owner doing a vanity project, chances are it will be built to a price point. Details cost money.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini September 28, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

        Right. But is that because rising wages over time have shifted the cost structure and which details “make the cut” for a development today vs 1910? Or is it because developers today are receiving higher gross profits at the expense of a more beautiful (or at least detailed) public realm?

        I think we would be pretty appalled today if construction workers & material supply employees endured the workplace safety standards, hours, benefits, and pay of the turn of the century (and, environmental regulations).

        *** Note: This isn’t the whole story of why we don’t see as detailed buildings today. But I bet it plays a large part.

    • Joe Scott
      Joe Scott September 28, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

      I addressed this from some other angles in this article: http://streets.mn/2015/04/25/on-ugly-buildings/

      I think if we’re talking specifically about the level of detail and ornament, one of the main culprits is profit (or cost of construction) combined with social norms. It’s more acceptable to build a relatively unadorned building today, and also cheaper, so that’s what developers do. Has nothing to do with the altruism of prior developers, just their responsiveness to what is socially acceptable.

      • Janne Flisrand
        Janne September 30, 2015 at 8:26 am #

        I’d be interested in seeing some analysis of the % of construction costs that were labor vs materials in the era when we had masonry detail and today. Certainly, labor costs have gone up over the last century (thankfully), and materials costs have gone down (unfortunately for our changing climate). I’m very curious to what degree, though.

  3. Faith September 28, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    The building under construction at 40th & Lyndale actually uses real brick with really nice brick detailing. It looks so much better than the stick-on brick. It makes me wonder where they found the masons….

  4. Ben Franske September 28, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    Fundamentally, I think that it’s a cost/value tradeoff that has shifted. On a more nuanced level think about the materials being used today (often due to cost advantage). If you’re paying masons to brick an entire building front it doesn’t really cost much extra (even today) to have them pull a few bricks further out to create a design but we build fewer buildings like that where it’s easy to incorporate small design elements on the site on the fly. The materials and processes we typically use for skinning buildings today require that design features are usually planned well in advance and manufactured off site or out of additional materials, etc. which can substantially increase cost.

    Another thing is that a lot of those architectural features like cornices, gargoyles, etc. were for some practical purpose which is no longer needed because other building systems handle removing more water from the building or whatever and thus they truly shift from practical to design feature only which is much harder to sell to backers.

  5. Matt Steele September 28, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

    Everyone needs to be familiar with the work of Clay Chapman and Hope For Architecture.

    Seriously amazing work. Brick by brick.

  6. John from Minneapolis September 29, 2015 at 10:16 am #

    Thanks for addressing an issue that I’ve thought about many times. MANY times! I do bemoan the loss of architectural and design detail. It’s particularly prevalent in public buildings. Look at any courthouse, city hall or post office from the prewar era — there’s usually a sense of grandeur, a strong visual message that we value this place. Sconces, elevator doors, inlaid floors, high ceilings, grand stairways, woodwork — all these things combine to announce that this is a special place.

    On masonry alone, the Mpls. Armory is a great example of either Art Deco or Streamline Moderne — not sure which you’d classify it as. But it displays that very interesting approach where the curved exterior lines of the building were formed in masses of brickwork. There’s not a straight-edge corner on the place. And I’m not talking about the giant curved roof — I’m talking about the exterior planes. It makes the whole surface of the building seem to flow. Nobody would do that today.

  7. helsinki September 29, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    I would blame Adolf Loos, author of “Ornament and Crime”. The man popularized the idea with architects that architectural detailing was indicative of a degenerate immorality (he was mainly reacting against the pastiche of neo-this, neo-that on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, viewing it as vulgar fakery). The Bauhaus wholly embraced this ethos, and after the war the Bauhaus (and modernism in general) were given a new, probably undeserved, lease on life because of their supposed ideological opposition to fascism. As a result, the whole post-war period struggled with this weird hatred of ornament. Postmodernism and our current phase of crap starchitecture and/or balance sheet driven design have never articulated a way out of this intellectual trap. Because it was unfashionable, the skilled craft trades themselves that supplied such ornament went extinct – apprenticeships went unfilled and the knowledge was essentially lost. Now, because it’s prohibitively expensive, such detailing is relegated to historic renovation projects. That’s my theory, at least.

  8. Adam Yust
    Adam September 29, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    There are still some stone structure in the Twin Cities built by masons like Jacob Amos and Christian Rhinehardt.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Weber_House

  9. David Markle
    David Markle September 29, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

    Who among us would disagree with the good professor? The issue does seem to be a a common lack of interest in aesthetic architectural values–remember, the ancient Greeks counted architecture as one of the fine arts–not merely constraints of dollars and cents. Urban renewal of the 1960’s stands as an obvious indicator of unconcern for aesthetics in its widespread destruction of interesting and worthwhile older buildings: remember the Metropolitan Building?

    On one visit to the wonderful Louis Sullivan-designed bank in Owatonna–surely one of the most worthwhile sights in the state–the receptionist asked where we came from., When we responded,”Minneapolis,” she remarked, “Oh, if this building had been in Minneapolis it would have gotten torn down!” I urge interested readers, be sure to go there during business hours in order to view the interior. A wider public appreciation of such buildings as this one that Cesar Pelli termed, “One of the finest examples of anything by anyone anywhere,” might lead to greater demand for fine architecture.