Block it

Mock School

Last year I had the opportunity to work with a small group called the "High Neighbors Society" near Syracuse, Indiana to list a one-room schoolhouse on the National Register of Historic Places. The unique aspect of the schoolhouse is that it was constructed entirely out of molded concrete block. This led to some research on the invention and use of molded concrete block.

Did you know that the first concrete block was made in the United States in 1890? It was considerably larger than what we recognize as concrete block today. They were 8" x 10" x 30" long.....double the length of what we use now and difficult for guys to handle and lay in place. The block size became standardized to the same dimensions we use today and by 1905 over 1500 companies were manufacturing molded concrete block. It's selling point? Economic and fire-proof. Sears & Roebuck's portable mold made their use of block most prolific, along with their sell of plans and home packages. Styles of block ranged from "panel face" which has a flat face with cut edges forming a "panel" to rock face which has a rusticated surface. Other styles include chiseled, pebble, and designs to create chevrons or scored to create patterns.

There were four large concrete block producers in Indiana: Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of Auburn, Goodwin Cement Block Co. of Indianapolis, Ideal Concrete Machinery Co. of South Bend, and Pettyjohn Co. of Terre Haute. But with the Sears & Roebuck mold, a guy could produce 10 blocks per hour out of his garage. The demand for cement saw the expansion of producers, particularly the Portland Cement Company.....which takes us back to Syracuse.

Grace Lutheran

In 1898 the Sandusky Portland Cement Company opened a plant in Syracuse, Indiana, removing marl from Lake Wawasee and turning it to cement. The rumor was that the Mock School (named for the farming family who owned the land) had been built with cement block made from the marl taken from Lake Wawasee. It was unusual to have public buildings constructed from molded block, so I thought the claim may be valid. I looked for a preponderance of other block structures in the area and there were a few. Of particular note was Grace Lutheran Church of Syracuse, built in 1904, which shows incredible skill in construction execution using molded block. While I couldn't prove the rumor true or false, there certainly is high probability.

Block house in North Webster

I've had limited exposure to molded concrete block. I had been told that Berrien Springs, Michigan was a test-site for the use of the block and it is true that it is found in significant quantity in a wide variety of styles on homes. I have taken note of other churches made out the block since working in Syracuse, but most are smaller and have also been painted. The beauty in the molded block is the soft patina the aged block has, but too often the surfaces are painted. Probably due to the fact that they were so commonly used for foundations and front porches where staining was likely to occur or people wanted a bright look to welcome guests on their porches.

When we bought the farm a small garage came with it, built about 1920 out of panel face molded concrete block. It remains unpainted but settling has put a crack on each side wall from top to bottom....more than caulk can cure. But I look forward to taking care of this little piece of history too.


jimgrey said…
Makes me think of the concrete-block house on the MR in Rochester.

Not the most esthetically pleasing building material, but now I can see why it was attractive for builders.
vanilla said…
Enjoyed the history of block in Indiana. Paid a good bit of my way through school carrying hod and laying block. Later handled 1000s of new block at Spickelmeier in Indy. Memories!
Kelley Klausing said…
I know it's been a while since this post but we wanted to spread the word about our company up in Ft. Wayne, In. We manufacture these block again. Check us out and spread the word.

hoosier reborn said…
Thanks Kelley-this is good information to have for the friends in my preservation community.

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