Patterned brickwork is the delineation of designs – geometric, dates, and initials – by a mason using darkened “vitrified” bricks against a background of ordinary red brick. New Jersey (and especially South Jersey), which hosts approximately 95% of the examples, is the principal location of patterned brickwork in the United States. The tradition lasted for about 150 years, from circa 1680 to circa 1830, and resulted in almost four hundred examples.
The art of patterned brickwork is believed to have been brought to the Delaware Valley by English masons in the seventeenth century; and the first example is believed to have been the hexagonal 1681 Friends Meetinghouse in Burlington (demolished circa 1790). Throughout its period of popularity, patterned brickwork remained a primarily Quaker form of expression. Patterned brickwork grew gradually in popularity and prevalence until it reached a peak starting in the 1720s and continuing through the third quarter of the 18th century; but, it was completely out of fashion by the 1830s. The execution of patterning added significantly to the cost of a structure; and even at its height, was included on only a small percentage of brick houses.
Salem County (which until 1748 encompassed what is now Cumberland County) and Burlington County were the two centers for patterned brickwork in New Jersey. Gloucester County, which then included present Camden County, produced less than half as many examples as Salem County. Mercer and southwest Monmouth County boast a small number of patterned brickwork houses, with a handful of outliers in locations such as Atlantic, Middlesex, Morris, and Union Counties.
Today, most remaining examples of patterned brickwork are privately-owned houses with exceptions: the William Hancock House in Salem County and the James and Ann Whitall House in Gloucester County are owned by the State of New Jersey; the Ezekiel Wright House at Smithville, by Burlington County; the Old Schoolhouse in Mt. Holly, by the Society of the Colonial Dames of America; the William Trent House, by the City of Trenton; the Joseph Brearley House, by Lawrence Township (Mercer County); and the Isaac Pearson House, by Hamilton Township. Five county historical societies own and/or occupy patterned brickwork houses.
The gradual attrition of patterned brickwork houses, and the endangerment of those remaining, exemplify the general forces at work in New Jersey that threaten and destroy historic properties. In 2017, two examples were lost when the Hugg-Harrison-Glover House (on the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites list in 2016) was demolished by the NJ Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Samuel Tyler House was demolished at the direction of the City of Salem because it was vacant. Currently, the Abel Nicholson House, a National Historic Landmark in Lower Alloways Creek, Salem County, is threatened by rising water levels and by a lack of funding for maintenance.
There is no overt opposition to the preservation of patterned brickwork buildings; the threat is apathy, lack of appreciation, and lack of funding. The specific risk each building faces, from rising sea levels to development pressures, will require an innovative solution. However, PNJ believes education to promote awareness of the significance of patterned brickwork to New Jersey’s architectural heritage will allow threatened buildings to be recognized and threats mitigated before more examples are lost. This listing on the 10 Most coincides with the completion of the National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form for patterned brickwork houses by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office – and these two events together should act to promote public awareness and appreciation.
Penny Watson, AIA
Watson & Henry Associates