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Things Fall Apart

The crumbling future of Buffalo’s brick buildings

The venerable old brick buildings of Buffalo’s yesteryear are set to collapse. The writing’s on the wall. Or at least it was, before all the walls started crumbling.

Collapse at the White Bros. livery stable on Jersy St.

Take the old White Bros. livery stable at 430 Jersey Street. This past Monday, April 7, Peggy Farrell stepped out the back door of her house to hang her laundry, when suddenly bricks started falling around her. You see, Farrell lives on the cottage end of Summer Street, in the shadow of that lovely, hulking 1800s brick structure. Its walls, which are attractively covered with a lush carpet of ivy throughout the summer, are crumbling. All told 118 bricks fell from the northwest and southwest walls Monday, loosing a huge piece of gutter, which subsequently fell into a neighboring yard on Jersey Street. Unless it is shored up soon, an avalanche of bricks will fall, causing serious structural problems for the rest of the building.

The livery stable is only latest symptom of a growing problem for brick structures in the city. In the past three months, four more bricks buildings have been so damaged that they literally began to fall apart. First it was McBride’s Irish Pub on Chicago Street in the First Ward. The late-1800s building was damaged in a couple of January windstorms, the second of which caused the front wall of the entire second floor to dramatically cave in. That prompted a demolition call by city officials, and it came down last month.

Second was the Karpeles Manuscript Museum at North Street and Elmwood Avenue. On February 17, a 100-by-six-foot section of that building’s upper facade collapsed onto Elmwood Avenue. Police subsequently closed down the street for about 12 hours.

Eight days later, another Allentown building had a major brick wall collapse. The building at 260 Allen Street that houses Pawprints by Penny, a pet-grooming and daycare business, and which is located where Allen Street bends and becomes Wadsworth, lost a 15-by-six-foot section of brick facade.

Then, on March 30, the city closed down the right lane of Goodell Street out of concern over loose bricks on a parapet at the top of the Trico Building’s south-facing wall. Repairs to that building, which have just begun, will cost between $250,000 and $300,000.

While nobody was injured in any of these cases, it would seem that we’re looking at a worrying trend for brick structures. So, walls aside, what gives?

It all comes down to masonry and weather. Over time—40 to 60 years, say—the bond between bricks and the lyme-based mortar that holds them together breaks down, allowing water to penetrate the wall. Every time it freezes outside, then, the water expands into ice, slowly tearing the bricks apart. This winter, however, we had an odd cycle of freezing and thawing weather. It would rain over the weekend, then drop into the teens for a week-long blast from Old Man Winter. And it happened over and over again, maybe a dozen times. That’s like aging a building 12 years over the course of one winter.

According to Ken Keller of Freedom Restoration, a specialist of sorts in masonry, says that there are two reasons the bricks are coming down around Buffalo. “Two reasons: people haven’t put in what they should, and this winter we’ve had a terrible freeze-thaw cycle. A lot of freezing, a lot of rain. And it just got into the brickwork and ripped the hell out of it.” Add to that the wind, which knocked the loose bricks down. There were 58 days with 30 miles per hour winds or better this winter, and several days where gusts exceeded 60 miles per hour.

Keller says that brick walls can fall apart in much less time if they’re not built and maintained with due diligence. The section of wall that collapsed on the Karpeles, for instance, was only built nine years ago. Without proper tie-backs—header brick or steel wall ties—attaching the bricks to the backing wall, it was easily ravaged by this winter’s freakish weather.

From now on, when considering our crumbling brick-and-mortar buildings, perhaps we’ll have to call it “demolition by neglect…and global warming-induced freakish weather.”

—peter koch

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