Lost buildings of Howard University… because of bad bricks?

If you’ve been in the city more than two days you most likely have perspective enough to have seen something come and go. That’s how it is. But for historians of the city who specialize in the “built environment” they can tell you Monday morning straight through to Sunday night about all of the buildings that have been lost, and these are just the buildings of recent decades.

According to 1996’s The Long Walk: The Placemaking Legacy of Howard University many of the campus’ original buildings are no more which would be expected for any institution as old as Howard, the city’s third university.

But (with help from a LOC reference librarian) discovering a March 1869 article from Harper’s Weekly provides an explanation for disappearing buildings we haven’t heard before: bad bricks.


Full text:


The history of Howard University, of which we give an illustration on this page, enforces an important moral in connection with the construction of public buildings. The numerous accidents which have happened in the country from the recklessness of speculative builders – among which, as being the most disastrous, the falling of the Lawrence Mills, over ten years ago, stands out most prominently – ought ere this to have taught there terrible lesson. In connection with the Howard University we do not purpose to denounce any thing or any body, but only to state a few facts.

For some years past an attempt has been made to bring into use for building purposes a patent composite block which should displace a common brick. A company was organized in New York city; the manufacture of the new block was commenced on a large scale; a large number of edifices were constructed from it in various parts of the country; and patent rights were sold for different geographical sections. Indestructibility, beauty of color and texture, and cheapness were claimed for the new invention. General Howard and other gentlemen organized a company in Washington, purchasing the patent right for $10,000. Thus it happened that when the Howard University for the education of colored youth was set on foot a hundred and fifty acres were bought north of the Capitol, and it was determined to build the edifice, as also the private structures upon the grounds, of the new material. It is asserted that $300,000 of public money has been used in forwarding this enterprise. The blocks were constructed from sand taken from the grounds, mixed with lime.

The result has been a failure. The material does not answer its purpose. Portions of the buildings constructed have crumbled, and none of them are considered safe. It may be that the blocks were not properly manufactured, or that they were too hastily used; but certainly, as manufactured and used in this case, they have proved unsatisfactory and useless. Our illustration shows a pile of these blocks in the foreground.

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