Not when it's an Eno Brick
By James W. Griswold
Former Treasurer of Philips Exeter Academy
What is an Eno brick? Eno bricks were made in Exeter between 1890 and 1960 at a brickyard located on the Kingston Road at the southwest edge of town. Most of the Academy buildings built during this period used Eno bricks. They were used in the rebuilding of Dunbar Hall after its fire in 1911 and for the Main Academy Building after its fire in 1914. They were in all the Harkness buildings added during the early 1930s and in the Lewis Perry Music building in 1960.
Eno bricks were specified for many well-known buildings throughout the eastern United States, such as Quincy House and the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard, the Academy Chapel and the Science Building at Andover, the Graylock Residential House at Williams College, the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the very choice and inspirational chapel at MIT, designed by the eminent architect Eero Saarinen.
I first learned about Eno brick from my son-in-law, who learned about them at his Harvard School of Design classes. As treasurer of the Academy, I learned about them when I took the students of my minor course in business to see actual operating businesses. We went to a General Electric plant in Somersworth, New Hampshire, to see domestic meters being built; we went to the Wise Shoe Company in Exeter to see women's shoes being made; and we went to the Eno brickyard to see a kiln firing.
In 1966 the brickyard was closed because high labor costs for their handmade process made it difficult to compete with more mechanized yards. Paul Eno, the grandson of the founder, proposed that the Academy buy the remaining inventory of two million bricks. At that time, although there were no definite plans for new buildings, we realized that a significant part of the cost of building bricks was their freight cost, so a supply of very high quality bricks in our own back yard was something to consider carefully. They were bought at a wholesale price of about 7 cents a brick and stockpiled in the area behind the Maintenance Building. (In wholesale quantities now they would cost about 35 cents to 40 cents each.) Soon after that, architect Louis Kahn chose to use most of them for the new Academy Library and the Elm Street Dining Hall.
An Eno brick has its own very special character. It is quite irregular in its many shades of read and sometimes in its finish and shape because each brick was handmade. This process of making bricks (not very different from that used by the Egyptians 4,000 years ago) began in the early summer when the clay was dug out of the ground. The clay was then mixed with water to the right consistency, molded into the brick form, and put out in the sun to dry. A "wet" brick weighed about 8 pounds and a "dry" brick about 5 1/2 pounds.
While the firing was going on, it was a strange and beautiful sight to drive by at night on Kingston Road to see the red glow that hovered over the top of these enormous brick walls. It was on a snowy night that my business class visited the brickyard and watched the firing process and shared coffee and donuts with the men tending the fires. We didn't know then that we were witnessing the end of an era.
To appreciate now the special quality of the bricks, look at the walls of the Library from a distance. First you will see only one color, red. Then when you look more carefully you will see that the wall is really a tapestry of shades of red mixed even with black. Every brick is different. As you move closer you can pick out the irregularities of color and size of each brick caused by how and where it was located in the kiln during firing. Some, too close to the fire, were actually melted and distorted.
In most building construction before 1940, these distorted bricks, called "culls," were discarded, but more recently architects deliberately have specified that they be used. You will find no distortions in the Academy Building and Dunbar Hall and you will find moderate distortions in the Academy Library outside wall placed there to enhance the texture. Extreme distortions can be seen in the Saltonstall Clinic building next to the Exeter Hospital. Also, you will see that some bricks have a range of colors within a single brick that show how that brick rested on the one beside it in the kiln.
So the next time you pass a brick building, inspect it carefully.
It may speak to you.