First in a two-part series. Read part two here.
LINCOLN SQUARE — Take a stroll around Chicago with Will Quam and he’ll show you things you’d never noticed before, like all the soldiers and sailors hiding in plain sight.
“Soldier” and “sailor” are bricklaying terms, it should be said. Quam, it turns out, is fluent in the language of masonry.
The 28-year-old Minnesota native, who now lives in Lincoln Square, is the guy behind the popular Instagram account @brickofchicago, which showcases a heretofore underappreciated aspect of the city’s otherwise celebrated architecture.
Quam, a theater teacher by profession, is passionate about bricks the way other folks care about the Bears or Beyonce. The fascination could be partly attributed to exposure to architecture as a child: John Entenza, largely credited for the growth of American modernism, adopted Quam’s grandfather and figured in family lore. But the obsession really only blossomed once Quam arrived in Chicago and took the time to stop and stare.
Shortly after moving to the city in the summer of 2014, Quam stumbled across a copy of Alexandra Horowitz’ “On Looking,” in which the author repeats the same walk around her neighborhood with different people — from an urban bug expert to a physical therapist to a sound designer — in the spirit of experiencing familiar sights through unfamiliar eyes.
The book inspired Quam to put down his phone while out and about in the city.
“I tried to start paying a little closer attention to the world around me and I started noticing the repetitive architectural forms in Chicago, like the courtyard apartment or the two-flat or the six-flat, the workers cottage. And I noticed it was the brick or the masonry that often gave it its individuality,” said Quam.
He cited a stretch of Leland Avenue, near the heart of the Square, as an example: “It’s a whole block of two-flats on both sides. Some of them are greystones with Indiana limestone — some of it’s smooth, some of it’s rusticated — and a bunch of them are brick. The designs and the colors and the textures are all different, and that’s the amazing thing.”
Quam came to view bricks not as pedestrian, utilitarian building blocks but as brushstrokes adding up to an artistic whole. With the zeal of the newly converted, he was eager to spread the word about the beauty of the city’s brickwork and used social media, specifically Instagram, as his pulpit.
“I started posting photos and people started asking questions. I guess I hit on something that people were ready to get into,” Quam said. “Chicago is an architecture town. People are primed to love architecture here.”
To satisfy his own curiosity and that of his Instagram followers, Quam began researching bricks. Wikipedia was the gateway that lured him further down the rabbit hole, leading to trade articles, enthusiasts’ sites, academic tomes and his personal favorite: “Brick,” by James Campbell and Will Pryce.
“That’s the book everyone should read. It’s an incredible history of brick, incredible as well in that they have amazing photos of everything they’re talking about,” Quam said.
Having done his homework, Quam can now readily identify various bricklaying formations, called “bonds;” explain the methods used to create different effects on bricks, such as scratching; and offer informed opinions on mortar and the evils of unregulated repointing operations (not to be confused with tuck pointing).
“I’ve never laid brick, I’ve never made brick [though he has toured a brick plant], but I’m more and more dropping the ‘amateur’ when it comes to being a brick expert,” Quam said.
He’s also more willing these days to consider himself a visual artist, having essentially taught himself photography by studying the work of others and by wearing out his used copy of “Architectural Photography.”
What started out for Quam as an exercise in, pardon the new-agey language, mindfulness has continued to expand in ways he couldn’t have envisioned.
During his exploration of all things brick, Quam realized there was no central repository for the sort of information he found most helpful. So he created one, a website companion to @brickofchicago.
Then in 2018, with prodding from pal Patti Swanson, who runs the Chicago for Chicagoan tours, Quam decided to go a step further and trade the anonymity of the internet for face-to-face interaction with his growing community of brick lovers.
He started up a series of neighborhood brick tours — one part architecture walk, one part history lesson — guiding groups through Pulaksi Park/Noble Square, Rogers Park and West Loop/Fulton Market. When the tours return in spring 2020, Quam plans to add Edgewater, McKinley Park and Hyde Park to the mix.
“It’s just me. There’s no company, there’s no other guides. I’m just a guy who’s done all the research and designed the tour, so they get to be very conversational tours, which is great,” Quam said.
“I get to share my excitement live with people. As opposed to showing them photographs, I get to show them the whole building, which, there are a lot of buildings I’ve struggled to capture in a picture,” he continued. “You really just have to see it, and touch it. I’m constantly telling people to touch the building.”
Quam often gathers material for the tours — and his Instagram feed — in conjunction with his teaching assignments, which take him to schools across the city. He brings along his Canon, having long since graduated from using the camera on his phone, and, once class lets out, wanders the neighborhood.
“Usually if I’m going to an area I’ve never been before, I’ll have a building that I know I want to go check out. I take a bunch of pictures of the thing I wanted to see and then I just set off in a direction and see what I see. Then I gather all my photos and do research on the buildings that I’ve photographed,” Quam said.
A quirky raised brick pattern on a building in McKinley Park, for example, recently caught Quam’s eye and tested his sleuthing skills. With the word “Acme” his only clue, Quam combed through Secretary of State records from the year 1931 — “There were six pages of ‘Acmes'” — until he landed on the Acme Sausage Co., 3718 S. Ashland Ave.
These fragments of the city’s past will eventually make their way onto @BrickofChicago, where Quam is in many ways constructing the story of Chicago.
“I feel like the luckiest man alive because I get to spend my days teaching people about theater and teaching people about brick,” he said.
Along with sparking renewed appreciation for brick, Quam hopes to encourage others to experience their own “On Looking” epiphany.
“I picked brick as the thing to really focus deep in on and dive headfirst into and try to get other people excited about. But the world is full of things that you can pick,” he said. “You can choose anything and discover this whole culture around it and the way it impacts your life, that you had no idea of.”
*”Soldiers” are bricks laid upright, using the long narrow side; “sailors” are bricks laid upright, using the broad flat face (click here for images).
Chicago’s Greatest Brick Hits
We asked Will Quam to share some of his favorite uses of brick in Chicago.
St. Paul Catholic Church, Pilsen
Schurz High School, Old Irving Park
Two-flat, Brighton Park
Courtyard apartment building, Uptown
New construction, Fulton Market, 217-19 N. Green St.
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