Old-school bricks making a comeback?

Will Seventh Avenue through Ybor City get repaved with historic bricks like these? [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Will Seventh Avenue through Ybor City get repaved with historic bricks like these? [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published July 9, 2019

One of the best things about Tampa has to be its old bricks. But can a city get back what it so blithely gave away?

A little history: Streets laid more than a century ago with weighty red bricks stamped with their company names still wind through neighborhoods from Hyde Park to Seminole Heights. Even where the old roads were asphalted over decades ago, you still see rows of brick peeking through where that asphalt needs patching.

I come from Miami, a town that, at least in the parts where I lived, appeared to be largely brickless. So there's something really interesting in these Tampa streets, in the old brick cigar factories and those tawny blond-brick buildings you still see here and there.

Tampa History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell says some of downtown's original brick buildings eventually got stuccoed over and you wouldn't know what was under there. He spotted one under renovation the other day, showing off its solid brick bones. Here and in other older Florida towns, bricks breathe history and perseverance.

But in the 1960s, in the name of what was newer, easier and smoother, Tampa pulled up brick streets or paved them over.

The city gave away the old bricks, and people built charming garden paths and driveways in red brick stamped "Augusta block," among other names. Twenty years ago, the city of Winter Park paid Tampa a whopping 30 cents each for 130,000 bricks. (Sounds like Winter Park saw Tampa coming.)

What was old becomes new, or at least trendy, or just appreciated again. There's long been talk of re-bricking a one-mile stretch of Seventh Avenue, the funky main drag of clubs, businesses and restaurants through Ybor City.

"I think there is an appreciation of historic resources more, whether it be buildings or streets," says Dennis Fernandez, Tampa's historic preservation officer. "We see things differently than we did."

But when they checked availability of vintage Augusta block, they hit a brick wall, as Courtney Orr, manager of the Ybor City Development Corp. handling the project put it. The city has a stash, but that's to maintain the existing 41 miles of brick streets. Brick from old buildings isn't dense enough to handle cars, and pretty much nobody likes the idea of using new bricks. Options include bricking a few blocks, but it's looking like, excuse the expression, a long, hard road.

A funny thing happened after the Tampa Bay Times' Paul Guzzo chronicled the conundrum. Calls and emails started coming to officials: I have a driveway if you'll haul it away. I could sell you some bricks. You could have this brick path..

"If we thought there were no Augusta bricks that existed," Orr said, "there are."

Even a family member from the old Augusta block company called about making new bricks with the old trademark. And it turns out that other old brick out there, like Copeland and Baltimore, might work, too.

There's miles to go before the first brick could again be laid on Seventh Avenue. But what a Tampa tale, bricks lost and found, paved over and forgotten, given away and appreciated all over again.

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