The Southern Architect

Architecture, Materials

A Soft Spot For the Soft Red

The New Orleans soft red – you would be forgiven for thinking a soft red might refer to a species of Gulf seafood or a rich creole dish for which the city is famous. But no, it’s even better. The New Orleans soft red is a brick and it’s more sought after and cherished than even the most expensive and delectable Gulf seafood.

If you’ve ever built anything with brick, you know there is no such thing as a “brick.” It’s like saying you painted your walls a color. There are more types of brick than I can begin to count – and frankly, more than I care to count. Besides, when all is said and done, the one brick that sets itself apart is the New Orleans soft red.

Antique soft reds give a new home history. It’s not just a connection to the past, it’s a beautiful, rare, and yes expensive connection to a time gone by when craftsmanship was emphasized in everything – even in the making one brick at a time. You can see thumb prints in the bricks, the maker’s name and sometimes a date. You can see the curves and soft edges created by a craftsman’s hand. Each brick is unique, with its own DNA, it’s own imperfections and it’s own beauty. They better resemble a small loaf of bread than a brick in their dimensions. The color is more akin to sushi-grade tuna than the pale colors of modern bricks. They feel different, look different and even smell different. They have a story to tell.

What specifically makes a soft red so valuable? First of all, they don’t make them anymore so they are a finite resource. The only way any of us get them is when an old warehouse or church or other building with soft reds is torn down. Then the feeding frenzy begins. There are those, particularly in this economy, who advise investing your money in gold. I’d advise soft reds.

Secondly, nobody would choose to make soft reds if they didn’t have to. Why? Well, soft reds are made a very poor quality clay that is native to New Orleans. The dried clay is crumbly, not particularly structurally sound and well…soft. These aren’t usually characteristics people look for in bricks. To accommodate these conditions, builders protected the bricks with either stucco or a render of lime – which worked great, but required an extra step nobody in their right mind would voluntarily take.

But the results of this process created a brick so beautiful, so unique and so quintessentially New Orleans, they are among the world’s most desired bricks.

As it so happens, they’re also my favorite. But I’m not the only one. If a supplier gets a lead on a batch of soft reds, do not have the misfortune of standing in their way. They will mow you down without ever noticing you were ever there. When these guys drive by old run-down buildings, they don’t see a dilapidated building – they see beautiful antique bricks that could have a chance at a second life on a stunning home. I see history and a tangible way to ground our designs and our homes to a time and place long since passed.

To be sure, there are soft reds that were made elsewhere, and other great antique bricks. But this brick speaks to the heartiness of our people, our willingness and ability to adapt and our passion for unique beauty in our buildings and homes. The New Orleans soft red is not just a brick – it’s our history – an architectural, cultural and economic history of the deep South of Louisiana. And, as it so happens, it’s beautiful.

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