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Step onto the past: new website explores our cities' historic streets and roadways

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Historic Pavement examines the vast array of bricks and stones lining American urban history

A historic vitrified brick street in Wilmette, Illinois.
A historic vitrified brick street in Wilmette, Illinois.
All images by Robin Williams/Historic Pavement

If you live in an older city, especially one on the East Coast, you might walk over them everyday without paying much attention. The flagstones, cobblestones, and bricks that make up historic urban streets bestow an earthly charm on any neighborhood. But according to an architectural historian studying the progression of pavement throughout the United States, and compiling it as part of a comprehensive website, these bricks and stones symbolize nothing less than the growth of the modern city.

"As cities industrialized and the population increased, they struggled to accommodate the tens of thousands of people who moved in," says Robin Williams, Chair of Architectural History at the Savannah College of Art and Design. "Pavement became one of the foundation stones of a healthy modern environment."

Street One
Left: Wooden alley in Chicago. Right: Scoria, or iron slag, on Waverly Street in Philadelphia

Williams’ interest was initially sparked by an odd shape he kept noticing in the pavement in the idyllic downtown of his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. He wrote a paper about the city’s historic streets for a local history conference a few years ago—the black triangle of asphalt blocks was designed to keep the street parallel with turning wagon wheels—and has been pouring over the topic ever since, leading to a notes, research, and photos he’s collecting on a new website, Historic Pavement, a dry run for a potential book on the subject. Covering roadways built between roughly 1850-1920, the ongoing project investigates the period when the modern city was built.

Taking an encyclopedic approach, the site chronicles and collects different types of pavement, bricks, curbs, and sidewalks, as well as city maps tracing the location of historic pavement. While some may think that if you’ve seen one brick, you’ve seen them all, there are intense regional variations on display, from blue-gray, all-iron scoria bricks on Philadelphia streets to the flecked, ochre lanes of chipseal found in St. Louis. Coastal cities had cobblestones, for instance, since they were initially used as ballast for ships.

"Today, there’s all this focus on locally made, local cuisine," says Williams. "Pavement during that period was intensely local."

Historic Pavement
Left: Belgian blocks and granite in Minneapolis: Right, cobblestones at Abercorn Ramp in Savannah, Georgia

Before roadways became standardized with the adoption of asphalt, national highways, and federal road guidelines in the early 20th century, these varied forms of brick and stone paving represented modernity, replacing an early urban reality of muddy roads, dusty streets, and inefficient transportation systems. Now seen as quaint additions to the streetscape, these bricks and stones once represented the cutting-edge of transportation tech.

"Today, with rubber tired vehicles, the engines are louder than wheels hitting the pavement, and driving is white noise," says WIlliams. "But back then, people got angry about the noise pollution. I’ve found court cases dealing with the sound of horse hoofs hitting brick pavement."

Toronto street map
A 1909 map of different paving types used in Toronto.