posted on November 18, 2011 00:00
If someone was to tell you that a documentary about bricks could be interesting, most people would not believe it. But with Brick by Chance and Fortune: A St. Louis Story, filmmaker Bill Streeter does just that. He has made a compelling film that tells the story about St. Louis’ tradition of brick architecture, the brick industry that thrived in the city, and efforts to preserve St. Louis’ architectural heritage currently threatened by decay and theft.
Featuring a cast of knowledgeable experts, the film chronicles the history of brick as the building material of choice starting before the Civil War. Since clay was an abundant resource, naturally brick would be practical to produce and use. The distinct clay is what contributed to the trademark red brick seen throughout the city of St. Louis. When the Fire of 1849 ravaged a good portion of the city, planners and officials decided brick would be primary building material, and thus St. Louis became a brick city. Soon, the brick of St. Louis became the envy of the country. The city’s location on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, as well as railroads, made it easy to get the product out and brick manufacturing became a key industry.
One of the highlights of the film is the interview with Bill Allen, the former president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company, formerly based in St. Louis and the largest producers of brick in the world at its peak. Their revolutionary techniques made for a denser, more durable brick. In fact, these bricks are what the Eads Bridge is made of, and what built up other cities in the country.
As the city entered the latter part of the 20th century, St. Louis was under the threat of urban decay, and with it, so was the city’s brick architecture. The brick is now a black market commodity, where thieves from around the country come to the city and salvage the brick. Fortunately, many of the great brick structures have been preserved, but others are unfortunately left in decay.
The film opened my eyes to many things I never knew about the history of St. Louis and its heritage as a brick city. According to Streeter, that was the raison d’être of his fascinating film, which screens this Sunday, November 20th at Plaza Frontenac as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. Recently, I was able to talk with Streeter about Brick by Chance and Fortune.
insideSTL: If you were to explain that the film was about brick, one could possibly wonder what could be so intriguing about it. Fortunately it is intriguing. What inspired you to make a documentary on the history of brick architecture and the brick industry in St. Louis?
Bill Streeter: Well, there were a numbers of things…I’m not from St. Louis originally. I moved here from Chicago about 10 years ago and I was immediately stuck by the architecture here. It was different than Chicago. Initially, I mean I guess a lot of people would see a lot of similarities – and there are a lot of similaries from Chicago – but I noticed there’s a lot more red brick here than what you would see in Chicago; a lot more intricate brickwork and a lot of different textures and colors and things.
And I heard early on people talk about how they used to make brick here and I didn’t really pay that much attention to it until a friend came to visit from California and he just was blown away by it. He kept saying over and over again “Man, why is there so much brick here? I really dig that brick! Even the little houses are made out of brick!” and was like “You know, I heard they made them here,” but that really got me going. I started thinking about why there is so much brick here and I started to do some research.
I was kind of looking for – I’ve done a lot of short documentaries with Lo-Fi St. Louis – and I wanted to do a feature length film. I wanted to do a longer film. So I was looking for a topic at the time and I started looking into this and I was like “This might make a decent documentary,” and then I started thinking about it a little bit more and I thought maybe it wasn’t such a great idea. I vacillated back and forth between thinking it was a good idea and wasn’t a good idea and then I said, “You know what? I made a movie about [a typeface]. I can make a movie about brick.”
So then I applied for a grant from U. City – the U. City CALOP grant – and they were happy to give me a grant and that’s how it all came about.
The film has a great panel of experts that are very knowledgeable about the tradition of brick architecture in St. Louis. Tell us how you assembled your panel.
There were a number a people that we know we wanted to talk initially and there’s a great preservation community here in St. Louis. A lot of really enthusiastic local activists. I was already familiar with some of them. You know, it’s not a big town and if you’re blogger or whatever - there’s a lot of a great architecture blogs and urban renewal blogs and stuff here – and I had already known some of these people just by virtue of the fact that were both known local bloggers. Me with Lo-Fi St. Louis and them with their urban architecture blogs.
So I initially asked those people and they suggested people and those people suggested people and we actually interviewed a few more people that actually didn’t make it into the film…And there were a few people we just sought out on our own [like state geologist Mimi Garstang]. I wanted to get somebody who could give us some information about the geology of the region so we would know specifically why there was so much clay. That was the question I kept thinking. “Why here? Why is there so much clay here?” So we got that answer from the geologist and we happened to find her online through a geology forum…and we just went on there asked [who we should talk to]…and they all suggested Mimi. The great thing about Mimi was she had actually worked specifically on a project involving the old clay mines when she was a state geologist. She had mapped all the old clay mines in the city of St. Louis for a project that she did back in the 80s. So she was actually not just only knowledgeable about Missouri geology but she had some very specific experience with St. Louis in particular. So that was a really good find…
One thing I like about the group of people we have is that they’re kind of eclectic. Each one of them has their own specific personalities. I think that really helps the storytelling. I think that helps to engage people with the story. It’s sort of what makes the story personal…
That was a challenge as a filmmaker. Here’s this topic. Can you make it engaging? Most people would look at this topic and say, “Why would you do that? Why make a movie about brick?” And part of it was the challenge of taking a film about a building material and making it human and engaging and being able to engage an audience emotionally with it. That was the challenge.
The film also makes good use out of archival photos and drawings, etcetera. Tell us about the process you went through to collect these items.
The problem we ran into was that there wasn’t really a lot of material. At least where we looked. There was possibly even more material that wasn’t available to us. One of the people that we interviewed in the film, Larry Giles who runs the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation, he actually has a large collection of materials. The problem is that they are without a permanent facility right now. So all the materials in their entire library is in storage and probably will be for the next year or two or until they can raise the money to finish their building. So that was huge source of material that we probably could have used but there was no way to get to it.
So we went to the Missouri Historical Society and we made an arrangement with them to give them an archive copy of the film in exchange for letting us use the material they had. We were looking for anything like streetscapes. They didn’t have a lot. They had maybe two photos of actually brick construction. They had a little of the clay mines stuff and a little more of the brick construction which was really surprising to me. They may actually have some more stuff in their archives but it’s just not indexed in a way to get to it easily.
So we spent an afternoon at the Missouri Historical Society just scanning photos. We actually had a lot more than we ended up using because a lot of them were just not relevant…There was a few great little gems but it took some scrounging to find. It was a lot more difficult than I expected.
Especially since the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company was based here, you think there would be a lot more out there.
Larry Giles had a few things. It was funny because every time I asked him, he would remember that he actually did have something that wasn’t archived away in a storage trailer somewhere…Actually since I finished the film, the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company, which is still a company with a different name now based in Indianapolis, donated all of their early archives to the Building Arts Foundation since we finished the film.
[He laughs.] But as it is, we just had those little bits and scraps Larry had laying around at the time...
[The Hydraulic-Press Brick Company] were actually a really progressive company at the time. They were probably one of the early companies to use the design of the product as a marketing tool. I don’t think that was a very common thing at the turn of the 20th century. I think that was something was cutting edge for a company to do at the time. It’s a pretty interesting business for the time. You could do a whole documentary on the Hydraulic Press-Brick Company.
The film has some great local St. Louis bands playing some really good songs. Tell us about the music in the film.
So I’m friends with Pokey. Me and Pokey go back a little ways. I know for a fact, with Lo-Fi St. Louis, I was the first person to document Pokey LaFarge coming to St. Louis when he did. I think that got him some of his initial notoriety here. So we had been friends and he comes over for a barbeque when he’s in town, and I was telling about this project and I said, “It would be really cool if you did some music for this.” I didn’t know if he was comfortable doing soundtrack music. With his tour schedule, I didn’t know if it would be possible. I said “Maybe you could write a song and we could use it in the film,” and he said, “Yeah, that would be great!” He loves St. Louis stuff and loves history and I showed him some clips of the film and was telling him of the brick thieves and how a big problem that was and that really intrigued him. We watched a lot of the uncut interviews with [St. Louis Alderman] Sam Moore and Michael Allen [of the Preservation Research Office]. A week later he comes back and plays me a little and I said “Yeah! That’s awesome! That sounds great!”
Rum Drum Ramblers. Very similar situation. I just approached them. The great thing is I have a good rapport with a lot of musicians in town...because of my website. It gave me a little bit of an in, more credibility with the musicians if I were a stranger just looking for somebody to do music for me. They took me a little more seriously because they knew me and they knew my work and they were my friends. It helped. It was good to have that network in place already. Matt Wilson from the Rum Drum Ramblers got real excited about it. I said “Write me something about brick,” and he came back with the “Brick by Brick” song.
Irene Allen didn’t write the closing credits song original to the film but I just liked that song. I actually have a video of her performing it that I shot a few years. I thought it would be a great closing credits song. So I approached her and offered to record it specifically for the film.
The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra do soundtracks for film. With their performances, they basically screen a silent film and perform an original score to go with it. I’ve seen them perform a few times and just loved what they did. I talked to one of those guys about possibly doing original stuff for my film and they were willing to do it but the problem was one of their key members was working on his Master’s thesis right at the time we needed to do it. But what they did offer was a bunch of outtakes that they recorded and never used for anything. So I went through about fifteen tracks and found what I ended up using in the film. All the harmonica stuff, the instrumental stuff at the beginning, anything that doesn’t have a vocal is the Rats and People stuff. Those were outtakes they let me have access to.
It was really fun. I really like working with musicians anyway so it was really fun to sit in the recording studio and record all the stuff original to the film. It was a good time. I wanted music to be a key element of the film. It’s part of making an emotional engagement with the audience.
The film also serves as a rallying point to end the destruction and the thievery of bricks, especially on the North Side. What can the concerned folks of St. Louis do to stop this madness?
There’s not a lot. Put pressure on your public officials. The city is doing just about all it can do on its own outside a special law passed by the state to put extra penalties on the brick thieves. There are different policies that make it worse that the city could help prevent.
The whole issue with Paul McKee on the North Side buying up blocks and blocks of property and moving people out - occupied buildings, whole neighborhoods, moving everybody out and letting the property sit to rot –because he’s trying to gather up a bunch of land for a new development and doesn’t care about the historical preservation. The city has basically let him get away with letting all these properties deteriorate under his ownership.
There’s a bunch of things that can be done. But there’s are socio-economic reasons why the North Side is in the shape it is. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who’s from St. Louis. Everybody knows all the problems that exist on the North Side and the stigma that the North Side has. It’s just a number of factors.
The film will be released on DVD after it screens at the St. Louis International Film Festival, which will be on November 20th. Tell us how you can get a copy of the DVD and also, if you could, about the extra content that will be on the DVD.
The DVD you can get through the website – stlbrickfilm.com – and it will be in a number of local shops too. STL-Style will have it. St. Louis Curio Shoppe will have it. The Missouri Botanical Gardens gift shop will have it. The Missouri Historical Society gift shop will have it. There’s a number of places around town that will have it. I’m talking to a few other places, but those are the places for sure that will have. It will probably be at Vintage Vinyl and Apop Records. Independent record stores and stuff.
The extras [on the DVD] will have a little bio of each of the musicians. I have the original video I did of Irene Allen performing the song that’s played during the closing credits of the film. The trailer is on there. There’s also a map of the clay mines in St. Louis. Of course there’s a full chapter menu so you can skip around. I wanted to put more extras on there than that, but with the time crunch, it just wasn’t possible.
And what day does that officially drop?
They’ll be for sale at the screening on the 20th, so I’ll have them there. The people with pre-orders will start getting them pretty soon. I’m going to try to mail those out this week. And the DVD will be in stores locally starting next week.
Brick by Chance and Fortune: A St. Louis Story screens November 20th, 4 PM at Plaza Frontenac as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. Be sure to pick up a copy of the DVD at various shops around the St. Louis area.