St. Louis Rebuilds After Brick Rustling

Thanks to public and private investment, St. Louis is beginning to counter decades of architectural damage — but the fight isn’t over yet.

If you want to see history of St. Louis, look no further than its architecture. St. Louis brick has defined the character of the city and has been used to construct some of the city’s most striking structures, including the Wainwright Building and the Sheldon Concert Hall. These bricks reflect a strength and elegance that continues to shine forth today.

Unfortunately, the very qualities that attract so many people to St. Louis’ bricks have also encouraged theft. A history of brick theft, or “rustling” has left swaths of the city in a state of decay. It raises the question: how did brick rustling become so widespread, and how will St. Louis rebuild?

Supply to Meet Demand

St. Louis brick has long been admired for its beauty, quality, and durability. After the fire of 1849, city officials passed an ordinance prohibiting flammable wood frames. Since stone was too expensive, St. Louis turned to its rich clay deposits and its brick industry flourished. Demand for St. Louis’ striking red brick soon grew outside the Midwest, and manufacturers regularly exported to Southern states including Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana. At its peak, St. Louis had more than 100 brick factories.

But by the 1960s, a mass exodus from St. Louis was set in motion and many of the city’s graceful brick buildings were abandoned. Migration hit North St. Louis especially hard, leaving thousands of lots across the region vacant. The issue was exacerbated in 2003, when a developer purchased hundreds of parcels of land — including more than 150 historic buildings — and simply left them empty. By 2010, St. Louis had more than 8,000 abandoned properties and over 11,000 vacant lots.

These vacant — and often neglected — buildings soon became targets for theft, especially after the Great Recession. Rather than steal copper or other metals, brick thieves, or “rustlers,” pillage abandoned properties and sell the bricks for up to $260 per pallet to brickyards, who then send them down south to meet the ever-present demand. Brick rustlers have resorted to extreme tactics to harvest brick, even setting buildings on fire to loosen the mortar.

While rustling has become less common as the economy’s recovered, North St. Louis still suffers from its consequences. Constant vandalism has defaced some houses, left others uninhabitable, and even reduced certain properties to rubble. Over a short period of time, whole buildings disappeared, razed to their foundations. Many of these structures could have been renovated and restored, but they’re now irreparably damaged.

The Vanishing City Returns

Though it’s tempting to blame the loss of these buildings on brick rustlers or the brickyards that resell stolen materials, the core of the problem runs deeper than that. As architectural historian Michael Allen notes, “[brick rustlers] are taking advantage of a condition that already exists. They don’t create the abandonment.”

Thankfully, large-scale brick rustling has all but dried up. Until recently, the only penalty a rustler risked was a small fine for attempted demolition without a permit. In recent years, however, St. Louis has begun to crack down on brickyards that sell illegal material, denying rustlers their primary revenue source. Some of the city’s aldermen have proposed legislative solutions ranging from heavier fines to restricting the hours that brickyards can operate. But the damage from brick rustling has already been done — neighborhood residents and developers must now decide how to revitalize areas that are missing large swaths of their architectural fabric.

In many cases, St. Louisans have taken it upon themselves to restore their communities. In Old North St. Louis, for example, the Old North Restoration Group has worked since 1981 to repair the area’s historic structures, investing millions to restore historic brick homes instead of replacing them. Their work was recognized by the EPA in 2011, when the organization won National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

Enough people have taken our city’s bricks — it’s up to developers and community members to reclaim these buildings as our own. With more restoration projects that combine grassroots efforts, private investment, and public support, St. Louis could soon find itself with a wealth of beautiful buildings to house the next generation of residents.

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