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Baltimore’s Brick Rowhomes

For one of my favorite features of the homes of downtown Baltimore, you don’t have to look much passed their facades.  The faces of the rowhomes, I mean.  In neighborhoods like Fells Point, Locust Point, Federal Hill, Brewers Hill, Highlandtown and Canton, and that list could easily go on.

Baltimores Cornices from a RooftopThese homes most built in the 20s and 30s were typically constructed of brick.  While sometimes their fronts were ultimately covered with something known as formstone, more frequently (at least in recent years) – these homes have received a new, 2nd face of brick.  And yes, of course, some of that original brickwork does still exist, almost as it was, now some 90 years old.

This house form, the rowhome, was repeated (duh!).  With it, builders and homeowners alike looked for ways to differentiate theirs, one structure from the last.  And while I have suggested (elsewhere on the internet) that this in fact is one possible explanation for Baltimore’s tendency towards Kitsch, alas, that’s not really the point of this article.

Brick is a Repeated Form; the Architectural Cornice Adds Distinction

One apparent way that these homes were individualized was, well . . . look up – with the architectural detail of the home’s cornice.  That bit, yes, like a sporty uni-brow, defining the top most edge of a home’s face, just before it dives off into a (often flat) roof.

In many cases, still today, much of the original (historical) detail of these cornices survives.  I know I owe myself, and my children, and maybe you too, a decent day’s walking tour.  But for now, I have set it up, and you can now imagine my … dismay when I arrived on site that day.  The carpenter we had “hired” was in the process of detailing our cornice in OSB (oriented strand board), complete with crown and ogee, and he was fixing to finish it all, very neatly, with a high quality exterior paint.

Now, forgive me for a second here, but…  W.T.S! Fail! And yes, I do take all of that blame … a grave miscommunication, I could have been on site, and he, however, was still fired, instantly, on the spot!

* Items to Consider on a Formstone Removal Project

This, if you’re following, left me with a bit of work to complete from, well, now last year’s formstone project.  Yes, still. There is still the unfinished cornice … and one reason for a walking tour.  I am still not sure what exactly I want to do with it (though I have some thoughts). But I am in fact still scouting inspiration, and I am even open to ideas.

Wrapping Vinyl Windows in a Brick Facade with Coil Stock

Moving on, and I can’t believe I have allowed myself to meander like that, but this article here happens not to be about the history of Baltimore rowhomes, or cornice design, or even contractor relations, instead I set out to simply post on what I did this past weekend.  After I had tried (and I guess as you probably will figure) unsuccessfully to find …anyone to come out and re-cap two windows, in aluminum.  You see, when we removed the formstone, what remained fell short on all sides by about an inch.  And after letting it go for too long, I decided to take it on myself. My first ever experience working with aluminum coil stock.

I pulled out my 24’ ladder, purchased a couple rolls of white/brown coil stock, and rented an 8’ aluminum brake at The Home Depot ($49 a day).  And I proceeded to do it.  While I of course have done some flashing work in the past, including capping the craftsman style window trim on my current farmhouse, I really had never worked with coil stock before.

Aluminum, as Barry would put it, “is a very unforgiving material.”  He’s right, but as I got inot this project, I was reminded that it, aluminum, looks very clean, is pretty environmentally sound, and if done correctly – it protects great and is pretty well maintenance-free …for a long time.  Plus, I am gonna say it – It is actually pretty fun to work with!  And anyway, while I feel like I have more to say (ha!), I am just gonna show you instead, what I did … Two windows, about 5 hours two days, and I know, slow and steady wins the race. Thanks and I have some notes below.

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First things first, a shout to the zen master, an artist in aluminum, Tom Struble of Tom Struble Siding Company.  While Stephen R Christopher called out the term “Brick Bend” for me, it was Tom who suggested that I add a little, as he called it, “kick” to the edge of the aluminum’s face.  Back-caulked, the idea is that it gives a more positive seal and a cleaner line at the brick, while avoiding exposed caulking.  It took me to my second one to realize that I had to bend it, that 1/2″ “tail,” a little short of 90 degrees.

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The goal with that of course was to have the aluminum spring out and hold tight against the brick.  While Tom suggested that I could get away with no additional caulking, idk… my skill wasn’t quite there yet, that, or it was just the irregularity of 90 year-old brick. I did end up clear caulking the front edge of my brick bend.

For my first time, I think it went well enough. It took me a minute to figure out the brake; forward to open it and away from me to lock it.  Plus that 8′ unit was, yes, surprisingly heavy.  While I was most definitely excited about adding a new word to my vocabulary, “kanked,” I was far less happy when I kanked the last leg (side bit) I was installing, as pictured (middle pic, second row from the bottom).  I mean, anyway, upside – at least I didn’t cut myself on the aluminum’s sharp edges.

And that’s about all I have, except that I want to point out that about 1″ of aluminum was slid back behind the windows’ frames.  I really didn’t picture this, and I only really figured that out by paying attention as a removed the aluminum cap that was already there and in place.

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Thanks out and happy day. Wish me luck as I hope for a cornice post soon.  ~jb