COLUMBIA — At the corner of Fifth and Cherry streets, where the curb meets the red brick street, a peculiar brick sits, half-broken, surrounded by weeds, gravel and debris. With a close look, you can make out half of three words: FALO, LO KAN, OCK.
A bit west, toward Flat Branch Park, several other bricks stand out from the rest, imprinted with the rest of the puzzle: BUFFALO, BUFFALO KAN, ROCK.
The brick surface of Cherry Street is nearly 100 years old, made from bricks manufactured by the Buffalo Brick Co. in Buffalo, Kan. Between 75 and 100 men began producing bricks there in 1902; it became the largest brick factory west of the Mississippi River.
These bricks, scattered throughout downtown Columbia's historic brick streets, were laid in the early 1900s by J.A Stewart's Columbia Paving Co.
Today, Cherry Street's only visible bricks extend from Fourth to Seventh streets. A hodgepodge of pavement and globs of asphalt have been poured over spots where the brick has worn down. The section leading to Flat Branch Park has been completely paved over, making the confluence of the asphalt and brick look like an oil spill.
Cherry and Short streets are among eight remaining brick streets in Columbia that have weathered horse-drawn carts, automobiles and a century of foot traffic.
Plans call for removing and salvaging the bricks from Short Street next year as part of the redevelopment of the Regency Hotel and the construction of a new parking garage. The Historic Preservation Commission wants Short Street repaved with modern bricks and hopes the original bricks can be used on Cherry Street.
The decision on whether to repave Short Street with bricks or asphalt could depend on economics. While brick streets cost more to install than asphalt, two Midwest cities with experience restoring brick streets believe their longevity makes them economical in the long run.
Brent Gardner, vice chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, said the lifespan of brick streets provides more value than asphalt.
"They're cheaper to maintain in the long run," he said. "Critics of these streets, who say now is not economically the best time to talk about extra expenditures, are shortsighted."
Gardner would like to restore all of the original brick streets in downtown Columbia that are just beneath the pavement. He sees brick streets as an intrinsic part of Columbia’s history, and has led efforts by the Historic Preservation Commission to preserve brick streets.
"They add a historical accent, slow traffic and act as a natural drainage system by having water run through them rather than over them," Gardner said.
Tony St. Romaine, assistant city manager, said the demolition of Short Street is set to begin in December.
The Public Works Department has not decided whether to use asphalt on Short Street or repave it with bricks, spokeswoman Jill Stedem said.
Dave Parmley, developer of the DoubleTree Hotel that will replace the Regency, is responsible for financing the deconstruction of Short Street; the city will be responsible for repaving it.
Parmley said he doesn't have a strong opinion about whether to keep Short Street brick.
"I know there’s been a push to repave Short Street with bricks, and that's for the city to decide," he said. "I would imagine that would be pretty expensive, but it's not my money."
A Public Works report sent to the Columbia City Council on Friday estimated the cost to mill and repave an asphalt street built on top of a brick street at $30 per square yard.
Paving with historic bricks would run about $190 per square yard compared to $165 per square yard using modern brick pavers. A concrete street would cost about $95 per square yard.
The report did not address the long-term costs and benefits associated with maintaining each of these street surfaces.
The arrival of brick streets in Columbia
According to early accounts in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Columbia's roads were made either of dirt or a compact gravel called macadam before 1907, when brick streets rolled into town along with the automobile.
Columbia's first brick street was Broadway, between Sixth and Tenth streets, which was constructed after four years of Columbia residents calling for paved streets.
Ed Watson, the publisher and editor of the Tribune at that time, also wrote editorials praising those who were putting up money for brick streets and admonishing the city for having muddy, unpaved roads.
When the city was considering using brick or macadam to pave Rollins Street, Watson published one of many editorials in the Tribune that favored brick:
"The residents along Rollins will rue having favored a macadam street when the limestone rocks have disintegrated into dust and the hot winds from the South blow the white particles into the front doors and windows of their homes."
It's only fitting that Columbia's first speeding ticket was issued on Columbia's first brick-paved street. As reported in the Tribune on June 25, 1909, officer E.E. Beasley issued the ticket to Ray Dunlap — "an early automobile enthusiast" — for exceeding the eight mile per hour speed limit on Broadway in "one of his new machines." Dunlap was fined $5.
Two Midwest cities invest in brick
At about 100 years old, most of Columbia's brick streets have already been around five to 10 times longer than asphalt streets, which Stedem said are milled and repaved about every 10 years on heavily trafficked roads and about every 20 to 30 years on others.
The last brick street that required significant maintenance was $83,265 in repairs to Bouchelle Avenue in 2006, Stedem said. City records indicate it was the first significant maintenance on the street since it was first paved with bricks in 1909.
Other cities in the Midwest, such as Champaign, Ill., and Lawrence, Kan., have invested quite a bit in restoring and maintaining their historic brick streets.
Bill Holland, a construction manager and engineer in Champaign, Ill., said his city spends $250,000 to $300,000 a year to maintain nine miles of brick streets. That amounts to about 10 percent of the city's $3 million annual budget for streets and pavement.
Holland said the city justifies this expense because brick streets typically last longer than asphalt and concrete and because they reflect the city's history. "Our brick streets were laid at the beginning of the 20th century, so you're talking 85 to 90 years old," he said.
In 1981, Champaign, Ill., designated the nine miles of brick streets as a historic district. Holland said the only negative feedback he hears about the streets comes during winter, when ice forms over some of the brick streets that have poor drainage.
Dave Cronin, a city engineer for Lawrence, Kan., was involved in restoring several blocks of brick streets in old neighborhoods.
The city used salvaged bricks from other roads and hired local contractors to lay the bricks. He said the city justified the expense of restoring and keeping the streets bricked "because we knew we wouldn't have to pay as much to maintain them over the long-run. Bricks do hold up longer."
Cronin estimates that the city spent $200,000 to $300,000 per block to repave streets with recycled brick compared to about $100,000 to $150,000 for a block with asphalt.
About 80 percent of the original brick streets in Lawrence have been paved over with asphalt, Cronin said.
"About 50 or 60 years ago, the city decided they needed to create a smooth surface on the roads, but now the asphalt has warped more than the brick and has caused more problems," he said. "I guess back then they thought it was a cheap, easy solution."