Kent’s brick streets high in history, low in number

Tyrel Linkhorn

Franklin Ave. is one of the few remaining brick streets in Kent. Franklin was first bricked over in 1907. CAITLIN PRARAT | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

More than 100 years ago, an important debate was taking place in Kent. Merchants were suffering. At times, they couldn’t get goods to their stores over the muddy and rutted roads. Customers, too, were having trouble making it to the shops. Kent was falling behind the times.

On Aug. 19, 1902, City Council passed an ordinance to do something about it.

With that, Water Street was authorized to become the first paved street in the city. Bricked over from Erie Street to Crain Avenue, the project was completed between April and August of 1903, according to Kent Historical Society records.

Over the next few years other streets were paved, too, including Franklin Avenue, in 1907.

One-hundred years later, just 2,859 feet, representing less than a half percent of the city’s approximately 600,000 centerline feet of streets, remain brick.

Eugene Roberts, the city’s service director, said that while visually pleasing, the cost of brick streets today just isn’t practical.

“They’re beautiful; no brick is identical to one beside it. But with that comes the extremely large task of maintenance,” he said.

Because brick pavement essentially has thousands of cracks, water easily seeps down into the underlying soil. If enough water reaches the base, it can become saturated, causing sinking. And with more freeze-thaw cycles than anywhere else in the United States, “northeast Ohio’s brick streets are more difficult to maintain,” Roberts said, as the ice can push the individual bricks apart or cause upheaval.

And unfortunately, when there are problems, the fix is costly.

Redoing a brick road is “extremely labor intensive,” Roberts said, often involving a complete reconstruction of the road and the underlying base and then hand laying of the brick.

As a result, the process can cost $2.50 to $3 per square foot, compared with $1.50 per square foot for repaving a blacktop road.

Despite the cost of maintenance, though, brick streets carry certain nostalgia with them, and many cities are currently debating the pros of keeping or restoring the historic image versus the cons of the hefty price tags. Recently, Mount Vernon and many of Columbus’ historic sections have faced decisions on what to do with aging brick streets.

In early September, the Mount Vernon News reported the City Council there passed an improvement resolution that included a provision to pave over a historic section of brick street. The decision was made partially due to the costs associated with brick street repair.

Many of Columbus’ historic villages have passed legislation to protect their brick streets.

While no debates of the type have occurred recently in Kent, in the early 1970s, the Kent Historical Society formed with the intent of saving the old train depot, which was slated for razing. Combining with area business owners, the society purchased the depot (now the Pufferbelly Ltd.).

Part of the revitalization of the area included re-bricking Franklin Avenue, which was largely “just a dirty alley,” said Mary Ann Green, an administrator with the society.

Sandra Halem, Historical Society president, said the re-bricking was completed in the early 1980s.

Today, downtown businesses still appreciate the nostalgic feel. Charlie Thomas, owner of Ray’s Place, which faces Franklin Avenue, said the street “adds a little charm” to the area.

“It really works down here, along the river and the tracks,” he said.

Also putting the atmosphere back to older times are the recently finished renovations to Ray’s, which brought back visual cues from the original fa‡ade of the building that once was a pharmacy.

Along with the bricks’ visual nostalgia, the humming of tires on Franklin Avenue provides a soundtrack that points to a bygone area.

But just because there’s no humming of tires on most of Kent’s streets doesn’t mean motorists aren’t still driving over brick. Roberts said many of the city’s streets are paved directly over top of brick, not with the intent of a smoother road, but rather to keep water out.

Earl Avenue resident Nancy Warlop said her street, one of the longer sections of brick pavement in the city, is in good shape, and she enjoys living on it.

“I love the looks of it,” she said about the street that’s a few blocks north of Main Street in the city’s historical district west of downtown.

Warlop also said she feels her street is a little less slippery in the winter because of the jagged edges of each individual brick.

Roberts, too, said there’s a safety factor with brick streets, as the roughness and natural undulations of the surface tend to slow motorists down.

And properly constructed with ample drainage and a thick base level, Roberts said, brick streets can last up to 100 years, as they don’t suffer the same potholing that plague paved streets.

For the brick, it comes down to what level of unevenness and undulation is acceptable for the residents and motorists who use it, Roberts said.

Contact public affairs reporter Tyrel Linkhorn at [email protected].