A Master Bricklayer Preserves His Craft Melvin Moore, 75, teaches beginner "brickies" this age-old craft. His masonry work can be seen at the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress and buildings at nearly all the major universities in Washington, D.C.
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A Master Bricklayer Preserves His Craft

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A Master Bricklayer Preserves His Craft

A Master Bricklayer Preserves His Craft

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Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. And I've moved out of the studio onto the street in Washington, D.C., just down the block from NPR. And I'm standing here with...

Ms. CHRYSANTHE BROIKOS (Curator, National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.): I'm Chrysanthe Broikos. I'm a curator at the National Building Museum.

SEABROOK: And we are standing on this corner surrounded by brick buildings. At least they look like brick buildings. But they're not all brick buildings, are they?

Ms. BROIKOS: No, they're mostly brick veneers.

SEABROOK: They're made of concrete and steel. They're covered with brick.


SEABROOK: We're going to talk about bricks today, All Bricks Considered.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Here in America we love bricks. From row houses to stately manners, hospitals to fire stations, it's part of our psyche, says Broikos.

Ms. BROIKOS: I mean, a lot of us actually associate brick with the single family house, and there's something about brick that says building and stability. And brick does that, not glass and steel.

SEABROOK: These days, though, we don't really build with brick much. We decorate with it, like the veneers on those apartment buildings. Brick is a brand more than a building material. And so you've got to ask, are we losing the craft of bricklaying? Melvin Moore says in some ways we are. And he knows. He spent more than half a century laying bricks. Now he teaches masonry here in Bowie, Maryland, in a giant open warehouse. Apprentice Wade Grove lays a straight line of bricks into a wall. Moore watches with a sharp eye.

Mr. MELVIN MOORE (Instructor, International Masonry Institute): You're not thinking.

Mr. WADE GROVE (Student, International Masonry Institute): It's a habit.

Mr. MOORE: It's a bad one. Extra move. Every time you go back to that pan, I'm going to lay another one on you.

SEABROOK: There are no books or study carols, but don't be fooled. This is the Harvard of bricklaying, the International Masonry Institute.

Mr. MOORE: I just want you to be the best, man. That's all. Just want you to be the best.

SEABROOK: Melvin Moore and his family - his father, brother, and son - have wracked up about a hundred and seventy-five years of bricklaying. Imagine the number of bricks.

Mr. MOORE: When I started in the trade, it was almost a family affair. So the first thing that you hear when you come in and train as an apprentice, you think you'll ever be as good as your brother? You think you'll ever be as good as your dad?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOORE: Or something to that effect, you know.


Mr. MOORE: And you're always being challenged.

SEABROOK: When Moore drives around Washington, he sees his life's work - Georgetown University, the Westin Grand Hotel. While his son was a student at George Washington University, Moore was working on its buildings.

Mr. MOORE: I worked on the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress.

SEABROOK: You built Washington.

Mr. MOORE: I was part of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOORE: The bricklayer leaves a mini monument behind us.

SEABROOK: I'm not sure most people these days when they drive down a street and they see brick buildings, that they really think about the art and the craft.

Mr. MOORE: No. They can't see what we see. I can sit at a red light and look at a building and pick out a flaw just like snapping a finger.


Mr. MOORE: Any bricklayer can. I'll give you an example.

SEABROOK: Moore picks up two bricks. He stacks them, but the top one slightly overhangs the other.

Mr. MOORE: On a sunny day if this brick is over just that much and not flush and perfect, when the sun shines on it, you would look up and there'd be so many shadows it's unbelievable.


Mr. MOORE: At one o'clock on a day when the sun is like that, it will show up a bad piece of brickwork like a sore thumb.

SEABROOK: Moore talks wistfully about the old days of masonry when bricks were the building material as well as the art.

Mr. MOORE: Little fancy corners. And if you look up around the roof, it starts stepping over and over till it becomes a straight flushed corner.

SEABROOK: Yeah, gorgeous.

Mr. MOORE: Oh, yeah. The architects don't draw that type of thing anymore. And in this big business world, it's you get it up, and we'll get it passed. They want that square footage, you know.

SEABROOK: Yeah. So here at the International Masonry Institute, Moore is doing everything he can to keep the craft of bricklaying alive. Apprentice Wade Grove is now striking his wall. That's smoothing the mortar between the bricks into neat white lines.

Mr. GROVE: The main goal is to build your speed up and lay a good brick.

SEABROOK: You wouldn't know it from his dusty jeans or the smile on his face, but Grove is a trained chef. It wasn't until he got out of culinary school that he found his passion.

Mr. GROVE: You can look at a bricklayer and tell, you know, how good he is just by the way he moves. You know, like grabbing a brick, buttering it, putting it in. The less motions you make with your trowl, that's what makes you fast, not moving your body fast.


Mr. GROVE: Yeah, it's like artwork. You know, it's like - it's a fluid motion. The less motions that it takes to put a brick in the wall is - that makes the faster you are.

SEABROOK: Do you ever race somebody you're working on the wall with?

Mr. GROVE: All the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROVE: All the time. You know, you get on a job, and you'll have these guys that are, you know, full of spit and vinegar, and they all - you know, they want to test you. You know they'll start at one - and everybody has their own little area of a wall to build - and you meet each other in the middle. And, you know, they won't say you're racing, you know, but you'll know. You're putting nine brick in the wall and they're putting 15, you know. And they're sitting back smoking a cigarette, and they're waiting for you to finish. And you're, OK, that's how it is? All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROVE: So then you put the cigarette down. And then it's on, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GROVE: Happens all the time.

SEABROOK: Grove says he knows times are tight. All the building trades are squeezed by the economic crisis, but it doesn't stop him.

Mr. GROVE: I mean, I'm hungry for this. I love it, you know. Even if I had a college education for computers, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't have it any other way, you know. I'm going to die a bricklayer, so.

SEABROOK: So it seems even if the work has changed, the next generation is just as passionate about bricks as the last, at least when Melvin Moore is their teacher.

Mr. MOORE: I try to tell these guys, when you get to the point where you can build anything that you can visualize, you close your eyes and just see any kind of project you want and you know you can build it, that's when it's an art. And I got to that point, you know. I got to that point.

SEABROOK: Moore says he doesn't think masonry will ever really die. It's been here for thousands of years, he says, and it's not going anywhere fast. But he does think people should appreciate it more, not just for that sturdy feeling it might give a new building, but for the art of bricklaying itself. And the next time you're at a stop light around midday, look for those shadows. Melvin Moore says you'll see them. Our piece on bricklaying was produced by Tina Tennessen.

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