Mid-Century Breeze Blocks

By David Kelly::

I have an obsession with Breeze Blocks. Well, Breeze Blocks and a few hundred other things. Breeze Blocks, or Architectural Screen Blocks, are a decorative concrete block used for architectural screen walls and fences. They have been around since the 1930s and became hugely popular in the Mid-Century Modern residential & commercial buildings of the 1950s & 1960s. They differ from concrete building block and cinder block by use of decorative hole patterns through the block. Used most frequently in hot areas to let the breezes through, they are also the go-to fencing & screen wall material in hurricane-prone coastal regions. They are typically made from the ashes of coal, bonded together by Portland cement and used especially for walls that bear relatively small loads.

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Starting with the 1930s Art Deco period, Breeze Blocks became a trendy part of modern homes, creating an architectural transition from the building to the yard. As architectural styles increased and evolved, the available patterns grew too. By the time Modernism trickled down into the suburbs in the 1960s, thanks to Eichler, Rummer, Palmer and Krisel, etc., Breeze Block was as common as wood fencing. After the 1970s, its popularity waned and only a limited number of sizes and patterns have been available since then.

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Everywhere I go, if I find block patterns that I have never seen before, I photograph them. I have personally documented over 85 patterns around the US. In my past research trying to find current sources for the blocks, I discovered Uncle Jack at Veryvintagevegas.com , who has a great write up about the 50 he has documented in Las Vegas. He told me that everyone is looking for manufacturers who make interesting blocks, but only a few are left & their offerings are slim. If you live in Florida, hurricane central, you are pretty well set, as there are 3 companies still making them. Everywhere else, not so much. Most Home Depots carry a classic, but overused pattern called Snowflake or Cloverleaf. This is the most common block found nationally and in some areas, it’s the only option. For a list of the last few manufacturers, check Retrorenovation.com.

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50 years ago, there was at least one brick and concrete block plant in every mid sized town. Several in big cities. Blocks and bricks are, well, heavy, so it makes sense to source them locally. Shipping long distance would be cost prohibitive. Some plants would design their own line of blocks, while others would buy molds of popular patterns from larger manufacturers who were often working with architects and driving the trends. Most of these small brick and block makers are long gone. A few switched to making concrete statues and bird baths, but even those places are disappearing, being replaced by Mexican and Chinese imports.

Let’s hope with the resurgence of Mid-Mod, that Breeze Blocks make a big comeback.

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For more photos of Breeze Blocks, check out instagram.com/dkcomet and search the #dkblock tag

 

2 Comments

  1. Breeze blocks give me the creeps. As a child who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, they were everywhere in my life, and I didn’t appreciate them. The sandy, rough feel of the blocks irritated my skin, so they weren’t fun to lean against. The decorative holes in them were usually too small to stick the toe of my Keds into, so they weren’t good for climbing. Plus, there was usually concrete surrounding them (driveways, motor courts, patios), so they radiated heat–and in Kansas during the summer, that wasn’t a good thing.

    That being said, the last photo in your piece is absolutely delicious! The dancing pattern of slightly off-centered rectangles, the punches of jewel-like colors, and the placement of the breeze blocks at the edge of what looks like a wraparound balcony (catching breezes, for once!) under a palm tree: Wonderful!

  2. It’s funny that a decorative building material could give someone the creeps. Maybe I should design some with skulls, shrunken head & clown shaped patterns. That could take up a notch.

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