If you’ve ever been to Bernadette’s Restaurant in Ascension Parish, you’ll notice that quite a bit of the old plaster is missing, exposing the original brick and mortar. The building was the Home Place PVC Plantation Home from downriver in Convent, Louisiana (circa 1850). It was moved to its present location on the grounds of the Cabin Restaurant and then restored by Al Robert about seven years ago. During the restoration process, mortar was left off the walls in some places to give a historic, authentic feel to the building. In fact, many buildings around Louisiana feature the exposed brick, both inside and out. However, unless the exposed brick is located in a climate controlled environment, the natural elements can have disastrous long term effects on the structural quality of the brick and mortar.
The brick used to construct Bernadette’s hardly resembles the modern brick most people are accustomed to seeing today. Before 1870, brick clays were pressed into molds and were often unevenly fired (in fact, the clay used for the bricks of Bernadette’s was probably mined in Ascension Parish). The quality of brick depended on the type of clay available and the brick-making techniques. Pre-1870 brick made in Louisiana was soft, had more of an orange than red hue, and was very permeable. Each individual brick varied considerably in size and quality because they were handmade.
Mortar was used to bind the individual bricks together. Traditional mortar was made from lime putty, or slaked lime, combined with local sand, generally in a ratio of 1 part lime putty to 3 parts sand by volume. There are several massive beaches along the Mississippi River, so sand was readily available. Often, other ingredients such as crushed oyster shells (another source of lime), brick dust, clay, natural cements, pigments, and even animal hair were also added to mortar to give it added strength or color.
Luckily, the exposed brick at Bernadette’s only resides on the inside of the building in a climate controlled environment, safely protected from the elements. This finely preserved piece of Louisiana architectural history is on display for all to see, which was Al Robert’s main goal in leaving the old brick exposed. Robert and his family have a long history of preserving historic structures here on River Road. They know the best practices in regards to preserving and repointing old brick. However, if you are an owner of a historic building or just curious about preservation practices, here are some recommended steps from the National Park Service to take to preserve your old brick and mortar:
1. Drainage – providing proper drainage so that water does not stand on flat, horizontal surfaces or accumulate in curved decorative features. While old brick is unique in that it can absorb water (always a plus in the wet Louisiana climate), too much water can cause it to erode at quicker pace.
2. Cleaning – Clean masonry only when necessary to halt deterioration or remove heavy soiling with the gentlest method possible, such as low pressure water and detergents, using natural bristle brushes. However, before you begin cleaning, make sure to carry out masonry surface cleaning tests to determine that such cleaning is appropriate.
3. Painting – Inspect painted masonry surfaces to determine whether repainting is necessary. If you determine that repainting is necessary, begin by removing damaged or deteriorated paint only to the next sound layer using the gentlest method possible (e.g., handscraping) prior to repainting. Then apply compatible paint coating systems following proper surface preparation. Make sure to repaint with colors that are historically appropriate to the building and district.
4. Further Evaluation – Even though you have just finished your project, it is still necessary to stay vigilant. Make sure to evaluate the existing condition of the masonry periodically to determine whether more than protection and maintenance are required.
These are just a few ways to take care of your old brick. If you have further questions, make sure to consult an architectural historian or your state’s preservation office.