Downtown Fullerton: The Brick Myth, The Reality of Brick Veneer, and The Legacy of Schlock

We published a couple of posts a few days ago on the new parking structure planned on Santa Fe Avenue, and how it is proposed to be faced with brick veneer here and here .

You may remember that I got to thinking about why the city staff would tell the RDRC that the $40,000,000 parking structure must have brick veneer; and that I asked one of the RDRC Board members that very same question, and the answer I got was that staff told the Committee that the City has to use brick veneer because it was a “State” requirement to meet the CEQA guidelines. (I also noted that the use of fake brick is in complete contrast to the sustainable design the General Plan Advisory Committee has spend the last 3 years discussing and recommending to the City Council).

CEQA? Yes CEQA he said, because there’s a provision in the CEQA guidelines that requires mitigation of any visual impacts. In other words, since the new parking structure was being built with structural concrete, and the surrounding downtown has many brick-looking buildings, using the brick veneer would cause no visual impact on the environment. I say “brick-looking” because so many of the buildings in downtown Fullerton are faced with fake brick veneers, facades that are not historic, and some of which, in fact, were stuck-on older buildings during the course of Redevelopment in the last 30 years. And many of these were subsidized by the taxpayers of Fullerton.

How do I know this? I did a building facade survey of downtown from the RR tracks to Chapman and from Malden to Pomona. I documented the principal “building skin” of each structure. The results didn’t surprise me, but they may surprise you; they should shock the Redevelopment and Planning Department “experts” who not only have been tolerating, but actually promoting this material over the years – seemingly in an effort to keep downtown “historical” looking. Boy, did they get it wrong.

Here are the results of the survey:

24 Brick veneer

2 Flagstone veneer

9 Real brick & clay block

3 Glazed & fluted brick

24 stucco & plaster

20 Concrete, concrete block & terra cotta

And here is a useful overhead image with the various exterior materials colored in on each of the building’s footprint. Notice how few real brick buildings there are; and of these only a couple are red brick – the crap of choice among Fullerton’s bureaucratic tastemakers. The buildings with substantial brick venerers are pink.

Downtown Fullerton

Using CEQA to bolster the poor design choices of the past is pretty bad. Let’s hope this post will help end the travesty of bad and cheap looking architecture based on erroneous assumptions, and that California’s environmental laws will never be used again by city staff to foist this garbage on us.

27 Replies to “Downtown Fullerton: The Brick Myth, The Reality of Brick Veneer, and The Legacy of Schlock”

  1. This is an extremely informative bit of work, admin. Just think: an actual inventory of Downtown’s building stock to understand what’s there.

    Has the crack Redevelopment staff ever done this? If not, why not? And how can the Planning Department recommend any CEQA findings without knowing the facts. That is incompetent and/or intentionally misleading.

    But does any one care? Let’s ask the Planning Director and the Redevelopment Director.

  2. The Fullerton Harpoon :
    …how can the Planning Department recommend any CEQA findings without knowing the facts.

    Even if they knew the facts they would ignore them. The staff will do and say anything even if it means to lie to get their way. We would all be so much better off if government employees just did their jobs without getting their personal opinions in the way of public opinion.

  3. 24 Brick veneer

    2 Flagstone veneer

    9 Real brick & clay block

    3 Glazed & fluted brick
    38 buildings that have elements that can fall on your head.

    Oh joy.

  4. Man, truth IS stranger than fiction! Why do they insist on plastering buildings with fake bricks? There’s no rhyme or reason to it.

    This reminds me of that movie, “The Brady Bunch.” Remember how that ever-so-talented architect, Mike Brady, would always come up with the same design for a building, no matter what its intended purpose was? Could’ve been a medical building, a fast food joint or a car wash, and all the designs he came up with looked exactly the same, just like that freaky 70’s house he lived in.

  5. By clinging onto brick veneer as a design theme is a way city staff can reassure themselves they are recommending the right thing to the RDRC/city council/planning/etc….

    That’s how “we” do things when our talent or lack of is limited to what we know, which is limited to what we see.

  6. Hey admin, isn’t brick veneer what I’ve got plastered all over my house? Dammit. The RDRC should have put a stop to it! Now what do I do?

    1. Chris, yes you have brick veneer plastered all over your house, but don’t worry, in about 25 years they will eventually fall off all by themselves 🙂

      At least our tax dollars didn’t pay for it.

  7. There’s as lot of common brick – on the backs of a lot of those old buildings – a lot of it virtually ruined by sandblasting. So maybe that’s what the brick bozos were wanting to emulate. Not a good sign! And since when could you justify a CEQA visual issue by looking at the backsides of buildings?

  8. Fake brick, fake flagstone, fake old is for those who hold onto “what was” rather than looking at “what is.” Sentimentality used as a measuring stick for a better time is always fraught with risk. I am amazed that no one has gotten beaned on the head whilst walking from the Starbucks to Wahoo’s by a falling fake brick.

    As for those who willingly put it on their homes, my recommendation is that they decide if its necessary and also to see what are the alternatives.

  9. Anonymous :
    I am amazed that no one has gotten beaned on the head whilst walking from the Starbucks to Wahoo’s by a falling fake brick.

    That’s why I’ve been playing stairway to hell for the last 10 years, one of them dam bricks hit me on da head+ visit me under the Lemon St. bridge for my summer concert series. I’ll show you the scar on my hed and play stairway to hell 4 u

  10. It seems as if their efforts to ‘keep downtown “historical” looking’ are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. From this survey, Fullerton seems to have a rich history of building with (or at least under) fake brick, so the veneer on the proposed garage fits right in with that tradition. Let’s face it, the vast majority of people find modern building materials drab and ugly. I can picture a concrete (or even a concrete block) garage that I would find aesthetically pleasing, even beautiful, but I’d be in the minority. And, when people picture a steel structure, they think of barracks, warehouses and trailers, not the George Washington Bridge. Personally, I can’t get too worked up over it; brick veneer is fake, but at least it’s a good enough fake that you need a trained eye to tell how fake it is. Up here in the Northeast, where any new house under $500,000 is inevitably covered in vinyl siding (ie. garbage pressed into the shape of clapboards) brick veneer seems like a fading vestige of good (or at least less bad) taste.

    PS: Anyone who assumes this is a recent phenomenon should Google “mathematical tile”.

  11. “brick veneer is fake, but at least it’s a good enough fake that you need a trained eye to tell how fake it is.”

    Until it pops off. Then any idiot can tell – trained or otherwise.

    “good enough” I guess that will be Fullerton’s epitaph.

  12. True; a friend of mine was complaining recently that his front door wouldn’t close in the summer and wouldn’t stay closed in the winter. I pulled out a loose brick and discovered that his somewhat shabby looking brick front was sitting right against the plywood; the wall framing must have been wriggling all over the place. But my neighborhood is all brick over cinder block and hasn’t had any problems in over 50 years. In this area, I believe that the fake brick and stone even serve a purpose; they seem to protect concrete from the salt spray that would otherwise eat away at them, though there are probably more honest ways to accomplish the same thing. I see plenty of examples of unprotected concrete that is falling apart. It seems with just about any material, there are more ways to screw it up than to do it right and you have to watch most contractors like a hawk to have any hope of the latter.

  13. Salt spray? What the hell are you talking about?’

    Concrete will last thousands of years. The only reason it spalls is either a bad mix or maybe rebar that rusts and expands. Both are rare in California.

  14. As my previous comments indicated, I’m not writing from California. In my area, anything built near a roadway or even a parking lot gets doused with salt water on a regular basis. I included expressions like “in this area” to acknowledge that most of California is not subject to these conditions. I assume you also don’t have as many problems with hunks of concrete falling from bridges as we see up here. My only point is that, whatever you think of it, brick veneer isn’t always totally without a practical purpose.

  15. Well another layer of masonry (fake) on top of concrete may help protect if from the effects of rebar oxizidation and the resultant spalling. So would good waterproofing, etc.

    We have no winter salt issue in So Cal. We just have a profound lack of architectural acumen (when I say “we” I mean our Redevelopment Agency and the hack architects it employs. Feel free to search our blog archives for stories about how the taxpayers of Fullerton have subsidized crap in our downtown area.

  16. The pictures of peeling “lick and stick” bricks (really tiles) were impressive; I guess it can’t be a very “good fake” if it peels off. I can’t believe they tried to put that stuff on notch-troweled mortar without any grouting; even when people ordered it from Sears in the ’70s it was the usual thing to at least make the mortar bed thick enough to ooze out enough to sort of look like grout. This sort of thing can be made to work better than it does in these examples. They built a commercial building near me with an outer skin of cement board on steel studs, covered with what look like bathroom tiles. When they built it, I wondered if it would survive the winter, but it has gone through 25 of them without any apparent problems, all of its bizarre glory in tact. I’m sure putting tiles over new solid concrete is much trickier, with the 30 year “shrinkage period” and whatever fault lines develop; I hope whatever mortar and grout they used was flexible enough. One of my pet peeves with any brick veneer is the use of it in places where real masonry would make no sense, like on overhangs and above large windows with no apparent arch or lintel, as if brick could just hang weightless in mid air. The appearance, in one of your photos, of what look like header bricks in implausible places (presumably for decorative purposes) doesn’t help either. While I understand how the public tends to dislike all-concrete buildings, making some members of the concrete frame visible while using brick-veneer, or CMUs with a similar appearance to fill between them would be more tasteful than just burying the whole thing. Another alternative to these thin brick slices would be tiles that look similar enough to “blend in” (whatever that means in this context) but with enough shape and/or texture differences to make it clear that they’re not intended as an imitation of traditional brick.

    PS: With all that I’ve seen here, nothing is a match for the pure hideousness of the big, cheap vinyl-clad apartment complexes and similar commercial buildings that have become too common in most of the US recently. I like to think of these things as bonfires waiting to happen.

    1. That use of implausible, gravity defying brick veneer is one of my pet peeves, too. In a way though I have to say i like it because it just point out the idiocy of brick veneer.

      In Fullerton we once had a dude stick brick veneer on top of a structural CMU addition so that it would”match” the old historic building it was attached to. Naturally this not only failed to match, it violated the Secretary of the Interiors Standards for Rehab. It looked crappy and wasted a ton of money. All of this stupidity was countenanced and promoted by our Redevelopment people and the useless design review committee.

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