Studying a deep pothole birthed by the city’s latest bout of freeze-thaw, Phil Mumford Jr. can’t help but get a little giddy. Under layers of concrete, he spots the distinct red hue of a street-paver brick, which his Colonial Brick Company (2222 S Halsted St, 312-733-2600) hauls away after the city rehabs a severely disfigured stretch of road. Mumford then sells the pavers out of his Bridgeport warehouse to homeowners and landscapers for use on patios and driveways. “The pothole nearly swallowed my car,” Mumford says, “but to me, seeing that brick underneath is like seeing gold.”
Street repair is a steady source of brick for Mumford, but it’s hardly his only one: If you track the destruction of Chicago architecture over the last 40 years, you’re mapping some of the most productive moments for Colonial, which also specializes in salvaging antique brick from demolition sites. When demo crews razed Comiskey Park in 1991, a Colonial team hauled away most of the bricks, competing with diehard, weepy Sox fans attempting to snatch up a souvenir. Same goes for Chicago Stadium in ’95 when it was leveled to make way for the United Center and on a much smaller scale the recent Wrigley Field renovations. In October 2006, after a fire destroyed the Adler and Sullivan–designed Dexter Building on Wabash Avenue, Colonial literally picked up the pieces, dusted them off and attached a price tag.
“It’s a shame when there’s a fire because some of the brick gets smelly,” says Mumford, the fair-haired, wiry 25-year-old who two years ago deferred law school to take over general-manager duties at Colonial from his dad. “Sometimes people want to use the brick in their basement to make a cool wine cellar, and you don’t want to sell them stinky brick.”
For a business whose inventory is built from wrecking-ball leftovers, it’s appropriate that Colonial’s rise was preceded by a destructive episode in the city’s history. When riots triggered by Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination left some West Side buildings in shambles, junk salvager Phil Mumford discovered he could cash in by recovering the bricks from wrecked properties (some dating back to the late 1800s) and selling them to brick masons and contractors whose clients wanted new homes built with old materials.
These days, Colonial’s sprawling brickyard, located a few blocks west of Chinatown in the shadow of I-94, is loaded with 2.5 million bricks, stacked 15 feet high on 500-count wood crates. Some of these are from buildings constructed after the Great Chicago Fire mandated brick replace wood as the city’s ubiquitous building block. Unlike modern machine-made bricks, which have a fixed color and exact shape, the vintage handmade “common bricks” Colonial specializes in are irregular in shape and hue.
Although independent masons restoring landmarked buildings give Colonial nominal business, Mumford says the growing architectural-preservation movement will eventually cause his brick supply to dry up. “In the ’70s and ’80s, most of the brick came from a lot of those old high-rise apartment buildings. They wrecked all those. Now they don’t. Now they rehab them,” he says. But Mumford has a plan when his inventory dwindles: Head to the ’burbs. “Out in Elk Grove Village, there are huge warehouses built with old Chicago common brick. Someday, those will get redeveloped. Who knows when, but someday. Then we’ll get those.”