BY ROBERT HURST | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE FENDER
“The era of brick business buildings has arrived in Panama City. The erection of the fine building of the Panama City Bank awakened many to the fact that the time had arrived for the building of more permanent and a better class of building blocks.” – Panama City Pilot, April 13, 1911
More than one hundred years later, the “awakened” time men- tioned in Panama City’s first newspaper has been reawakened here in our downtown. It is a revival, a renewed interest in the brick vernacular architecture that graced our storefronts in the interwar years of the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. This revival is manifest in the restoration of original facades and in the alteration of others. It is partly a consequence of the revisioning that our community underwent after the devastation that Hurricane Michael wrought.
Brick construction in Downtown Panama City began in 1910 with the building of the Bank of Panama City at 100 Harrison Avenue. With lay- ers of locally made tan brick, the building once had two stories but was partially destroyed by a fire in 1988.
The 1914 Wilkerson Building at 200 Harrison Avenue features protrud- ing brick designs as well. Structural sandstone was used on the window lintels and sills. This building has now been remodeled with stucco.
The height of brick construction in the 1910s is embodied in the old Panama City High School, later known as Panama Grammar School, at 100 7th Street. Light-colored brick was used as ornamentation around the cornice of the building. The design was achieved by stretchers and protruding headers. Ornamental lintels and arches above windows and doors were achieved by rowlocks.
Out of the dozen or so brick buildings erected in the 1910s, one has been demolished and five have been stuccoed, but thankfully, four remain preserved and two have been remodeled in the old vernacular style.
The height of brickwork is evident in the remaining buildings of the 1920s. These were the Roaring Twenties, the decade of prosperity and, finally, financial collapse. Most of the dozen or so buildings that I have been able to identify from this decade were built in 1926. Few remain in their original appearance; sadly, 75 percent have had their character erased with stucco.
The exceptions are the Folkes Building at 318 Harrison Avenue, a com- mercial vernacular, and the Commercial Bank at 227 Harrison Avenue, one of the few examples of Georgian/Colonial Revival architecture in our town. The Folkes Building used all the techniques that were dis- played before: bichrome bricks, arches, courses of brick turned horizon- tal and vertical, friezes, protruding brick, headers and stretchers, and lintels. The Commercial Bank utilized a monochrome buff brick with a few white trim features. A unique, almost herringbone design was used in panels above the cornice.
The golden age of downtown brick construction gave way to the de- cade of art deco, which seemed to have little use for brick. There were, however, several buildings of the 1930s worthy of mention. One new element was introduced in the brick buildings of the time—the stepped or crowstepped gable and the Dutch gable. The two buildings in the first block of W. Oak Avenue illustrate the stepped gable, and the beau- tiful Coca-Cola Building at 238 W. 5th Street displays the Dutch gable. This latter building has replaced the classic brick-framed sign piece with a stucco one that includes Coke bottles and “Coca-Cola” in relief. Last- ly, the 1937 Page Building should be mentioned. Ornamentation was achieved with tan brick bands of headers and stretchers as well as a cross-like motif in white brick. The second-floor window’s ornamental lintels were done in two courses of tan brick headers. These features have recently been exposed underneath a white stucco cover added in the 1970s.
Today, property and store owners have not just been content to restore the old brick- work. Several have remodeled their storefronts to replicate the 1920s and 1930s look. Such is the case with the building at 1010 Beck Avenue. Even though it is not in the downtown, it replicates how complex brickwork of the 1930s could be. The uncompleted building at 25 W. Oak Avenue displays the classic look by using the plinth course and soaring lesenes. Off-white brick replaces sandstone lintels and block plinth to achieve the same effect. The classic look on a large scale is to be found in the recently remodeled City Hall in Downtown Panama City with its large arched windows and entrance. Again, a total use of brick illustrates how well it can replace block and sandstone in lintels and plinth courses. Finally, the stucco look on the east side of the 300 block of Harrison has been completely replaced with red or off-white brick facades.
In some cases, a stucco makeover may have been the most practical of facelift efforts and some are tasteful and complement the brick vernacular. Even the art deco has its place in the downtown. After all, what would the downtown be without the Martin Theater? A town needs a character. It needs to provide a sense of place. Tragically, we had begun to lose that status as we altered some of our best brickworks. Thankfully, that trend has now been reversed and the Renaissance has begun!
Glossary of Terms
Cornice: projecting ornamental molding that finishes or crowns the top of a building or wall,
Dutch gable, also Flemish gable: a gable whose sides have a shape made up of one or more curves and has a pediment at the top.
Gable: the upper, triangular portion of an external wall at the end of a doubly pitched roof.
Frieze: a horizontal band below the cornice. Header: a brick or block laid horizontally with its head facing out.
Keystone: the central stone of an arch, sometimes decorated or emphasized. Lesene: a low-relief vertical pillar in a wall without a capital or base.
Parapet: a wall built up higher than the line of a roof, often hiding the roof’s surface. Plinth: projecting base of a wall or column pedestal.
Rowlock: a brick or block laid like a header, only vertical.
Sailor: the wider and longer side of a brick turned upright.
Soldier: a stretcher turned upright. Stepped gable: a stairstep type of design at the top of the triangular gable-end of a building.
Stretcher: a brick or stone with its long side laid horizontal.
Vernacular: native or common to a particular country or place.
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