Archive for Sunday, September 14, 1997


September 14, 1997


— In Holton, street crews don't merely uncover brick streets. They repair, restore and rejuvenate them, one block at a time.

Residents of Holton want to hang onto their past, and they are willing to pay for it.

This town of 3,000 residents, about 28 miles north of Topeka, is paving the way for preservation of its past by spending $66,000 this year to repair its brick streets.

For many cities, including Lawrence, the prospect of shunning pavement for bricks proves to be too costly, but Holton is more than happy to buck the trend.

Crews repaired and replaced bricks on four blocks this year, confident that ironing out bumps today will add another 50 years to the streets' lifetimes -- even if it costs more, and takes longer to accomplish.

"For my own little town, it's worth it," said Mike Todd, who retired from the U.S. Coast Guard and moved to Holton five years ago. "Without the brick streets, it'd be ugly. We'd be like any other city.

"The bricks give us a small-town feel. It's home, and it wouldn't be without them."

In Lawrence, city leaders have allowed neighborhoods to remove pavement from selected brick streets, typically financing the small-scale jobs with federal grants and volunteer labor. But the city has refused to spend any local money for actually repairing brick streets.

One of the brick areas, the 700 block of Mississippi, was uncovered two years ago but today is showing signs of age. Barricades prevent cars from driving in areas where the has base failed under pressure from water and a lack of asphalt cover.

"We'll have to go in there and do some kind of repair," City Manager Mike Wildgen said last week, but he isn't sure what form the repairs will take. Brick replacement is likely but not guaranteed.

Other brick streets aren't high on the repair list.

"If there's an undulation in a brick street, we're not going to go back in there and make them smooth," he said. "What it is is what it is."

Commissioner Erv Hodges, who nearly bottomed out his car recently on the bricks of Pennsylvania Street in East Lawrence, said he was open to hearing about Holton's program.

"I'd like to see what they do," Hodges said. "All I know is when I drive on brick streets, they're in pretty bad shape. That's why they were overlaid to begin with."

Faith in bricks

Holton residents no longer stand for deep ruts in their own brick streets. They do something about them.

In 1994, residents approved a 1/4-cent sales tax dedicated for street repairs, with half of the money set to repair brick streets.

Rex Cameron, street superintendent, figures that properly repaired brick streets should last at least another 50 years, with virtually no need for maintenance. Many of the city's original brick streets don't even need repairs, he said, even after more than 70 years of use.

Early projects did cost up to 10 times as much as traditional asphalt repaving, Cameron said, but today -- taking advantage of years of experience, recycled materials and part-time crews -- a brick repair project can cost less than twice as much.

Restoring a single block of a brick street -- with a new base where necessary, new curbs and gutters, 42,174 bricks and related work -- costs Holton about $25,000.

Pouring a layer of asphalt over that same block, plus related work, would cost about $15,000.

And although replacing bricks on a single block can take a month -- compared to a half day for an asphalt paving crew -- the long-term durability of bricks easily outweighs the inconvenience, Cameron said.

"Asphalt's going to crack," he said. "That's the way it is."

But brick isn't perfect, either.

Brick streets are the first to freeze in the winter, making them the first to get slick and the most difficult to clear, Cameron said. The city uses a special rubber cover for its snowplow, to protect bricks from damage.

Many residents have learned to accept the sacrifices.

"It's a little rough, and it's real slick in the winter," Todd conceded, walking his basset hound past a work site last week. "But I'd rather have them than not have them."

Word of Holton's restoration program has spread to surrounding communities, and nearby Valley Falls even sent one of its road workers to town to learn the process firsthand. A city council member from an Ohio city even wired for details after coming across Holton's home page on the World Wide Web.

"I've had calls this year from 10 towns about the brick streets," said Dianna Wilson, administrator for the Holton Area Chamber of Commerce. "We love them. There's just something about a town with brick streets."

Old bricks, new streets

The process appears simple enough.

A street advisory committee recommends which brick streets need repairs -- typically triggered by poor drainage or failed concrete bases -- before compiling a priority list in February. The city council approves work, which begins in the spring.

Crews start by removing the street's bricks, one block at a time, and installing new concrete curbs. They also replace the road's base, where necessary, with a six-inch-thick layer of concrete.

Crews then wash the bricks at a storage yard on the edge of town, while applying a thin layer of sand to the road's base. Clean bricks are returned to the site, and meticulously replaced between the new curbs.

After crews sweep a mixture of limestone and sand into spaces between the bricks, their work is done. Rolling vehicles, rain and other elements combine to secure the bricks in place.

"The No. 1 complaint I heard when I took this job was the condition of the streets -- not just brick streets, but all streets," said Brad Mears, who became Holton's city administrator five years ago. "Since then, the community has been pleased with the progress. And when you look at the long-term maintenance, this isn't such a bad investment."

So far, the city has rejuvenated less than a half-mile of its 7 1/2 miles of brick streets. This summer's program reconstructed two blocks of Iowa Avenue and touched up a third, while another block of Pennsylvania Avenue awaits new curbs and replacement bricks by the end of October.

Todd is happy about the work that crews just completed in front of his house. Instead of puddles in the street, new curbs will whisk away rainwater. And the bricks should last well into the next century.

Having already lived in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, Todd wouldn't mind if another town copied Holton's process. Just don't tell all your friends.

"I don't like to brag too much about my small town," he said, "because then it won't be a small town anymore."

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