GEN NXT: Will Quam

Words: MASONRY Magazine
Photos: Squatch Media

Editor’s Note: We had the opportunity to sit down with Brick Enthusiast Will Quam for this month’s installment of our GEN NXT series. Will is a self-taught architecture and brick enthusiast who offers brick tours in the Chicago area. He has studied all things brick and knows a significant amount about Chicago’s construction history. We want to thank Will for taking the time to talk with us, and JagClamp for sponsoring this series.  

Masonry Magazine: Tell me a little bit about yourself. 

Will Quam: I’m from Saint Paul, Minnesota, that’s where I grew up. I studied theater in college, and I work as a theater director at a middle school. I also work at Writer’s Theater, Northlight Theater, and Mudlark Theater, so schools hire them, and they send me to these schools to teach.  

Today I’m going to Orrington Elementary to run a sketch comedy class for them. I’m then directing a play for Mudlark Theater with 20 middle school students. I also help run a theater company with adults, and that’s who I am.  

M.M.: That is awesome! So how did you go from theater to bricks and masonry, how did we do this?  

W.Q.: There was a bridge. I read a book called “On Looking” by Alexandra Horowitz, and in the book, she takes the same walk around her neighborhood with about 15 different experts in their own respective fields. She took an urban bug expert, an urban rodent expert, her three-year-old son, her dog, a blind woman, a sound designer, her very uninhibited artist friend, and tries to see what they see.  

One person is a sign expert, so what can you see on the signs tells you how old this storefront is. I thought to myself, that’s great! I was then hired by the Chicago Home Theater Festival to design a tour for them where they create art and performances in people’s homes. But the audiences have to meet at a CTA station and walk there.  

That was four years ago, the artistic director of that house wanted the tour to get people to start noticing Chicago’s similarities in building structures, two flats and courtyards, and how the brick and stone gave each building its own character. Then I started taking pictures on my phone, and I texted a bunch of people and asked if they would follow this if I made an account. So I did, people started asking me questions, and I thought I should know what I was talking about, and so I started researching, I bought a better camera, and three years later, here I am!  

M.M.: So, did you found the Brick Tour? Is it a company? Is it just you? 

W.Q.: It’s just me, which is funny because people will buy tickets, fill out a form I have, and it will ask if you have taken a Brick of Chicago Tour before, where attendees will answer yes or no, as well as  the question of how did they hear about Brick of Chicago. My family takes the tour and will say, “Will is my son,” and it’s just funny.  

M.M.: So no other tour guides?  

W.Q.: No, the first tour I did was through the Albany Park Arts Festival, and I also did some early tours for Chicago, so I do want to shout them out. They do neighborhood tours with local governments. But I only started doing tours on my own in October. For most of the last three years, it has just been photography and Internet education around bricks.  

M.M.: You write the tours, you guide the tours, and you research the tours, how?  

W.Q.: I even carry a couple of bricks in my backpack on the tours!  

M.M.: What bricks do you carry and why?  

W.Q.: I am a member of the International Brick Collectors Association, so I have a collection of about 15 bricks. I have a Chicago Common, which is broken off so you can see all of the lime and aggregate inside, which is great. I have a pressed St. Louis Red from the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium, and I have an iron spot brick from the Coshocton Brick and Block Company. I also have a 50-in hand-hacked Italian brick made by San Anselmo, a water-struck brick, and a Péter Szabó paver. I also bring a cream city brick from the Pabst complex to contrast Chicago local clay with some Milwaukee local clay.  

M.M.: Fantastic. So what tours do you offer, and how do you come up with the tours? How do you choose what you do?  

W.Q.: Right now, I have four tours that I’ve done. Albany Park is like an intro to brick in Chicago, brick terminology, and brick architecture, Pulaski Park in Noble Square has Victorian-era brickwork and the early mechanization of brick making in America. Which goes from all local clay to the development of the pug mill, the extrusion process, and then Victorian architecture, the unified smooth matte bricks, everything is the same color, tons of corbels unpolished, and terra cotta. 

Rogers Park tour is a perfect example of the height of brick making, which I consider to be in the 1920s Showcasing multi-colored blends, huge terra cotta pieces, terra cotta brick skyscrapers, mansions, and synagogues. The Fulton Market tour, which covers industrial uses of brick and new brick buildings, there’s just a lot of new brick construction there that is being done with the eye of the historic district. So it tends to make bolder and more interesting choices.  

Let me tell you about Chicago common brick. It is brick made from the clays in Chicago, within Cook County, and comes from the shores of the lake. Park Ridge was originally known as Brickton because of the brickyard located therefrom 1840-1880. The clay in the area was abundant, it was good building clay, and it was also hyper-local and had super variable levels of lime, iron, and aggregate. When they fired it, it came out in a whole range of colors from yellow to buff, to pink, to red depending on what was in that batch of clay and the particular makers of Chicago common bricks.  

So there’s a huge variety within that clay that is local to Chicago, compared to St. Louis and the St. Louis reds. Their clay was super fine, come out this beautiful smooth, clean red, and they shipped it all over the country because of that. Cream city brick in Milwaukee as well. But they also ran out pretty early too. But Chicago had so much abundant clay. It was distinctive looking and but also could be perceived to look dirty at the time in comparison to the clean face bricks coming from Indiana.  

M.M.: Your background is in theater, have you ever taken a masonry course or is anyone in your family involved in masonry?  

W.Q.: My dad was a politician in the Minnesota state legislature when I was growing up. My mom worked for a healthcare company, and they both were debaters in high school. My twin brother is in medical school and was a championship debater. Our older brother is in business school and is a championship debater, as well. My great grandfather was the editor of Arts & Architecture Magazine out in L.A.,   

I consider myself to be someone who is professionally excited. As a middle school theater teacher, that’s something that I have to do, and as a theater creator, I’m all about trying to make things fun. So, discovering there is this secret language and history of bricks all around us, my first instinct was to inform everyone.  

M.M.: How do you know so much about bricks?  

W.Q.: Reading. I started by using Wikipedia, and then from there, I bought a book called “Brick: A World History” it’s an architecture writer and photographer. The great thing they do is give the readers the entire history of brick, but they travel to every place together and talk about and every concept. They have a picture of that concept and of the building that demonstrates that concept.  

There’s another book that has a lot more technical detail called “Brickwork” from the 90s that talks about a lot of good stuff. I was also very fortunate that in 2017, the Chicagoist did an article about a guy named Brent Schmitt from Bricks Incorporated, which is a brickyard and me. He reached out to me and has become a friend and a collaborator, so I am constantly asking him questions. His grandfather opened it in Little Village, his dad now runs it, and Brent is one of the other people who help to run it. He’s just a fountain of knowledge. 

M.M.: What does a day-to-day look like for you?  

W.Q.: I spend my whole summer doing theater camp, but I work various itinerant jobs, I usually teach after school, so I will be planning lessons and doing a lot of editing to the photos I’ve taken. I usually spend the whole day just dropping in somewhere and wandering around taking photos.  

A little while ago, I went down to Pilsen, in the heart of Chicago to look at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. It was built between 1890 and 1900, entirely out of brick, by the parishioners, some of who were professional German immigrant bricklayers. The church was designed by Henry J. Schlacks, who also designed St. Ignatius and St. Adalbert’s.  

M.M.: So what is the first building that was “The One” for you?  

W.Q.: I think the first building that I was like, “hold on,” was Bethany Methodist Hospital on Ashland and Winnemac because that was close to where I lived at the time. I would walk by it constantly, and it has a red and blue blend with stippling on it and rustication banding. That was the first one that made me go, “Oh, this is interesting!” The first one(s) to stop me in my tracks was Hibbard Elementary, Kelvyn Park High School, Portage Park Elementary because they all have this tapestry-like brickwork on them as if they were pieces of woven tapestry.  

M.M.: So do you focus on residential buildings, it seems like you have a lot of school buildings? 

W.Q.: There are a lot of schools, but my main focus is residential.  

M.M.: What about commercial buildings? 

W.Q.: There are more residential buildings, so I photograph more them more, and residential buildings have often been well preserved. In commercial buildings, oftentimes, they are covered up in some way, revamped or reworked. There are still a lot of great ones there, but there are just more residential buildings that have not been changed. Chicago’s great because of the population explosion and the time they were building these municipal buildings in the 1910-30s when all this great brick was just coming by rail to Chicago.  

M.M.: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?  

W.Q.: I am really lucky because I get to spend most of my time doing the two things that I really love, photographing and talking about bricks, and playing make-believe with young people. I see myself just doing more of that. I definitely never want to stop doing theater, but I’ve been doing more and more bricks over the past three years. I also see myself doing my commercial photography for architecture, and leading more tours, ideally doing one or two every weekend over the summer. 

M.M.: What do you love most about brick, and why?  

W.Q.: Let me count the ways. I think of bricks as brushstrokes or pixels, and each one is a beautiful part of an even more beautiful whole, each one is unique, and makes a wall so much more interesting. I just love that they’re everywhere, especially in Chicago. You can just literally drop yourself in anywhere and just look at them.  

I love how varied and ubiquitous they are. I would say, and I guess I also love how boring people think they are because then we can go on a journey! I get to make someone think of it in a new way. I like getting to help people think of something in new ways.  

M.M.: What kinds of trends do you see now?  

W.Q.: I see a real trend towards longer bricks and towards a modular height of brick with a much longer length. Those are in buildings like in Fulton Market where they’re putting a lot of money. When they’re building a new condo in Rogers Park, they’re using utility block. They’re using big bricks because they want to spend the least amount of money. So that is my thought on the current state- and I would love to be proven wrong. If anyone wants to get in the comments below, let’s go. I think it is just much less inspired than it has been in the past.  

M.M.: Thank you so much for talking with us today.