Have you ever looked closely at the block on the white garage located between the farmhouse and the barn? It is made from rock-faced block, sometimes also called cast stone. According John Burnell of Mason’s Mark, “The concrete block was made to look like stone and was very popular around the turn of the 20th century.” Rock face block is also referred to as rusticated concrete block or ornamental concrete block.
In the late decades of the 19th century into the early 20th century, there was a dramatic shift in building construction in the U.S., which was spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Methods and materials that had long been used traditionally were supplanted by new methods and materials, one of which was the development of concrete.
Builders and architects began experimenting with concrete block which was stronger than brick, lighter than natural stone, easy to make, and affordable to a broader clientele.
Concrete blocks were first manufactured in England in the 1850s. C.S. Hutchinson applied for a United States concrete block patent in 1866. Harmon S. Palmer developed a block-molding machine in 1900, and a key ingredient, Portland cement became more available, making it so quick and easy that even homeowners could make their own building blocks.
In 1895, Sears Roebuck and Company began selling components and plans for various types of school, office and other buildings with some using rock face block. The first complete Sears home kit was offered in 1908. Kit homes saved about one-third of the typical construction costs.
Sears also manufactured the rock face block machines. The company promoted the insulating properties, fire resistance, strength, and decorative appearance of rock face block for everything for foundation to entire home plans to both builders and homeowners stating, “No professional experience” was necessary to use their machine.
As the car became a staple for the middle class, service stations and garages were needed and often built from the rock face block. The block was also used on everything from bungalows, Queen Anne homes, Greek Revival, mission style and others all across the United States.
By 1940, large machines mass-produced cheaper smooth-faced concrete block. Many of the smaller block machines were sold for scrap metal during the Great Depression and World War II.
Since then, many building built with blocks have been covered with siding, stucco or cement coatings, covering their original construction.
To see how the block was made, check out this video about a rock face block made on a 1906 Sears Roebuck machine.