Read CHAPTER IV of The House that Jill Built after Jack's had proved a failure, free online book, by E. C. Gardner, on


There are two things belonging to modern civilization,” the architect began, “that fill me with amazement. This morning, at the usual hour, I sat at my own breakfast table. During the day I have been reading and writing, eating, drinking and making merry with pleasant acquaintances, old and new. I have observed the architecture of a dozen cities and a hundred villages and have seen landscapes without number. I have been occupying an elegantly finished and furnished drawing-room all the time, with every possible comfort and convenience at hand, and now am sitting at your fireside, two hundred and fifty miles from home. I have just assured the girl I left behind me of my safe arrival, and have listened to her grateful reply. With my ten thousand companions going in the same direction I have met ten thousand others crossing and recrossing our path, every one of whom was as safe and comfortable as ourselves, every one of whom knew the hour and the minute at which he would reach his destination. To an observer above the clouds our pathways would appear more frail than the finest gossamer; and the most daring engineer that ever lived, seeing for the first time our mode of travel, would stake his reputation that we were rushing to inevitable destruction. Yet every foot of our way has been so guarded that not one of these swiftly-moving palaces has swerved from its track or been hindered on its course. This annihilation of space, with the human skill, vigilance and fidelity incidental to it, are more wonderful to me than any tales of magic, stranger than any fiction. I believe because I see; nevertheless it is incredible. My second amazement is that fire insurance companies should continue to live and thrive against such apparently fearful odds, for I see whole villages and cities composed of buildings that seem expressly designed to invite speedy combustion, and at the same time to resist all attempts to extinguish a fire once started in their complex interiors. Indeed, the most effective modes of treatment yet discovered for a burning building are drowning it with all its contents in a deluge of water or blowing it up with gunpowder. It is an open question which of the two methods is to be preferred.

“Let me show you how a wooden house is built. The sills and joists of the first floor are comparatively safe, because they are not boxed in with dry boards, and even with furnace and ash-pits in the cellar there would be little danger from a fire down below if it were not for the careful provision made for carrying it into the upper part of the structure. This provision, however, is most effectively made by means of the upright studs and furrings that stand all around the outside of the building and reach across it wherever a partition is needed. Accordingly, every wooden house has from one hundred to one thousand wooden flues of a highly inflammable character arranged expressly to carry fire from the bottom to the top, valiantly consuming themselves in the operation. Furthermore, they are frequently charged with shavings and splinters of wood, which, becoming dry as tinder, will respond at once to a spark from a crack in the chimney, an overheated stove or furnace-pipe, or a match in the hands of an inquisitive mouse. They are, likewise, so arranged that no water can be poured inside them till they fall apart and the house collapses, for they reach to the roof, whose sole duty is to keep out water, whether it comes from the clouds or from a hose-pipe, but which, for economical reasons, is made sufficiently open to allow the air to pass through it freely, thus insuring a good draught when the fire begins to burn. To complete the system and prevent the possibility of finding where the fire began, the spaces between the joists of the upper floors communicate with the vertical flues, and these highways and byways for rats and mice, for fire and smoke, for odors from the kitchen, noises from the nursery and dust from the furnace and coal-bin, are also strewn with builders’ rubbish, which carries flame like stubble on a harvest-field.

Brick houses, as usually built, are not much better, but that is not the fault of the bricks they are tougher than good intentions; they have been burned once and fire agrees with them. In fact, there is no building material so thoroughly reliable, through thick and thin, in prosperity and in adversity, as good, honest, well-burned bricks. But the ordinary brick house is double a house within a house a wooden frame in a brick shell. Like logs in a coal-pit, the inner house is well protected from outside attacks, but the flames, once kindled within, will run about as freely as in a wooden building, and laugh at cold water, which, however abundantly it is poured out, can never reach the heart of the fire till its destructive work is accomplished. Thrown upon the outer walls, it runs down the bricks or clapboards; poured over the roof, it is carried promptly to the ground, as it ought to be; shot in through the windows, it runs down the plastering, washes off the paper, soaks the carpets, ruins the merchandise and spoils everything that water can spoil, while the fire itself roars behind the wainscot, climbs to the rafters and rages among the old papers, cobwebs and heirlooms in the attic till the roof falls in, the floors go down with a crash and an upward shower of sparks, and only the tottering walls, with their eyeless window sockets, or the ragged, blackened chimney’s, remain.”

“One road leads to fire and the other to combustion; that’s plain enough,” said Jack; “but where do the merits come in? I thought we were to learn the relative merits of bricks and wood.”

“Wood has one conspicuous merit, a virtue that covers a multitude of sins it is cheap; but let me first arrange the fire-escapes.”

“By all means. Otherwise we shall be cremated before morning.”

“If you understand my sketch you will see that but one thing is needful to retard the progress of hidden fire, even in a wooden building, long enough at least for one to go up the hill and fetch a pail of water. This remedy consists simply in choking the flues and stopping the draught, which can easily be done by filling in with bricks and mortar between all the studs of both outer walls and inner partitions at or near the level of each floor. A cut-off half way up is an additional safeguard. The horizontal passages between the floor-joists should also be closed in a similar manner, otherwise the smoke and sparks from a burning lath next the kitchen stove-pipe will come up through the cracks in the floor of the parlor, chamber, or around some remote fireplace, where the insurance agent will be assured ’there hadn’t been a fire kindled for six months.’ These occasional dampers are a partial remedy, and if carefully fitted in the right places will save many tons of coal and greatly diminish the chances of total destruction in case of fire. The complete remedy is to leave no spaces that can possibly be filled.

“I supposed air spaces were necessary for warmth and dryness,” said Jill.

“So they are. But there are air spaces in a woolen blanket, in a brickbat and in common mortar, as well as in sawdust, ashes and powdered charcoal, quite enough to serve as non-conductors of heat and of moisture too, if properly protected. One of the best and most available materials at present known for this purpose is ’mineral wool,’ a product of iron ‘slag.’ If the open spaces between the studs and rafters of a wooden building (or in a brick building between the furrings) are filled with this substance, or anything else equally good, if there is anything else of course sawdust or other inflammable material would not answer except for an ice-house or a water-tank ’fire-bugs’ would find it difficult to follow their profession with any success, and the insurance companies would build more elegant offices and declare larger dividends than ever before. Houses might be burned possibly, but the inmates would have ample time to fold their nightgowns, pack their trunks, take up the carpets and count the spoons before vacating the premises.”

“How much will that sort of stuffing cost?”

“For a wooden dwelling house of medium size a few hundred dollars would cover the first outlay, and the saving in worry would be worth twice as much every year.”

“Now to consider the relative merits of brick and wood, for I see Jack is going to sleep again: The chief excellence of wood has already been mentioned. It is cheap, so cheap that any man who can earn a dollar a day and live on fifty cents, may at the end of a year, have a house of his own in which he can live and begin to bring up a family in comfort and safety. He that builds of bricks may rejoice in the durability and strength of his house, in its security against fire and sudden changes of temperature, in economy of fuel in cold weather, of ice in warm weather, and of paint in all weathers; in the possibility of the highest degree of external beauty, and in the blessed consciousness that his real estate will not deteriorate on his hands or be a worn-out and worthless legacy to his children.”

“You must wear peculiar spectacles if you can discover beauty in a square brick house!”

“Rectitude, of which a brick is the accepted type, certainly has a beauty of its own. But if a brick house is not beautiful here again the fault is not, dear Jack, in the bricks; but in ourselves, our prejudices and our architects other things being equal, it should be more beautiful than a wooden house, because the material employed is more appropriate for its use. (I should like to deliver an oration at this point, for upon this Golden Rule of utility hang all the law and the prophets of architectural beauty, but will defer it to a more fitting occasion.) There is, in truth, no limit to the grace of form, color and decoration possible with burned clay. As a marble statue is to a wooden image, so, for the outer walls of a building, is clay that has been moulded and baked, to the products of the saw-mill, the planing-mill, lathe and fret-saw.”

“Oh, you mean terra cotta?”

I mean clay that has been wrought into forms of use and beauty, and prepared by fire to endure almost to the end of time. It is most commonly found in plain rectangular blocks, but in accordance with the artistic spirit of the age, brains are now mixed with the sordid earth, and lasting beauty glows upon the rich, warm face of the strong brick walls.

“Yea, verily, amen and amen! Beauty, eloquence and true poetry, bright gleams of prophetic fire, patriotism, piety and the music of the spheres. I can see them all in my mind’s eye and hear them in my mind’s ear. Jill, my dear, our house shall be bricks excuse me, I mean brains and mortar, from turret to foundation stone. Consider that settled, and if the meeting is unanimous we will now adjourn till to-morrow morning.”

“One moment, if you please. Filling the spaces behind the lathing in a brick house with some fireproof and non-conducting material is a concession to usual modes of building. A more satisfactory construction still would be to build the wails of hollow bricks and with air spaces so disposed that neither wood furrings nor laths would be necessary. There is, moreover, no good reason why the inner surfaces of the main walls of a brick house and both sides of the partitions should not form the final finish of the rooms. Glazed bricks or tiles built into the walls, or secured to them after they are built, are vastly more satisfactory than a fragile and incongruous patchwork of wood, leather, metal, paper, paint and mortar, thrown together in some of the thousand and one fantastic fashions that spring up in a day, run their little course, and speedily return to the dust they have spent their short lives in collecting. I am afraid to dwell on this theme lest I should lie awake all night in a fever of futile protest.”

“Pray don’t run any risks. I move we now adjourn.”

“Yes; but first let me ask one question,” said Jill. “Would not the difference of cost between a house built in the ordinary combustible style and the same made fire-proof, or even ‘slow-burning,’ pay the cost of insurance at the usual rates many times over and leave a large margin besides?”

“Undoubtedly it would.”

“Then, as an investment, what object is there in attempting to make buildings fireproof or even approximately so?”

“Excuse me. I thought you were going to ask only one question.”