a wall of red brick
Chicago Common bricks are made from clay from the Chicago River. Credit: Brickstacker/Wikipedia licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

When Will Quam was asked if all bricks want to be arches, he insisted that bricks have neither feelings nor desires, that as wonderful as they are, they simply aren’t sentient. 

Quam, Chicago’s resident “brick whisperer,” gives walking tours of Chicago where he shares his infectious passion for—yes—bricks. The tours last 90 minutes, cover 1.5 miles, and cost either $19 or $10. There is no difference between the tours at the different prices, he just wants to make sure they are affordable for everyone and the lower price is for those who need it.

In addition to being an expert on and lover of bricks, Quam is a photographer of architecture, a writer, and a researcher. He is convinced that nothing is boring and excitement can be found in anything—even bricks.

Chicago is a great city for brick lovers—bricks can be found all over the place and take all sorts of forms, patterns, colors, and settings. They wear down in various ways. Quam began documenting Chicago’s bricks as an exercise in paying attention and it led him to amazing discoveries that he loves to share with others. 

Did you know Chicago bricks are special? 

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1971 burned down more than 17,000 buildings, and another fire in 1874 caused more damage, the city changed its building codes to prohibit new wood buildings. The result? The Chicago Common brick. 

Chicago Commons are made from Chicago River clay and when fired turn into such colors as buff yellow, salmon pink, or deep red. The clays are full of lime iron and little stones and particulate. They were called “commons” because they were rougher and were banished to the backs, sides, and interiors of buildings. The street-facing facades were reserved for out-of-town fancy bricks made of cleaner clay.

Brickyards started sprouting up all over Cook County, going from five in 1871 to 60 in 1881. By 1915, 10 percent of all American bricks were made in Chicago. But nothing good lasts, and the last Chicago Common brickyard was closed in 1981. None have been made since. 

This is just the beginning of facts you can learn from Quam. He also talks about neighborhood histories, underrepresented architecture, and lots of facts about bricks. 

His tours cover such areas as Noble Square, Logan Square, or Hyde Park. Or, if you don’t feel like walking (or simply don’t want to be around people yet as the pandemic—hopefully—wanes), you can purchase one of his three tour videos for $8-$12 apiece from his website.

While Quam acts as a mouthpiece for bricks around Chicago, telling their stories, he does insist that it is up to humans to take on that task. The bricks themselves are without feelings or desires, which is what makes Quam Chicago’s best tour guide of non-sentient architecture.

Best of Chicago 2021 is
presented by

Green Thumb

sponsored in part by

Goethe Institut
Chicago History Museum

Refer to the closed final ballot to see all the categories and finalists that were voted on.