Photo shows the tops of a series of attached brick buildings with detailed, multicolored brick cornices
Ornamental cornices from buildings on Iowa Street Credit: Will Quam

Will Quam found his love of bricks by accident. While working as an itinerant theater teacher in Chicago, he would travel around the city for work, and as he traveled, he started to notice Chicago’s bricks. 

“Before 2016 if you’d have asked me what a brick looks like, I would have said, ‘red,’ and I think that’s how most people would respond, despite the fact that there are so many different colors of brick actually on the buildings around us—we just never look at them,” Quam says. 

So, he started looking. And as he looked, he took photos and posted them on Instagram. 

“Today I’ve swapped my phone for a camera, and Brick of Chicago is now my full-time job,” he says. 

Quam offers neighborhood tours with the belief that giving away as much information as possible is essential. “I’m not trying to take the brick secrets to the grave,” he says. 

Two brick buildings are seen side by side. One is a dark red brick with lighter borders are the windows, the other is a light orangish brick with a dark red brick pattern along the facade.
Buildings in Little Village show the variations in Chicago brick colors and patterns.
Credit: Will Quam

His tours go beyond the brick as well. He dives into building details, the history of the architecture, and the stories of the people who lived there. He says, “I also like to find out the interesting things that happened to people who lived in the buildings on my tour, like the Old Town renter who became one of the world’s greatest snail scientists or the Bronzeville resident who performed the same one-man show every Christmas for 70 years.”

Even on his Instagram posts, he will offer details for his followers, whether that’s teaching the history of an architect or building, explaining “clinkers” (aka deformed bricks), or simply listing the address of the building in the post. 

Although Quam’s Instagram and tours focus on all sorts of brick, an important and prevalent kind is the Chicago common brick which became popular after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

“It was a wood city until it burned, and then we rebuilt with brick,” Quam says. He explained that brickmaking technology was at its peak when brickmakers were able to make thousands of bricks in an hour with machines and at a low cost ($5 to $10 per thousand bricks). 

Blue clay deposits from the last Illinois glaciers along Lake Michigan were used to make Chicago common brick. This characteristic is what gives the brick its particular color—a variety of hues like yellow, salmon, and deep red that appear after they are fired in a kiln for 60 hours at over 1,500 degrees. 

A close-up of a brick building shows bricks in red, orange, dark blue and light green
Credit: Will Quam

These bricks, at the time, weren’t considered pristine by architects, who didn’t like their color or irregularity, so they were positioned on the backs or sides of buildings, which are commonly seen around the city. 

Chicago commons built the city, brick by brick, and still make up our alleyways, backs of buildings, and structural walls. If you look directly at a building, it may be a dark red or uniform brown, but once you circle to the side, you can notice an irregular brick. These are the Chicago commons. 

Today, these are prized bricks because they ceased production in 1981, and many buildings using them were demolished. Reclaimed bricks are sold at brickyards like Stockyard Bricks, which specializes in Chicago commons and sources them from Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Saint Louis. 

Most former brickyards were closed and filled in once new construction—like steel and concrete blocks—became more popular and cost less. Thunder Mountain in the Montclare neighborhood converted the 285-foot pit used for digging up clay into a ski resort in 1968. 

Nowadays, there is a brick revival in Chicago, as folks like Quam reignite interest in what was once considered ugly. Folks are rebuilding walls and starting new construction with Chicago commons due to its recyclability and as a way to stay connected to the past. Chicago commons are sexy again—or maybe for the first time ever. 

Not everything about Chicago is about commons, however. From two-flats to workers’ cottages, each individual building in the city has a uniqueness. For some, it’s Indiana limestone or Ironspot brick, while others have basketweave patterns or extravagant terra-cotta sunbursts. 

“Chicago is rightfully praised for the architecture of the Loop and Lincoln Park and Hyde Park that was designed by noteworthy architects. But tucked into every neighborhood in Chicago are other gems designed by architects whose names you’ve never heard before. Every building was designed, and every little design on a building was intentionally put there, and I like to find those little details and make them into their own little works of art through pictures,” says Quam. 

Since Bricks of Chicago is Quam’s full-time job, he must stay organized. With a map on his phone, he keeps track of buildings that he sees while he’s out and about and buildings he sees on Google Street View. 

He says, “I know that no matter where I drop in Chicago, I can find good brick.” 

In addition to walking the Chicago streets, Quam spends much of his time researching in libraries and looking through census records. 

“Pullman is full of redbrick rowhouses, Brighton Park is full of rough and glazed brick flats, South Shore is full of colorful brick apartments, Dunning is full of simple light brick cottages, and the West Loop is now full of shiny black brick skyscrapers,”says Quam. “And each of these neighborhoods did their own little spin on architectural styles, fitting into the larger trends but meeting the whims of the original developers, architects, and residents.”

In Milwaukee, you get Cream City brick made from the clay found around the Menomonee River Valley and the western banks of Lake Michigan. In Saint Louis, Missouri, the brick is red from the clay deposit found underneath the Dog Town and The Hill neighborhoods. Ohio produced more red bricks than any other state in the 1800s. 

Just like Quam, many of his followers may have known little about brick, and the cities it built, without his popular Instagram page—with 27.3k followers. 

He invites viewers to pay attention to their surroundings in a more microscopic and attentive way. Walking through your neighborhood gets a little more exciting once you look up, or look closer. 

While our skyscrapers are world-famous—and rightfully so—Chicagoans are surrounded by history that can be found in the everyday brick all around us. It doesn’t have to be the glitz and glam that we associate with impressive architecture. Sometimes, it’s in the rectangular walls of our homes. 

Brick of Chicago
For more information on neighborhood tours, visit

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