If there’s a single midcentury architectural design element that makes me squeal like a polyester-clad teenager at an Elvis concert, it’s the breeze block.
Depending upon your geographical location, you might also know these as screen blocks, decorative cinder blocks, hollow concrete blocks, textile blocks, Besser blocks (in Australia) or architectural blocks. But regardless of nomenclature, the design styles and uses for these blocks are virtually unending, making no two breeze block walls alike. Just like snowflakes. Or Diana Ross’s wigs.
Worth Its Weight In Gold
This swell invention was developed by a company called Superlite Builders Supply in Phoenix, AZ and became overwhelmingly popular in the 1950s and 60s. Superlite concrete blocks were also fire resistant, absorbed sound, and were immune to both decay and termites, so I’d venture to guess that the technology and research put into developing these miraculous blocks pretty much rivaled the moon landing.
One reason breeze blocks were so popular with midcentury era builders is that they provided visual interest to a building while still remaining structural. In pre-air conditioned sunshine states like California, Florida and Arizona, they created a decorative screen to shade buildings from the sun while still allowing daylight and breezes in (and Lucky Strike cigarette smoke out).
These masonry marvels quickly became a hit with residential builders and homeowners as well. Breeze block walls created a unique type of decorative privacy, so Madge could hang her laundry without having to chit-chat with neighbors, and Ethyl could prune her roses without having to look at Junior’s rusty old rattle-trap Studebaker in the drive.
And the design styles–ohhhh the design styles! So many to choose from! Just when I think I’ve seen every type of breeze block design there is, another one randomly turns up in my travels.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
When we purchased the Retro Ranch we were a tad dismayed that it didn’t come with a breeze block wall. Especially since Oregon is one of the few states that has no distributors for breeze blocks. And sourcing these ourselves was only an option if we wanted to pay more in freight costs than in actual breeze blocks, which of course makes perfect fiscal sense for any new homeowners.
But one unsuspecting rainy December afternoon, David discovered the Craigslist jackpot:
“18 Decorative Concrete Breeze Blocks – never used, you haul, $60”
So off we went, into the depths of industrial NE Portland, to claim our geometric midcentury prizes from the shipping dock of a manufacturing facility. Finally! They were ours! Oh the things we could build with these!
Incidentally, we had no idea what we were going to do with them. And it was the middle of a very rainy winter. But they were now in our possession, and that was enough for me. Plus, the design style was an exact replica of the ones used at The Leiahua in Honolulu. Well Mele Kalikimaka to us!
Season Of The Breezin’
Enter spring of 2017: birds chirping, flowers blooming, patio concrete cracking. Uh-oh.
The Retro Ranch patio was the classic 15″ x 15″ square pad that probably came with 86.5% of midcentury-modest ranch homes. Nothing fancy, and barely large enough to contain two sun-loungers and an aluminum patio set. And after 50+ years of Oregon rainfall, it was finally starting to break apart on the surface. Since a patio repair project was imminent, we decided to use the opportunity to develop a design plan and incorporate our coveted breeze blocks to give the patio a little more style and retro flair.
But first there was the cleaning. And the prepping. And the sanding. And the patching. And then some more sanding. And maybe, just maybe, a bit more sanding.
Now let me just add the caveat that neither of us had ever done any type of masonry work before. Especially decorative masonry work. But how hard could it be? You just mix up a few bags of Portland cement, slap a few trowels full on to the patio, and somehow level and stabilize a set of very narrow and wobbly concrete blocks (of which we cannot get any more of) in the blinding sun while the cement is curing before your very eyes.
Yeah. Did I mention we can’t get any more of these blocks? Just wanted to make sure I mentioned that. Because we can’t get any more of these.
The Day Of Reckoning
So I don’t think I have to even tell you that the first two blocks we constructed fell right over and broke into several pieces. Which was a pretty awesome and motivating start to our first masonry project that contained a finite amount of resources.
David was ready to throw in the towel (trowel?) and remove this ridiculous project from our list entirely. But I was armed with a level and a vision, and was fully intent on getting my own damn breeze block wall if it took me all night.
It also occurred to me that what we were attempting was alarmingly similar to something I experienced in my Sculpture 201 class waaaay back in college (hooray for liberal arts degrees!). I also deduced that the Portland cement mixture consistency needed to be more like brownie batter, instead of cake batter (we were clearly heading into dinnertime). So once we adjusted our mixture and developed a system that allowed us to move quickly with minimal cursing and/or throwing things, it all went according to plan. And I’m proud to say that the results stunned me.
We now had our very own decorative breeze block wall at the Retro Ranch.
Holy freakin’ high-balls, Deano.
The dogs were so impressed with our amazing masonry skills that they passed out.
The Final Countdown
The last step of our patio transformation was to apply the patio sealant-stain (a shade of grey that is slightly lighter than our house color) and give our fully-cured-after-28-days breeze block walls a healthy coat of bright white Dry-Lok paint to protect them from the Oregon elements.
Goodbye hideous, stained concrete– hello smooth and luxurious patio!
If you ever wondered what it would be like to stab yourself in the eye with a fondue fork, just paint a breeze block wall with a 6″ brush in 95 degree heat. Because it’s basically the same thing. But the final product looked damn good, so there’s that.
Below is our before & after patio photos (the before shot was taken when we moved in, November 2014). Is this even the same place? Pretty wild stuff, man.
Now who wants to help me dig out a kidney-shaped pool?