This is the first in a series of monthly posts that will explore the use of building materials, systems, and typologies throughout the 20th century using reference material from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC trade journals, brochures, and other documents. The BTHL is a project of the Springfield, Ill.based Association for Preservation Technology. Read more about the archive here.

Concrete is arguably the most widely used building product in the world. Given its ubiquity​, it is not surprising that the BTHL contains many documents for concrete designs, products, construction techniques, and equipment. The material has a long history, starting in early Roman times, but its use in construction exploded during the 20th century. The seven documents below, all from the BTHL, offer a glimpse of concrete’s coming of age:

Canadian Centre for Architecture

Concrete in Architecture, Portland Cement Association, 1927

The Chicago area emerged as a major center of concrete production and ultimately became the home of the Portland Cement Association (PCA). The PCA produced many technical and marketing publications in support of the broader industry, including the one above. The use of the Parthenon of ancient Greece as the cover image for this publication may seem random, but there's a story behind it. A full-scale concrete replica of the Parthenon was constructed in Nashville, Tenn., in 1925. The replica still stands as the centerpiece of an urban park and a late edition to the classically inspired City Beautiful movement​.


Canadian Centre for Architecture

Representative Cement Houses, Universal Portland Cement Co., c. 1910

Concrete for home construction was a popular subject even though most American homes limited the material to foundations, basements, and site improvements​. The use of portland cement stucco was a method of giving a wood-frame or masonry house a more monolithic appearance.  


Canadian Centre for Architecture

Beauty and Utility in Concrete, Portland Cement Association, 1915

This publication featured the Midway Gardens, a beer garden designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This indoor–outdoor complex made extensive use of cast-in-place concrete in geometric designs. Unfortunately, it was a victim of the Prohibition movement​ and was demolished after a very short life. 


Mike Jackson FAIA collection

One small niche of the residential market was the use of textured concrete block designed to simulate stone. This material hit its peak of popularity around 1910​, and it preceded the larger production of concrete block and was marketed as a do-it-yourself material. With a few molds and a concrete mixer​, an individual could go into business. Sears Roebuck & Co. was an early marketer of the equipment to make these concrete blocks.   


Canadian Centre for Architecture

One of the most important technical innovations in concrete construction was the introduction of steel reinforcement. The structural engineering firm Ransome Engineering Co. ​was founded by Ernest L. Ransome, a pioneer in the development of reinforced concrete buildings. Ransome started his career in San Francisco and is credited with the design of two small, reinforced-concrete bridges there in 1886, both of which survive today.

Canadian Centre for Architecture
Marketing materials promoting concrete for residential construction often emphasized its ability to withstand fire compared to that of the typical wood-frame house. There were even a few attempts to build complete concrete-formed houses. Thomas Edison built a number of concrete houses in New Jersey in an expensive and failed experiment in construction economics. One example of this type of construction that remains today is the Fonthill estate in Doylestown, Pa.


Canadian Centre for Architecture

Blaw Adjustable Column Molds & Column Heads, Blaw Steel Construction Co., 1915

Concrete's use in architecture also relied on the development of tools, techniques, and equipment—particularly for cast-in-place constructions. Various companies developed reusable concrete formwork, which was particularly successful for larger commercial buildings.