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Wood Street Construction


Summary: It appears from our research, that wood streets around the world have been poorly built, historically. There is evidence that the wrong type of wood, pine or oak, was used to make the wood blocks, and those wood blocks were often placed upon impermeable foundations. So we’ve suggested to the Streets Department in Philadelphia that they

 CAMAC STREET:(currently under asphalt)

Wood Block Pavement, Wood Streets, Wood Block Pavers, Pavement Types, Pavement History, Wood Streets Philadelphia, Architectural HIstory, Urban History, Curator of Shit  
(between Walnut and Locust. 12th and 13th)

Below are our emails to Streets Commissioner David Perri, in response to his update to us, that the report on our historic streets will be available online on Jan. 5th.  He also updated us on the situation with Camac Street (the Wood Street), saying, "In other news we did more research with the Historical Commission concerning wood block streets and decided to change the standard to 4” x 6” white oak block.  The larger the block the longer it will resist deterioration.  In addition white oak is considered to be the most durable readily available wood product that we can use.  4” x 4” blocks were most recently used but that size is not historically accurate." 

Our emails below also include some fascinating research on wood streets.

Lynn and Cliff

January 3, 2015

From: Lynn's mail []
Sent: Saturday, January 03, 2015 9:04 AM
To: 'David Perri'
Cc: Councilman Mark Squilla;
Subject: Camac Street - wood street construction & research

Commissioner David Perri:

Thank you for the update. We look forward to the online publication (Jan. 5) of the Streets Department report on Philadelphia’s historic streets.  Regarding Camac (the Wood Street), it is understandable that Camac Street must be restored as quickly and expediently as possible. But hopefully some consideration can be given to an ‘eventual’ solution that will be longer lasting. It is our goal that Philadelphia lead the way in constructing the most durable wood street possible. To that end, and as you know from past communications, we strongly suggest that the concrete foundation be completely removed and replaced with modified aggregate, to improve drainage and thus extend the lifespan of the wood pavers. We also suggest that other wood be substituted for oak (perhaps, red cedar, black locust, or Osage orange) that can better survive the dampness.

We have gathered some very interesting research on the durability of various woods. Here is the most helpful research we found, compiled by Genevieve Netz, who writes, “On the Library of Congress American Memory” website, I found some old magazine reports of studies done in the 1800s on the durability of wood.” See -

It appears that Osage orange trees provide the most durable wood by far. Here are some really fascinating articles on the Osage tree – Untreated posts. Western juniper and black locust, two of the three durable-heartwood species remaining in test, will have average service lives exceeding 30 years. No Osage-orange posts have failed since they were set 52 years ago.

It appears from our research, that wood streets around the world have been poorly built, historically. There is evidence that the wrong type of wood was used to make the wood blocks, and those wood blocks were often placed upon impermeable foundations. See:;_ylu=X3oDMTByMG04Z2o2BHNlYwNzcgRwb3MDMQRjb2xvA2JmMQR2dGlkAw--/RV=2/RE=1420318532/RO=10/

Although in the short run the Streets Department might have to use readily available and less expensive materials, hopefully in the future, Philadelphia’s could lead the way on the most durable method possible of wood street construction. Back to the future, one might say. Again, we look forward to reading the report on the 5th and truly appreciate all the efforts made by the City on behalf of Philadelphia’s historic streets.

Lynn and Cliff Landes, founders
The Philadelphia Society of Small Streets
217 S. Jessup Street
Phil., PA 19107

January 5, 2015

From: Lynn's mail []
Sent: Monday, January 05, 2015 1:49 PM
To: 'David Perri'
Cc: Councilman Mark Squilla;
Subject: new wood streets webpage, wood block experiment, & Roslyn Place

Commissioner Perri – It occurred to us, that for future planning, the Streets Department might want to conduct an experiment on Camac (the wood street) and place a few squares (6‘ by 6’) of the most durable types of woods that can be grown locally, (although some are not native), example: Osage, black locust, and red cedar, in order to determine how well they perform.  Philadelphia might be interested in the use of durable wood blocks on other streets and sidewalks if it could be guaranteed that they are very durable (even in the less that ideal circumstance of the concrete foundation under Camac).  Also, we have put together a webpage devoted to wood streets (, which also gives information on another wood street in Pennsylvania, Roslyn Place in Pittsburgh, PA. 

Lynn and Cliff Landes, founders
The Philadelphia Society of Small Streets
217 S. Jessup Street
Phil., PA 19107



Posted on September 30, 2015 by Ted Savage

IMG_3093 IMG_3095 IMG_3094IMG_3092 IMG_3101 IMG_3100 IMG_3097 IMG_3096

Photos above taken by Kristen Catoe Instagram @k10catoe

UNCOVERED 400 BLOCK OF REED STREET IS WOOD.  When were these blocks laid? Why wood? Are other blocks of Reed “paved” with wood? Share with your members and neighbors and friends your researched findings!

THE 400 BLOCK OF REED IS WOOD  After the posting last week, a representative of the Philadelphia Society of Small Streets emailed Councilman Squilla.  She asked that the re-paving be stopped and that city officials talk with concerned residents and the DSWCA about whether all or part of the street is worth saving.  In response, Streets Commissioner David Perri promptly advised that the street will not be paved, until the most appropriate course of action is determined.  He said, “I sent our Chief Roadway Engineer to the street today to evaluate and get a sample.  We are in contact with the Historical Commission and we will photograph the street.”

Commissioner Perri also advised president Ted Savage that, “The paving work is stopped until an appropriate course of action is determined.  We will evaluate the situation and report findings.   Unlike Camac Street which was replaced many times over at least some of these wood blocks could be original. I would advise folks to be careful handling the blocks as they were likely coated in creosote.”  Ted then contacted Will Collins, The Concordia Group, to advise him of the situation and the interest of the neighborhood in perhaps a preservation effort.  Mr Collins responded that he “would await word from the Councilman.”

Later today, the Commissioner advised Ted that, “My engineer brought back one of the blocks.  Using the original wood blocks in place is likely not a feasible option and they are loaded with creosote which is problematic.  I am thinking that the preservation effort might be to display a segment of the original street at a museum such as Atwater-Kent. Maybe there is a way to acknowledge in-place that there was a wood street on 400 Reed with some sort of gesture (installing a very small section of new wood blocks perhaps)….”  In order not to prolong the inconvenience caused by not completing the re-paving project, he expressed his hope that a resolution would be reached quickly.

Ted Savage said that he believes that this “discovery” may tell an important story of the history of our neighborhood and that we should do what we can to preserve that story.  He asks that anyone, who wants to work now to resolve this issue, send an email to or call 508-639-0939.

REED 20150929_172749  20150930_142655  20150930_14270420150930_144442  20150930_144450  20150930_144500

2015-10-07 14.52.36 2015-10-07 14.54.57  2015-10-07 14.55.59 2015-10-07 14.56.12  2015-10-07 14.56.312015-10-07 14.57.28  2015-10-07 14.57.41

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This article has an unclear citation style. The references used may be made clearer with a different or consistent style of citation, footnoting, or external linking. Citations should clearly show the title, author, publication and date. Currently footnotes are only telling the title of the source.. (October 2014)

Wood block pavement

Nicolson pavement, alternatively spelled Nicholson Pavement, a.k.a. wooden block pavement or wood block pavement, is a road surface material consisting of wooden blocks pioneered by Samuel Nicolson in the mid-eighteen hundreds.[1] Wood block pavement had become unfavorable due the its drawbacks associated with surface quality and maintenance costs.


Laying the Nicolson pavement in Mercer St, New York, by E. & H.T. Anthony

Laying the Nicolson pavement in Mercer St, New York, by E. & H.T. Anthony

Wood block pavement may have originated in Russia in the 14th-century, but it gained prominence in the 1820s and 1830s as a road building alternative to the irregularly surfaced cobblestone streets common during that era.[2] Wood block was also favored because stone was scarce and wood was abundant.[3] Additionally, horse traffic reportedly made less noise on wood-surfaced streets.[4] However, the drawbacks of Nicolson pavement include slippery surfaces when wet or icy,[5][6] and the tendency of the blocks to rut, decay, and heave due to moisture seeping between the blocks.[7] When treated with creosote, wood block pavement would last longer, but the creosoted pavement had a noticeable unpleasant smell.[8]

M. Gourieff introduced [to St. Petersburg] the hexagonal wooden pavement with which, in London, we are all acquainted. This, with continuous reparation, answers pretty well, taking into consideration that equality of surface seems utterly unattainable, that the knavish contractors supply blocks so rotten as to be worthless a few days after they are put down, and that the horses are continually slipping and frequently falling on the perilous highway. It is unpleasant, also, to be semi-asphyxiated each time you take your walks abroad, by the fumes of the infernal pitch-cauldrons, round which the moujik workmen gather, like witches.

Charles Dickens, A Journey Due North, 1856.

Nicolson pavement was the focus of a Supreme Court case, City of Elizabeth v. American Nicholson Pavement Co. which held that while the public use of an invention more than one year prior to the inventor's application for a patent normally causes the inventor to lose his right to a patent, there is an exception to this rule for public uses for experimental purposes.


Wood block pavement at the 200 block of South Camac Street in Philadelphia

Historic Landmark plaque for Nicolson pavement on Roslyn Place, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Historic Landmark plaque for Nicolson pavement on Roslyn Place, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Remnants of Nicolson pavement still exist in several cities across the US. Touted as the only remaining wooden street in the US, Roslyn Place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is completely paved in wooden blocks.[9][10] In addition, patches of creosoted wooden block pavement are still visible in an alley along 10th street between Olive and Locust Streets in St. Louis, Missouri,[11] and at least three other alleys in Chicago, Illinois still retain the use of wood block pavement, though some are in states of disrepair.[12] The 200 block of Camac Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is also paved with wooden blocks, and it is regularly maintained having been listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.[13] Hessler Court in Cleveland, Ohio, known for its Hessler Street Fair, likewise maintains its Nicolson Pavement for historic reasons.[14]






Information provided by:

Frank Stroker, Assistant Archivist
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
100 West Station Square Dr., STE 450
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
FAX:  412-471-1633


Mayor Ralph J. Perk laying wooden blocks on Hessler Court


Wood Block Alleys

by Serhii Chrucky

Modern day Chicago’s streets and alleys consist primarily of asphalt pavement. Numerous examples in older parts of the city can still be found paved with Belgian block from the late 19th and early 20th century. However, before Belgian block became common, there were many different pavement methods with wildly varying advantages and disadvantages. Because it was so cheap (Chicago had an abundant supply of Wisconsin lumber), wood block was one of the favored early methods. There are no longer any wood block streets, and nearly all of the wood block alleys in the city have been repaved as well. However, at least three examples still exist.

Above: The most widely known wood block alley is in the Gold Coast, in the alley between State and Astor less than a block south of North Avenue, behind the mansion of the Archbishop of Chicago. It has been suggested that this alley be closed off to traffic in order to preserve it as a landmark.

Wood block pavement was more commonly called Nicolson pavement. Samuel Nicolson was the superintendent of Boston and Roxbury Mill Corporation when he invented the process in 1848. He was trying to solve a number of problems related to early paving methods. Nicolson wanted a safe, durable, quiet, clean way to pave the streets used by the Mill Corporation. He achieved most of these objectives, the only problem with his method was durability. The first road lasted seven years before requiring replacement.1

Nicolson Pavement, 1859.

By 1853, Nicolson had been contracted by the city of Boston to pave a number of streets. His method made it to Chicago in November 1856, when a segment of Wells Street close to the river was paved with white pine blocks. That section wore down half an inch after three years of use.2 Pine tended to wear very quickly, and soon fell out of favor. The favored variety of wood was white oak, until cedar began came to be widely used after the Great Fire. Surprisingly, wood pavement by and large survived the fire, as it was chemically treated and did not burn easily.3


Above: We discovered this small, dead-end alley on the south side of Roscoe just west of the Inner Drive. A filling station once stood on the site of the apartment building just west of the alley. It is a wonder that the pavement survived.

The wooden blocks used for Nicolson pavement were four by five inches wide, and twelve to fifteen inches long. These were laid together loosely on the four inch side. Before laying the blocks, a sand foundation was put down, upon which boards serving as stringers were placed. The blocks are then laid on the boards, and the spaces between the blocks was filled with a mix of gravel and coal tar.4


Above: Another example is in Lincoln Park; there is a small east-west alley south of Webster and west of Hudson. It is in incredible disrepair, a good illustration of Nicolson pavement’s great shortcoming.

Chicago’s Civil Engineer in the 1850s, Samuel Greeley, was enthusiastically in favor of Nicolson pavement, writing in an 1859 Tribune article: “Wooden pavement…might have great advantages in a city, where suitable stone was scarce, where lumber was the great staple of the market, and where the foundation was new and yielding.”5 However, wood pavement was not long-lasting on heavily trafficked streets, good for at most a decade. By the 1890s, wood pavement was considered by many to be an anachronistic failure.6 During this period, more durable and cost-efficient pavement methods like Macadam and Stone blocks came into use. Most notably, wood pavement was largely replaced by the Belgian blocks that in some places have lasted to this day.


1 Samuel Nicolson. The Nicolson Pavement, invented by Samuel Nicolson, of Boston, Mass. Boston: H.W. Dutton, 1859. Making of America Books (accessed December 10, 2008).

2 Ibid.

3 John Harden. To the Editor of The Chicago Tribune, “Rebuilding Chicage.” Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1872, (accessed December 11, 2008).

4 “How Streets Are Paved: The Art of Tearing Up Streets and Relaying Them.” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 15, 1887, (accessed December 11, 2008).

5 Samuel S. Greeley. “Nicolson Pavement.” Chicago Press and Tribune, February 15, 1859, (accessed December 11, 2008).

6 “Wooden Blocks as Pavements.” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 9, 1899, (accessed December 11, 2008).