Remodeling 101: Mid-Century Decorative Block
Although Frank Lloyd Wright is generally credited with pioneering the use of concrete block as a decorative element in residential architecture in the United States - his "Textile Block" homes, including the Hollyhock House (1922, Los Angeles) and Millard House (1923, Pasadena), featured both raised and stamped pattern block, as well as "stencil", or "breeze" blocks - widespread use of concrete block as a design element in both residential and commercial architecture didn't emerge until the following decade.
Breeze Blocks, or Architectural Screen Blocks, are a decorative concrete block used for architectural screen walls and fences. They have been generally available in production since the Depression era, and they became hugely popular in the mid-century modern residential & commercial buildings of the 1950s & 1960s.
Breeze Blocks obviously differ from Stamped or Raised-Pattern - aka Shadow Blocks - concrete building block and cinder block by use of decorative hole patterns through the block. Used most frequently in hot areas to let the breezes through, or to afford an element of privacy while still allowing the flow of natural light, they also became primary fencing and screen wall material in hurricane-prone coastal regions. Typically made from the ashes of coal, the blocks are bonded together by Portland cement, and used especially for non-load bearing walls and screens.
Starting with the 1930s post-Art Deco period known as Streamline Moderne, Breeze Blocks (as well as Shadow Blocks) became a very trendy part of modern homes, creating an architectural transition from the building to the yard. As architectural styles increased and evolved, the available patterns grew as well. By the time Modernism trickled down into the suburbs in the 1960s, thanks to Eichler, Rummer, Palmer + Krisel, etc., decorative concrete block was as common as wood fencing.
After the 1970s, the popularity of decorative cement block waned. Gradually, the number of sizes and patterns available became considerably more limited. However, with a massive revival of interest in the modernist design and architecture of the mid-twentieth century, particularly over the last fifteen years, demand and production have once again increased, and so has the availability of a wider assorment of both new and reproduction designs.