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Looking back at:

Basse Block

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Anyone who has walked Fredericksburg's historic district has noticed a number of homes and commercial buildings constructed of an unusual building material that looks like cut stone but is really a prefabricated concrete block known as Basse block.

Fredericksburg TX - Basse Block
Basse block - "Alamo Cement Laid by Basse Brothers"
Photo © Michael Barr , September 2019

In the first half of the 20th century local builders used Basse block in some of the finer buildings in the Hill Country. Basse block was a less expensive substitute for hewn limestone used in many upscale homes, businesses and public buildings at the time.

Brothers Hugo and Henry Basse made Basse block at their cement yard at 304 North Adams Street in Fredericksburg. The brothers started their cement, lime and steel business in 1912.

In 1919 the brothers built a fortress-like warehouse. They wanted it to last, so they built it of Basse block.

Fredericksburg TX - Basse Warehouse
Basse Warehouse in Fredericksburg
Photo © Michael Barr , September 2019

Each Basse block was individually molded using a mixture of Portland cement, sand and water, dry mixed and poured into a cast iron mold with 4 collapsible hinged sides. Each block was about 2 feet wide and 1 foot deep. A 3-man crew could manufacture 25 to 30 blocks a day.

There was an assembly line that extended from the Basse Brothers warehouse down the hill to Town Creek. There was a mixing area and a molding area. After the mix was set in the mold, 2 men using a 2 by 6 would carry the block to the curing area.

The concrete dried quickly. Workers kept the blocks moist for 7 to 10 days to keep them from cracking.

Basse block was tough and durable when fully cured. It required little maintenance.

On the down side each block weighed 120 lbs. and was a hernia waiting to happen.

Because the blocks were so heavy and difficult to transport, the Basse Brothers often made blocks for out of town jobs on the job site.

Meanwhile on the other side of town, Ed Roos made his own version of a prefabricated cement block, often mistaken for Basse block. The Roos Cement Yard was located near the depot at 203 South Lincoln Street, where Rode's Welding Shop is today. Advertisements in the Fredericksburg Standard indicate that Roos Cement Yard was in business as early as 1921.

It's easy to distinguish between Roos block and Basse block. Roos block has a raised mark resembling a "7" or an "L" depending on which way the block was laid.

Roos block, like Basse block, was popular beyond Gillespie County. In February 1922 Ed Roos hauled his concrete block molds to Brady to make blocks on site for the new Brady school house.

There are examples of concrete block construction in Kerr County. The old Fawcett Furniture Building at 820 Water Street in Kerrville and the Rose House, a German-style farmhouse on the Junction Highway, are made of prefabricated cement blocks apparently molded by a company in Kerrville.

But architectural styles change like the sky in early morning, and by 1940 Basse block had gone out of fashion. Bricks became the choice of trendy home builders. Bricks, mass produced by machines, were cheaper, easier to transport and more user friendly than heavy Basse block.

When demand dropped the cement yards in Fredericksburg stopped making concrete blocks and focused on other concrete products.

Hugo Basse took over the cement yard when brother Henry died in 1936. Hugo died at the cement yard on February 2, 1959 while shoveling gravel to make concrete. The company went out of business shortly after Hugo's death.

Ed Roos retired in 1954. His son Marvin ran the cement yard until 1964 when he closed the business for health reasons. Marvin had eczema that flared up every time he worked with cement.

The blocks made by The Basse Brothers and Ed Roos have withstood a century of Texas weather. They have repelled the rain and stood firm against the wind.

Concrete blocks, like cockroaches, can survive just about anything.

The blocks themselves are not beautiful, but they have a remarkable utilitarian quality. They represent the amazing ingenuity of a people isolated from the rest of the world in the early 20th century.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" October 1, 2019 Column

See Texas Achitecture

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" October 1, 2019 Column

"Rose House Restoration Planned"
Kerrville Daily Times, March 22, 2000.
Cement Plant Owner Succumbs,"
San Antonio Express, February 3, 1959.
"Roos Cement Yard Closes Shop After 40 Years Of Business," Harper Herald, January 10, 1864.

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