The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stucco
1. Historical BackgroundStucco has been used since ancient times. Still widely used throughout the world, it is one of the most common of traditional building materials. Up until the late 1800s, stucco, like mortar, was primarily lime-based, but the popularization of portland cement changed the composition of stucco, as well as mortar, to a harder material. Historically, the term "plaster" has often been interchangeable with "stucco"; the term is still favored by many, particularly when referring to the traditional lime-based coating. By the nineteenth century "stucco," although originally denoting fine interior ornamental plasterwork, had gained wide acceptance in the United States to describe exterior plastering. "Render" and "rendering" are also terms used to describe stucco, especially in Great Britain. Other historic treatments and coatings related to stucco in that they consist at least in part of a similarly plastic or malleable material include: parging and pargeting, wattle and daub, "cob" or chalk mud, pise de terre, rammed earth, briquete entre poteaux or bousillage, half-timbering, and adobe. All of these are regional variations on traditional mixtures of mud, clay, lime, chalk, cement, gravel or straw. Many are still used today.
The Stucco Tradition in the United StatesStucco is primarily used on residential buildings and relatively small-scale commercial structures. Some of the earliest stucco buildings in the United States include examples of the Federal, Greek and Gothic Revival styles of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries that emulated European architectural fashions. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, appointed by Thomas Jefferson as Surveyor of Public Buildings of the United States in 1803, was responsible for the design of a number of important stucco buildings, including St. John's Church (1816), in Washington, D.C. (Fig. 2). Nearly half a century later Andrew Jackson Downing also advocated the use of stucco in his influential book The Architecture of Country Houses, published in 1850. In Downing's opinion, stucco was superior in many respects to plain brick or stone because it was cheaper, warmer and dryer, and could be "agreeably" tinted. As a result of his advice, stuccoed Italianate style urban and suburban villas proliferated in many parts of the country during the third quarter of the nineteenth century.
Revival Styles Promote Use of Stucco
The introduction of the many revival styles of architecture around the turn of the twentieth century, combined with the improvement and increased availability of portland cement resulted in a "craze" for stucco as a building material in the United States. Beginning about 1890 and gaining momentum into the 1930's and 1940's, stucco was associated with certain historic architectural styles, including: Prairie; Art Deco, and Art Moderne; Spanish Colonial, Mission, Pueblo, Mediterranean, English Cotswold Cottage, and Tudor Revival styles; as well as the ubiquitous bungalow and "four-square" house. The fad for Spanish Colonial Revival, and other variations on this theme, was especially important in furthering stucco as a building material in the United States during this period, since stucco clearly looked like adobe.
Although stucco buildings were especially prevalent in California, the Southwest and Florida, ostensibly because of their Spanish heritage, this period also spawned stucco-coated, revival-style buildings all over the United States and Canada. The popularity of stucco as a cheap, and readily available material meant that by the 1920's, it was used for an increasing variety of building types. Resort hotels, apartment buildings, private mansions and movie theaters, railroad stations, and even gas stations and tourist courts took advantage of the "romance" of period styles, and adopted the stucco construction that had become synonymous with these styles.
A Practical Building MaterialStucco has traditionally been popular for a variety of reasons. It was an inexpensive material that could simulate finely dressed stonework, especially when "scored" or "lined" in the European tradition. A stucco coating over a less finished and less costly substrate such as rubblestone, fieldstone, brick, log or wood frame, gave the building the appearance of being a more expensive and important structure. As a weather-repellent coating, stucco protected the building from wind and rain penetration, and also offered a certain amount of fire protection. While stucco was usually applied during construction as part of the building design, particularly over rubblestone or fieldstone, in some instances it was added later to protect the structure, or when a rise in the owner's social status demanded a comparable rise in his standard of living.
Composition of Historic Stucco
Before the mid-to-late nineteenth century, stucco consisted primarily of hydrated or slaked lime, water and sand, with straw or animal hair included as a binder. Natural cements were frequently used in stucco mixes after their discovery in the United States during the 1820's. Portland cement was first manufactured in the United States in 1871, and it gradually replaced natural cement. After about 1900, most stucco was composed primarily of portland cement, mixed with some lime. With the addition of portland cement, stucco became even more versatile and durable. No longer used just as a coating for a substantial material like masonry or log, stucco could now be applied over wood or metal lath attached to a light wood frame. With this increased strength, stucco ceased to be just a veneer and became a more integral part of the building structure.
Today, gypsum, which is hydrated calcium sulfate or sulfate of lime, has to a great extent replaced lime Gypsum is preferred because it hardens faster and has less shrinkage than lime. Lime is generally used only in the finish coat in contemporary stucco work.
The composition of stucco depended on local custom and available materials. Stucco often contained substantial amounts of mud or clay, marble or brick dust, or even sawdust, and an array of additives ranging from animal blood or urine, to eggs, keratin or gluesize (animal hooves and horns), varnish, wheat paste, sugar, salt, sodium silicate, alum, tallow, linseed oil, beeswax, and wine, beer, or rye whiskey. Waxes, fats and oils were included to introduce water-repellent properties, sugary materials reduced the amount of water needed and slowed down the setting time, and alcohol acted as an air entrainer. All of these additives contributed to the strength and durability of the stucco.
The appearance of much stucco was determined by the color of the sand--or sometimes burnt clay, used in the mix, but often stucco was also tinted with natural pigments, or the surface whitewashed or color-washed after stuccoing was completed. Brick dust could provide color, and other coloring materials that were not affected by lime, mostly mineral pigments, could be added to the mix for the final finish coat. Stucco was also marbled or marbleized--stained to look like stone by diluting oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) with water, and mixing this with a yellow ochre, or another color. As the twentieth century progressed, manufactured or synthetic pigments were added at the factory to some prepared stucco mixes.
Methods of Application
Stucco is applied directly, without lath, to masonry substrates such as brick, stone, concrete or hollow tile. But on wood structures, stucco, like its interior counterpart plaster, must be applied over lath in order to obtain an adequate key to hold the stucco. Thus, when applied over a log structure, stucco is laid on horizontal wood lath that has been nailed on vertical wood furring strips attached to the logs. If it is applied over a wood frame structure, stucco may be applied to wood or metal lath nailed directly to the wood frame; it may also be placed on lath that has been attached to furring strips. The furring strips are themselves laid over building paper covering the wood sheathing. Wood lath was gradually superseded by expanded metal lath introduced in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. When stuccoing over a stone or brick substrate, it was customary to cut back or rake out the mortar joints if they were not already recessed by natural weathering or erosion, and sometimes the bricks themselves were gouged to provide a key for the stucco. This helped provide the necessary bond for the stucco to remain attached to the masonry, much like the key provided by wood or metal lath on frame buildings.
Like interior wall plaster, stucco has traditionally been applied as a multiple-layer process, sometimes consisting of two coats, but more commonly as three. Whether applied directly to a masonry substrate or onto wood or metal lath, this consists of a first "scratch" or "pricking-up" coat, followed by a second scratch coat, sometimes referred to as a "floating" or "brown" coat, followed finally by the "finishing" coat. Up until the late-nineteenth century, the first and the second coats were of much the same composition, generally consisting of lime, or natural cement, sand, perhaps clay, and one or more of the additives previously mentioned. Straw or animal hair was usually added to the first coat as a binder. The third, or finishing coat, consisted primarily of a very fine mesh grade of lime and sand, and sometimes pigment. As already noted, after the 1820's, natural cement was also a common ingredient in stucco until it was replaced by portland cement.
Both masonry and wood lath must be kept wet or damp to ensure a good bond with the stucco. Wetting these materials helps to prevent them from pulling moisture out of the stucco too rapidly, which results in cracking, loss of bond, and generally poor quality stuccowork.
Traditional Stucco FinishesUntil the early-twentieth century when a variety of novelty finishes or textures were introduced, the last coat of stucco was commonly given a smooth, troweled finish, and then scored or lined in imitation of ashlar. The illusion of masonry joints was sometimes enhanced by a thin line of white lime putty, graphite, or some other pigment. Some nineteenth century buildings feature a water table or raised foundation of roughcast stucco that differentiates it from the stucco surface above, which is smooth and scored. Other novelty or textured finishes associated with the "period" or revival styles of the early-twentieth century include: the English cottage finish, adobe and Spanish, pebble-dashed or dry-dash surface, fan and sponge texture, reticulated and vermiculated, roughcast (or wet dash), and sgraffito.