Old and New Stucco
The use of stucco or smooth render to simulate finely dressed stonework or rustication became popular in parts of Britain in the early 19th century. The material was often applied over brickwork but also sometimes over rubble stone. Not only was the appearance of finely jointed work or rustication achievable in stucco, it was also far more affordable than stone in many parts of the country.
External stucco had been introduced into London in the later 18th century and was increasingly used to satisfy the Regency and early Victorian taste for smooth, evenly colored house fronts, its cost amounting to about one quarter that of stone. Mid-Victorian fashions, however, as well as the fall in the price of stone, helped to phase out stucco very quickly after 1860. Later in the century, terracotta came into its own as a cheap and durable material for applied decoration and aggrandizement.
In the early Victorian period stucco was used in a variety of developments ranging from the highly prestigious to the less expensive. John Nash used stucco extensively in the early 19th century for his terraces in London, Brighton, Hastings, Southsea and Torquay as well as his Gothic and Italianate villas in Malvern, Leamington and Harrogate. Perhaps the finest example was his development of Regents Park, arguably his greatest work.
As the popularity for the material spread, highly elaborate stucco faced terraces and villas came to dominate the centres of several key towns and seaside resorts in England and Wales. It was generally used to cover the whole façade but not the sides and back. Fine examples of this can be seen on the Holland Park Estate in West London, built by William and Francis Radford between 1860 and 1879.
Although stucco remained popular in London for more conservatively designed houses until the 1870s, by the mid-Victorian period this form of embellishment was losing favour with many builders in London as the principles of Ruskin and Pugin filtered through to them and the Gothic Revival took hold, although it continued to remain popular in other parts of the country, particularly in seaside resorts, probably because stucco provides an excellent defence against salt-laden spray.
Stucco always remained a very regional material as it was rarely used if good stone was readily available, as in Bristol and Bath. Examples of stucco in Scotland are rare.
As a building material, stucco is a durable, attractive, and weather-resistant wall covering. It was traditionally used as both an interior and exterior finish applied in one or two thin layers directly over a solid masonry, brick or stone surface. The finish coat usually contained an integral color and was typically textured for appearance.
A stucco face from the ancient Greek city of Ai Khanoum, Afghanistan, 3rd-2nd century BC.
Then with the introduction and development of heavy timber and light wood-framed construction methods, stucco was adapted for this new use by adding a reinforcement lattice, or lath, attached to and spanning between the structural supports and by increasing the thickness and number of layers of the total system. The lath added support for the wet plaster and tensile strength to the brittle, cured stucco; while the increased thickness and number of layers helped control cracking.
The traditional application of stucco and lath occurs in three coats — the scratch coat, the brown coat and the finish coat. The two base coats of plaster are either hand-applied or machine sprayed. The finish coat can be troweled smooth, hand-textured, floated to a sand finish or sprayed.
Originally the lath material was strips of wood installed horizontally on the wall, with spaces between, that would support the wet plaster until it cured. This lath and plaster technique became widely used.
In exterior wall applications, the lath is installed over a weather-resistant asphalt-impregnated felt or paper sheet that protects the framing from the moisture that can pass through the porous stucco.
Following World War II, the introduction of metal wire mesh, or netting, replaced the use of wood lath. Galvanizing the wire made it corrosion resistant and suitable for exterior wall applications. At the beginning of the 21st century, this “traditional” method of wire mesh lath and three coats of exterior plaster is still widely used. In some parts of the United States (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida), stucco is the predominant exterior for both residential and commercial construction.