Some Stucco History

The introduction of the many revival styles of architecture around the turn of the 20th 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 1930s and 1940s, stucco was associated with certain historic architectural styles, including: Prairie; Art Deco and Art Modern; 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 1920s, 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.

Stucco 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 protects the building from wind and rain penetration, and also offers 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.

Before the mid-to late 19th century, stucco consisted primarily of hydrated or slaked lime, water and sand, with straw or animal hair mixed in as a binder. Natural cements were frequently used in stucco mixes after their discovery in the United States during the 1820s. 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.
Caulking is not an appropriate method for repairing cracks in historic stucco.

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 depends on local custom and available materials. Stucco often contains 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 contribute 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. 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 20th century progressed, manufactured and synthetic pigments were added at the factory to some prepared stucco mixes.

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Nov 04

Some Stucco History

The introduction of the many revival styles of architecture around the turn of the 20th century, combined with the improvement and increased... Learn more

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