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Smithfield and Ivor, Virginia

December 7, 2010

Smithfield and Ivor are fairly rural little communities in southeastern Virginia — thus I’ve lumped them together. My travels have rather frequently brought me through this area, and there is considerably more simulated masonry there than the three following pictures would suggest.

In my observation, the simulated masonry has been exclusively residential, and almost identical in both color scheme and application.

Rural house, Smithfield, VA


The colors are almost exclusively in the sandy/ochre family, with some pink thrown in for good measure, and the application has typically been isolated — usually on the lower 1/3 of the facade (picture below), and occasionally in non-contiguous patches (as above).



rural house, Ivor, VA


another rural house, Ivor, VA

These two Ivor houses were neighbors, and although the second one has included the elaborated entry, the palette and style are the same — random height, very angular. This opposed to the Smithfield house shown above, which has a slightly more rounded look, and long, thin, relatively uniform units.

I have noticed that, in this area, the simulated masonry seems to run in packs, with multiple neighboring houses on a stretch of highway sporting very similar applications, as though the simulated masonry salesmen had a successful trip through the tidewater. And the lower 1/3 application seems to be prevalent.

Ongoing Tweakage

December 3, 2010

Should you stumble across this page while Googling and notice that updates have been abysmally sporadic and assorted twentieth century building materials entirely missing, mea culpa. I’ve been trying to work out annoying technical issues with image galleries and sizing and, as a devout Luddite, progress has been slow. I do hope that, henceforth, updates will be considerably more frequent — dare I suggest, even . . . regular?

Nameless Motel, Sylvania, GA

December 3, 2010

I happened across this sign-less, but still (if scantily) occupied motel in the wilds of east-central Georgia. Sylvania is pretty rural, about an hour southeast-ish of Augusta, GA, and I didn’t notice any other similarly clad buildings along the highway. I haven’t seen many examples of seemingly-historic simulated masonry down here, so I was particularly excited to find one in the middle of nowhere.




The entire viewable area was covered in a pastel-toned ashlar coursed simulated masonry that looks to have been molded, rather than hand-formed. Whether the molding was done as individual units or on-wall, I’m not certain. There was no maker’s plaque.



The colors were very . . . Golden Girls . . . and up close had a very slight, vaugely metallic, sheen to them. The entire array looked almost to be hand-painted, you can see where the painted surface layer has de-laminated in some spots. And you can see some pulling, if you will — evidence of the plasticity of whatever they used to form the “stones.” It reminded me of terracotta, or some other highly grogged, very plastic outdoor ceramic.

. . . and into the present

December 3, 2010

Frequently, it seems, discussions about simulated masonry focus on historic applications that are then derided from a modern aesthetic perspective. But this material has not been relegated to nesting material for Dodo birds — it’s actually quite common in new residential suburbs (or, at least in the sprawling cluster of mostly identical suburbs orbiting Augusta, GA). I could photograph simulated masonry for days, without repeating a house, and still not have scratched the surface of its local use.

The above photos are fairly representative of the simulated masonry applications for this area, and it appears to be some sort of molded or cast stone product like Cultured Stone, which are typically manufactured by casting individual veneer-ready units from some sort of aggregate. These non-structural units are then applied via a system that shares some small degree of technique with its more historic predecessors.

As with processes like Perma-Stone and FormStone, a metal lathe and cement combination is used. However instead of pressure molding (as with Perma-Stone) or hand-forming (as with FormStone) the final coat of cement on site, the pre-cast units are simply stuck onto the facade of the building, using the metal lathe to provide texture for for the adhering cement to grab (or “key”) onto. The final result is a swathe of facade that certainly suggests stone but which is fairly obviously non-structural and, in some cases owing to colors, evenness and opacity of finish, pretty clearly not natural stone at all.

I am just as fascinated by these contemporary applications as I am with historic ones.

For one thing, some modern cast and molded stone companies have been around long enough to manufacture a product which could, in early applications, rightfully be considered historic. The Owens Corning cultured stone, for example, originated in the 1960s, just at the beginning of the end for Baltimore’s simulated masonry love affair. And yet the differences in aesthetic could not be more disparate.

Example of historic simulated masonry, Baltimore, MD

Modern simulated masonry units, Suburban Georgia

In my observation of contemporary simulated masonry products, I’ve come across nothing to effect the smooth, contoured look of historic applications. Instead, modern installations tend to be more individualized and angular units that look stone-ish . . . but not. Stylized, but in an entirely different manner.

an introduction, of sorts

September 5, 2010

The origins of this project stretch back several years — contextually, back to my undergraduate education in historic preservation and the architectural history course where I was first introduced to (and promptly forgot about) simulated masonry; but more directly, back to my first visit to Baltimore over Easter weekend, 2005, and the unmatched, bizarre, psychically overwhelming experience of getting out of a car amidst a thoroughly afflicted block in Little Italy. The repeated pattern and color of the row houses, both replicated throughout the block, were disorienting, and as I listened to a brief explanation of the material from my native companion I came to an immediate and irrevocable conclusion: I was in love. With a really ugly and very strange cladding material, referred to locally as FormStone regardless of the brand name.

And there are many, many brand names. The material many Baltimoreans lump into the category of FormStone actually traces its history back to the Perma-Stone company of Columbus, Ohio, which patented and was marketing its product in 1929. The Baltimore-based LastingProducts company received its first FormStone patent almost ten years later, in 1937, but the product was aggressively marketed and very well-received, resulting in an unmatched concentration of the material in that city.

Presumably because of the concentration, Baltimore has also been the locus of the most widely publicized (which is to say, in a national context, not very) debates over the disposition of the city’s vast assortment of simulated masonry. Whereas the presence of the material was regarded as a marker of neighborhood vitality in the 1960s, it was recommended for removal by some historical societies in the late 1970’s, and its persistence into the 1990’s came to represent a neighborhood in decline.

Derision and affection aside, however, simulated masonry in all its repetitive, cartoonish glory, has achieved technical historicity, as its lifespan has hurtled past the 50 year mark. Its wide adoption — particularly in Baltimore — and the context thereof, while perhaps not to contemporary tastes, is valuable nevertheless. And if it is to be removed in legion, it is important to maintain some record of its existence and the peculiar streetscape it created. It is also important to understand and even appreciate, if only on some private and publicly denied level, all historic building materials (including simulated masonry) as we interact with them — even if that interaction ultimately leads us to destruction.

I am hopeful that this website can eventually turn into a repository of information, documentation and conversation on simulated masonry, as well as a clearinghouse for photos and, dare I dream, a potential means of conversion for one or two people who perhaps just didn’t realize, before visiting, how very excellent their pink and turquoise faux stone facade actually is.



Sources (see bibliography for full list):

Jester, Thomas C., Twentieth-Century Building Materials: History And Conservation (Washington, DC: Archetype Press, 1995)

Baltimore Sun, “Formstone: Love it or Loathe It.” 15 November 1978.