Monday, December 5, 2016

Duretta and O'Kast: The Look of Wood for Less

I have long been fascinated by old building technologies; in particular, some of the materials and designed that were developed during the early 20th century. A few months ago, I discussed magnesite stucco, and this time we’ll take a look at a synthetic stand-in for traditional carved woodwork known as Duretta.

Aside from design, one of the foremost properties considered by architects and builders was the ability to be fireproof. This is precisely why stucco, concrete and brick were so popular, and why asbestos was so common in stucco mix, shingles, siding, flooring and other items used in construction.

The New York firm of G.E. Walter developed Duretta for use as a cast material, used to replicate carved wood and metal. It was used for carved wood paneling and wainscoting, door panels, wall friezes, grilles, fireplaces, rails and even exterior half-timber work. Company literature only describes it as a “plastic, fibrous, composition material” – though its exact formula is not known, the fact that it was clearly described as being fireproof would lead one to think that asbestos and perhaps some gypsum may have made up at least part of the mix.

Finishes for Duretta varied; most items were finished to look like wood, and the company claimed that when so finished, it was practically indistinguishable from the real think. Other pieces were finished to look like hammered metal, and still others were provided a special, more durable finish for exterior work.

G.E. Walter was not the only manufacturer to follow this route – other companies like Cleveland’s Fischer & Jirousch (still in business) also developed similar products, like O’Kast (“oak cast”) which also mimicked the look of carved wood. Some of these old wood panel designs are still available, though I do not believe the O’Kast material is still being used in production.

It is amazing to think that there were once a large number of firms designing and producing cast interior and exterior ornament for buildings in the United States. Today there are only a handful, and most of the currently-available designs are based on classical themes rather than the medieval and tudor styles that were so popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One wonders what happened to some of the old proprietary formulas used for these products, as well as the fate of the molds that were used in their manufacture.

Monday, November 7, 2016

On That Stack of Magazines in The Basement...

Long before I built my own house in 1992, I always enjoyed buying home improvement, interior design and related types of magazines. I believe it started with the old Metropolitan Home in the very early 80’s and copies of Architectural Digest (many of which I still have) a few years later. Once we decided to build a new home—of English design—I started buying UK magazines like House & Garden, British Homes & Gardens, Country Living, Period Homes, Homes & Antiques, Country Homes & Interiors, Period Living, and of course, Country Life.

I still have dozens of them stacked quietly in the basement; much to my wife’s chagrin, I seldom throw good magazines away, especially when I paid six to eight dollars apiece for them 15 or 20 years ago. I always thought they would be valuable for reference or inspiration, and after taking some time to relax with a glass of ale and look through a dozen or more copies a few days ago, I take comfort in the fact that I was right to do this.

We all know the print magazine business has suffered greatly over the last 15 years, with the advent of so many home-related websites and other online resources. Most magazines provide at least some content online, and other sites like Houzz—along with innumerable design blogs provide enough content to keep a lot of people happy. But it’s not a perfect world.

While I enjoy visiting Houzz regularly, it is so highly focused on contemporary trends that it’s becoming harder for a traditionalist like myself to find much of value. Primary among these concerns is the total dominance of WHITE (or almost-white) interiors across 80 to 90 percent of the posted images, even on their UK website. Similar websites, like HGTV and even This Old House feature a lot of trendy design looks that don’t always fit my traditional tastes.

But I’ve come to realize that it goes beyond content; for whatever reason, the presentation of online material just doesn’t seem to satisfy me the same way it did in a print magazine. I find the intrusion of unrelated, out-of-context ads bothersome. Stories are broken up into small, distracting, disjointed pieces; photos while plentiful, are often smaller. Online, I feel like I’m having content handed out to me piecemeal, rather than flipping to—and then lingering—on a printed page with a coherent story that I can follow at leisure.

Recently, as I perused a stack of my old magazines, I began to realize what I had missed. Interiors were comfortable, personal, and featured a wide spectrum of colors as well as a lot of natural or stained woodwork—rather than the white painted mouldings and casework that continue to dominate today’s designs. Best of all, I noticed that none of the interiors I was looking at looked old or dated; they seemed natural and inviting—timeless, really—and I was surprised that one could take so many useful design cues from magazines that were 15 to 20 years old. (The one exception, I must admit, was the occasional fetish for flowered cotton chintz that seemed to prevail back in the day; but then, no age is perfect, I suppose.)

Furthermore, in print, each issue stood on its own as something memorable and distinct. Online, web pages may change images from month-to-month, but individual stories and features are simply archived or added to an ever-expanding list of “posts”—which may be searchable and easier to access, but often providing less “meat” than their print counterparts.

Advertising has a role to play in this story as well, but I will cover this is a separate post. It is easy to see the linking and direct response advantage provided by the Internet; yet something is lost. Well-done, well thought-out print advertising can add an element of interest to print magazines—at their best, they have even served as valuable reader content. Unfortunately, developing a top-notch print ad with compelling copy is almost a lost art; today’s ads are all about image, pretty pictures and a website URL. The best days were when ads were not seen as a distraction—when readers enjoyed reviewing the assorted ads and found the advertisers’ individual stories almost as interesting as the editorial content.

Again, this is all just an individual observation—I plan to keep on visiting websites, and maybe returning to my basement magazine stacks a little more often as well.

I may even start to buy magazines again. As soon as I find more space to store them.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fenceposts: A Story of Deferred Maintenance

Sometimes a fence is more than just a fence. When I built our house back in 1992, I needed something to help “enclose” the small space created when I pushed the garage back about 15 feet from the front of the house. With an entry to the kitchen placed in-between and room for a small patio on either side of the driveway, the result was a modest “courtyard” that begged to be enclosed by a fence of some sort.

I eventually settled on a white picket fence, which runs only about 8 feet on either side of the driveway, connecting to the house at one side and ending at the property line on the other, then turning back along the boundary there for about 15 feet before ending even-up with the front of the garage. The result was a nice, semi enclosed space, where I could keep a table and chairs on one side and storage/waste bins on the other, all hidden behind a 3 foot fence.

To frame it all off properly, I asked the fence contractor to include some large gate posts on either side of the driveway; something about five feet high and reasonably substantial—about 8” to 12” square. I may have given him a rough sketch, but the design he came up with was almost exactly what I was looking for.

Here you can see the way the fence was designed to wrap around the house and tie it into the landscape.

Before he had started on the project, I had looked at the plans and decided that all of this going on at one side of the house needed to be balanced by something on the other side. As a result, I added an 8 foot length of fence (and a gate post that matched those on the other side) on the opposite side of the house; this also turned at the property line and went back about 24 feet along the boundary, enclosing a small part of the yard surrounding our enclosed porch/garden room. Eventually, this area hidden behind the fence would become known to our children as The Secret Garden.

I was rather happy with the finished result—the fence really served to “anchor” the house and integrate it into the landscape. It also made it appear larger, since it visually stretched the house and the attached fence all the way across the 90 foot lot.

Maintenance & Durability
While the pickets were of cedar and the rest of the fence framing were of pressure-treated lumber, I was concerned that the three large gateposts might be a long term problem due to the fact that their upper portions were not constructed from treated lumber, but shop built off site from standard 2” thick framing pine. They were well-built, with mitered corners, neat moldings and tight joints, but I knew eventually that the weather (and the carpenter ants) might take their toll.

You can see how the upper portion has taken a real beating.
With plenty of paint and stain, the large wooden columns held up pretty well for the first dozen years or so; eventually, however, the top sections and surrounding trim began to rot. Wood filler, calk, and additional paint helped me get through another few years, and the last season or so I even resorted to applying duct tape and a thick coating of FlexSeal ™ sprayed over the worst parts.

This wasn’t the only issue. Many of the nails used to construct these columns were rusting away, with the result that the lower portions—which were built from 1” thick pressure treated lumber—were coming loose from the bottom of the posts, too. As for the balance of the fence, it was still in good shape; the cedar posts would just need a light sanding and maybe a few nails here and there, and the other standard 4x4 posts were solid as a rock. Nevertheless, as I looked at the fence this spring, I knew that it was time for a major restoration.

Planning & Materials
The ground post anchors that the large columns were built upon were still sound; the fluted sides of the columns were cedar, and in very good shape, as was the edge molding at the corners, which only needed a few new nails. Even the horizontal tops of the posts and the finials were not rotted—some straightening, a screw here and there, and some sanding and re-sealing with silicone caulk would bring them up to snuff.

The upper column panels and the molded trim were another story. They had to go, and not wanting to do this job again, I purchased some Azek PVC trim to do the repair work.

The material is not cheap, but it is a dream to work with—it saws better than wood and takes screws better than wood, too. I wouldn’t use it in every application, but here, where it is painted white anyway and is so exposed to the elements, I have no reservations.

Rebuilt, Re-fastened, caulked and new paint.
I eschewed the mitered corners on that large upper column panels and used butt joints this time around. Again, being painted, I think the result looks just fine. I did miter the upper trim corners carefully, and they look better than the original.

As for the bottom of the posts, the mitered 1” thick panels were re-attached with some new screws and also some stainless L-brackets screwed in at each corner. Not quite as neat as the original, but very secure and will end up being hidden by paint and the flowers which grow in front of the fence.

Hopefully the result--with regular maintenance--should hold up for a good while longer. We can only hope; the core materials still seem pretty sound, and the post remain well-anchored.

That’s Part One of our fence project. Part two will involve some spade work, as we revitalize the plantings in front of and behind the fence.


Friday, September 23, 2016

New Life for New Jersey’s Natirar Mansion

The historic Natirar Mansion, built in 1912 for Walter and Kate Macy-Ladd, had served as a private estate for many years, as well as a convalescent home.
In 1983, the Peapack, NJ estate was purchased by King Hassan II of Morocco for his children, and subsequently sold back to Somerset County in 2003. The county has recently leased the site to a local developer, who is renovating the mansion to serve as the centerpiece of a high-end recreational and residential development.

Visually, the 40-room Tudor-revival mansion pays homage to grand Tudor palaces like Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, though in a much smaller scale. Nonetheless, it features a great deal of authentic detail, including intricate ironwork, leaded glass and authentic wood and stone carving.
Designed by noted Boston architect Guy Lowell, the house is now undergoing an in-depth restoration which includes repairs of the slate and copper roof, repointing of brickwork, and renewal of the oak paneling, carved stonework, molded plaster ceilings and period light fixtures.

When completed, the house will become the highlight of a property that will ultimately include private residential villas, a boutique hotel and spa in conjunction with the existing pool, tennis courts and fitness and wellness center, surrounded by 400 acres of riding, walking and biking trails.

Natirar already boasts one of New Jersey’s most acclaimed restaurants, Ninety Acres. Built in the estate’s restored carriage house, this exceptional facility includes a cooking school, a private club and a 12-acre farm.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Stucco is Stucco, Right? Not Exactly.

If you love traditional Old English homes, there can be no doubt you will run into some type of stucco or exterior plaster at one time or another. It may be on the exterior of an ancient cob house, the roughcast finish on a Voysey house, the fancy plaster pargetting of an Elizabethan townhouse or even some exterior panels on a “stockbroker Tudor”.

Built in 1914, the traditional-styled English Cottage I lived in for 8 years in Akron’s Goodyear Heights had asbestos stucco covering its first (ground) floor and foundation, with cedar shingles on the upper floor. (I’ve always thought wall shingles were a poor-man’s substitute for the clay tiling used on many English vernacular houses.) The stucco on that house had been painted over, and due to some neglected maintenance, had begun to crack in several places.

On the driveway side of the house, the stucco and its expanded wire lath were both coming loose from the exterior sheathing, to the extent that I could easily insert my hand fully into the gap for almost a foot, which was right next to our dining room window. This could have been the result of some foundation settling and some moisture penetration, but it eventually resulted in the decision to remove a 6’ x 4’ section of the stucco and make a major repair.

Of course, I did not know this was asbestos stucco at the time—but it came off in large pieces, and not being too concerned with short term exposure outdoors—I have no regrets or adverse effects some 25 years later. There was horse-hair in that stucco, too!

What I did know is that I could not just go out and buy modern stucco mix and plop it onto the wall. I first reattached the wire lath, which was actually still in pretty decent shape, and added some securely stapled chicken wire here and there, just for good measure. I then referenced an old-fashioned stucco recipe which I probably sourced from The Old House Journal—remember, this was pre-Internet. That meant plenty of lime and not just Portland cement.

Having a substantial section of the house exposed while repairs are being made can be discomforting, but thankfully I was blessed for an extended dry period. A thick base coat, covered with a second, thinner brown coat, brought the surface to the proper level. This was followed by a finish coat—with some small pebbles added—to try and match the rest of the exterior wall surface as best as I could. I wasn’t too happy with the match until I got the hose and sprayed the surface ever-so-lightly with some water from our hose, which smoothed it to the extent that it finally matched the old stucco perfectly. Once this section of the house was coated with paint to match the rest, you could not tell the repair from the original work.

The house needed more repairs higher up on the facade, which had more cracks but was not failing to the extent that it was on the one side, probably due to the fact that it was sheltered from the prevailing winds, rain and direct sunlight. Sadly, I never got around to doing more repairs before we began the process of designing and building our new house in 1992. Nevertheless, I was proud to note during a recent neighborhood visit that the house still retains its original exterior materials and my repair looks just as solid as it did 25 years ago. Even the front of the house has held up to some extent, though it does look worse for the wear.

When we built our new(er) house, I considered using some synthetic stucco for the exterior, but decided against it for cost reasons. Over the years, some of these newer, lighter synthetic blends, installed over various types of insulating foam, have come under fire, having failed due to poor installation techniques or unsuitability for a particular climate. If I was to utilize stucco today, I would probably go with a more traditional type.

Which brings me to the discovery of a third type of stucco, with which I was totally unfamiliar—and that is magnesite stucco.

Some of the more popular brands were Kragstone,  Kellastone and Rocbond, proprietary blends of magnesium carbonate powder, asbestos and sand, which was mixed with an oily, magnesium chloride solution. It was not a cement-like product at all, and contained no lime, gypsum, or water. The result was a more plastic-like, all-mineral stucco product that was highly resistant to cracking and dried rock-hard when applied at least a half-inch thick.

Magnesite stucco was applied in two coats, and its unique properties allowed it to be applied even during freezing weather. Apparently it was introduced some time before WWI, and became quite popular before fading into obscurity a few decades later. In a few places, like California, there are some stucco specialists who can still repair and apply it, as it was often used for flooring surfaces, interior and exterior steps, and even countertops, sinks and bathtubs!

Here in Ohio, I know magnesite stucco was used in a number of locations many years ago, though I have not personally come across it myself. It seems obvious that repairs would represent quite a challenge, and I can’t see the use of more traditional types of stucco for repair being compatible. If you have any experience with this unique type of stucco, I’d like to hear about it.