Hello, and PermaStone Part 1
A meticulously restored Wooden House next to a diamond in the rough (321 15th Street)
by Arthur T. Rollin
Hello Wooden House Project fans! For some time now I have consumed the bountiful images of our borough’s wood-framed beauties on this site. Like you, I’ve gazed longingly at the detailed and colorful results of many a dedicated homeowner’s labors as they restore and preserve our unique built environment.
I’m Arthur Rollin, an architectural preservationist, history nerd and New Yorker with roots that run deep into Brooklyn’s past. I have recently been welcomed into the Wooden House Project team as a contributor of articles on conservation tips and techniques, and I hope my architectural experience and insatiable curiosity proves beneficial to the site’s readership.
Whether you have questions about restoring a wooden house of your own, or simply are interested in looking at this city with a different perspective, I’ll be here to help. Please do chime in or share photos of your own restoration project or something curious you see while walking down the street. I’ll always be looking for new topics and hope to tailor posts to be as useful as possible.
Inspired by an earlier post, Five Reasons Not to Hate Vinyl Siding, I started thinking about another controversial exterior sheathing material, PermaStone, that curious stuff that seems to show up in every working class neighborhood along the eastern seaboard. You’ll likely know it when you see it, as its repetitive pattern of fake stone can jump out even to the untrained eye. The reputation of PermaStone as the material of questionable restorations has even led to the creation of a short documentary on the topic by John Waters! Yep, John Waters himself, the thinly moustachioed actor and director who hails from Baltimore – the birthplace of this post’s topic material.
Freeform faux-stone facade on 14th Street near 6th Avenue in Brooklyn
Disparaging implications aside, in the early to mid 20th century, PermaStone seemed like a miracle material and economical solution to many homeowner’s problems. The product and system for installation (which set it aside from other similar products) was patented in the 1930s – about the same time that many of Brooklyn’s wooden houses were starting to show their age. Years of weather, pollution, poor maintenance and antiquated paint technology takes a toll on any building, but especially so for those that are predominantly wood.
Faux-stone triplets on 15th Street in Brooklyn
Salesmen and contractors (often one and the same) capitalized on this opportunity, spreading across our borough to extoll the virtues of this wondrous new product. They alleged that for the cost of three paint jobs, they could update the appearance of a home, improve its value and leave a maintenance-free “modernized” exterior that would never need cleaning or repair – claims often backed by a 30-year guarantee. Still more impressive was that a typical Brooklyn two and a half story could be safely clad in less than a week! Why wouldn’t you upgrade? To many homeowners, there was no question that this modern technology was the solution to all their wood clad problems.
Preparation for installation of PermaStone often involved tearing out any facade projections, decorative, functional or otherwise. Contractors used a heavy hand in lobbing off casings, lintels, sills, belt courses and cornices. The goal was to affix sheets of steel lathe to field surfaces that had been made as smooth as possible, and to bridge gaps with furring strips nailed to the facade. Over this base, an initial layer of cementitious material, the “scratch coat,” would be spread. The scratch coat would be roughed and scored and allowed to dry. A second cementitious layer called the “brown coat” would then be applied. It was on top of this layer that the facade’s appearance would be determined, and real artistry could come into play.
Contractors had access to a variety of finish coatings, with which they could use a little creative license during installation to “freehand” mortar joints and grout lines. Or, a variety of molds could be used by those less confident in their technique, which usually led to an obvious repetition of patterns and embellishments such as faux keystones above windows. The final application included colorant, shimmering mineral flecks or stone dust, and a waterproofing layer. As a less expensive option, suppliers offered pre-stamped panels, the most popular of which was made to look like coursed brickwork, to be installed directly over the brown coat. This eliminated all of the on-site finishing.
So, there you have a little historical background on one of our borough’s most quirky claddings. Next post, I’ll go over how to safely remove the stuff in order to reveal some original wood details. Until then, keep your eyes peeled. Hopefully, you’ll spot some faux stone. If so, feel free to send us the photos you’ve snapped!