The late Malvina Reynolds best expressed the modern image of stucco when she sang about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.”
In the years since World War II, the mention of stucco has usually prompted snickers, its image cheapened by dreary G.I. housing and monotonous design made infamous by tracts such as Levittown, N.Y., and Daly City, Calif. — the real-life inspiration for Reynolds’ lyrics.
But stucco’s history is long and dignified. The ancient Greeks applied it over rough stone to get a smooth surface that could be decorated, and the Romans mixed it with marble chips to obtain a brilliant interior finish. The magnificent frescoes of the Renaissance were painted onto a form of wet stucco. It’s still the finish of choice in Mediterranean lands.
Stucco is still unmatched for beauty and versatility. It’s far more durable and fireproof than wood. It can be formed in limitless ways, and the final or “skim” coat can be colored to almost any shade, and will never fade, peel or need repainting.
America’s golden age of stucco began with the California bungalows of the 1920s. These squat little homes, which were eventually built from coast to coast, quickly demonstrated the material’s economy and design potential.
Contractors found that, unlike siding and shingles, stucco went up quickly and would conform to any shape. Better yet, stucco could make a humble house look substantial: By applying it over a hollow wooden framework, for example, a porch column could be given Herculean proportions.
The Mediterranean-style homes of the 1930s also put stucco to good use for mock adobe walls and arches. Its ability to form compound curves made it perfect for the bulging shapes this style demanded.
After World War II, the pressing need to house tens of thousands of returning GIs made home styles turn strictly utilitarian. Stucco was used because it was cheap, but little attempt was made at creativity. The dreary legacy of postwar tract housing gave stucco its undeserved reputation as a slapdash, built-on-the-cheap material.
The inspired stucco design of the bungalow era isn’t lost, however. It’s just dormant. Here are some ways to capitalize on stucco:
1. Take advantage of its plasticity, or ability to be modeled into any shape. Stucco can easily form arches, vaults and even compound curves. All that’s required is a rough wooden framework that approximates the final shape. Turrets, serpentine walls and bulging forms are just a few of the possibilities.
2. Use stucco to suggest mass and solidity. Handle it like masonry, not like exterior wallpaper. Make design features such as columns stout enough to look structural, using the same proportions that stone might require. The bungalow builders excelled at making inexpensive wood-framed homes look very massive, and using stucco three-dimensionally was the key to this trick.
3. Use stucco’s many available textures. If you’re adding onto a home with an unusual stucco texture, find a contractor who’s willing to match it. If you’re building a new house, take a drive through some prewar stucco neighborhoods. You’ll find a huge variety of textures, each the “signature” of its creator. You’ll also find a lot of great design ideas.