Stucco is Stucco, Right? Not Exactly.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 0 comments

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.

Historic Neighborhood Tours: Goodyear Heights

Monday, June 13, 2016 0 comments
One of the more gratifying things one can do is to be able to put knowledge to good use, and I was able to do exactly this last weekend as I was able to lead a historic neighborhood tour of Akron’s Goodyear Heights through @Akron2Akron, a local group that helps organized and promote city neighborhood tours in an effort to help residents discover and appreciate the places where they live.
This pedestrian pathway and steps was dedicated to Clara Bingham,  a 47-year Goodyear employee who
was popularly knows as "The First Lady of Goodyear."
I won’t go into a lot of detail in this post—there is a downloadable brochure I prepared; a PDF Dropbox link is HERE if you’d like to read more about it. In short, Goodyear Heights is one of the better American examples of the Garden City Movement as it was transformed into a high quality community for industrial employees of Frank Seiberling’s Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Planning began in 1912, when Seiberling used his master landscape designer, Warren Manning (who had already designed the grounds at his landmark Tudor-Revival mansion, Stan Hywet) to layout a small town for his workers.

Manning, who was a senior assistant to the legendary landscape designer Fredrick Law Olmstead, laid out a masterful plan that followed the topography of the site, leaving many open areas for parks and other public areas. Seiberling also hired noted architects to design attractive homes for the community; rather than settle for typical utilitarian worker housing, he insisted on a wide variety of higher-quality “cottages” – many of which were based on traditional English small home designs.
While the community is also home to a number of other popular early 20th century house styles, like bungalows, craftsman-style homes and quaint colonials, the English influence is clear, from the Tudor-revival Boy Scout Center to more modest homes reminiscent of small houses by Voysey, Baillie Scott and Lutyens. Other buildings in the area followed this trend, including the original high school (built to resemble a Tudor palace) the neighborhood’s public library and Goodyear Hall, which was the company’s educational center and recreation building.

Due to the neighborhood’s size and historic character, our @Akron2Akron tours were held over two days, with two distinct tour routes offered on each date. The tour I led followed a slightly more challenging uphill route, following a series of pedestrian paths and steps that had been integrated into the neighborhood’s original design, allowing convenient access between various street levels. Pour other tour followed a more level route, through the project’s initial phase and taking in some of the open park spaces that Manning had preserved.

On each route, the guides were able to discuss the history of the development, the challenges of construction and the wide variety of home designs found in the there. The weather was perfect, with everything so green and the flowers in bloom, the neighborhood showed quite well, and afterward, everyone was able to meet at the gazebo at the “square” on Pioneer Street for refreshments and cookies. This public area offers a great opportunity to capture Manning’s (and Seiberling’s) original vision, with its human scale and comfortable mix of buildings used for commerce, housing, social services and worship. In recent years, the R.I.G.H.T. Committee (Resident Improving Goodyear Heights Together) led by Sharon Connor, has done an outstanding job in helping to build the gazebo, restore and maintain the rose garden here, and helping to stabilize and improve the neighborhood. Overall, the tours were a great success; somewhere between 75-100 people attended the first Thursday evening tour on June 9th, and another 35 or so attended the Saturday 6/11 follow-up--making this the best attended @Akron2Akron event so far. It was nice to see that not only did we have attendees from all over Akron, but that a number of neighborhood residents came out as well to discover more about their neighborhood and celebrate its history!

The gazebo was built almost 20 years ago by community volunteers, using materials, proportions and a scale
that would compliment the surrounding buildings on the public square.
The @Akron2Akron tour is the first of many activities planned for Goodyear Heights, as current and former residents, city officials, preservationists and other activists are finally coming together to develop plans to protect and preserve this historic neighborhood, which has been recognized for its significance on both the state and national level. During our tour, I discovered that part of the Heights had actually been nominated for the National Register of Historic places back in the 1970’s, but a short-sighted city planning director had discouraged the nomination. Currently discussion has centered on developing a simpler local historic designation as a start, in combination with educational programs and some local funding to encourage and support the preservation and restoration of neighborhood homes.

This was just some of our Thursday night tour group - one more busload of trolley riders was yet to arrive!

A city trolley bus was available to transport attendees from parking areas nearby to the starting point on Malasia Road.


And You Thought the Academy Awards Were WHITE...

Monday, April 4, 2016 0 comments

Years ago, when I first dreamed of building a house of my own, I often dropped into newsstands and book stores to pick up copies of magazines like Country Life, British Home & Garden, Period Home, BBC Homes & Antiques and many others, seeking inspiration. I knew I would never have the means to build what I really wanted, but I hoped that by reading, training my eye and getting a “feel” for what was appropriate, I could come fairly close to envisioning my dream.

Over the years, I have amassed quite a library of books on English architecture and traditional home design. I also managed to horde a lot of those old magazines, which are still well-preserved in my basement.

I’m glad I kept them. Now let me explain.

One of the delights of the Internet Age (yet sadly for magazine publishers) is that there is so much information and visual inspiration available for homeowners to freely access. I find myself constantly referencing ideas and resources from home improvement and interior design sites and blogs, as well as design and furnishing websites like Houzz.

…Which brings me to my current “pet peeve.”

I’ve looked at and saved a lot of photos while browsing on Houzz – mostly traditional interiors, but especially kitchens, home office and basement remodels – which cover some of the projects I have been involved with of late. As expected, it’s not always easy to find an interior that doesn’t feature the white-painted woodwork that is featured on almost every home improvement TV show today. But as bad as the situation might be on, it’s even worse on – where almost every single photo in my feed is WHITE. White woodwork. White walls. White cabinets. White fixtures. White tiles. White furniture. White rooms, period. White-white-white-white white. It’s worse than the Academy Awards.

I even posted somewhat sarcastic question on the UK site forum, asking if there had been a ban imposed on using colors other than white. Interestingly enough, one reply blamed the Americans for this; I suppose they could be right.

I get it. If your flat was looking dingy and dull, and you wanted to indulge your dreams of summers in Ibiza, I am fully in sympathy.

My own house probably needs at least one room with white walls - though I am determined that my woodwork will never see paint.

But this ridiculous infatuation with all that is WHITE—or the practical exclusion of anything that is not—is both mystifying and disheartening.

Which is precisely why I am relieved that I can still retrieve those old magazines from the basement and starting looking again for some inspiration. After 20 years or more, I’m sure the pendulum will swing back the other way to once again embrace bold colors, high detail and rich wood tones.

Not so sure about that flowered chintz, though…


On The Radio: Local History & Its Impact on Architecture

Friday, January 29, 2016 0 comments
While we’ve always been focused on a specific area of architecture and design, there can be no doubt that preservation of historic buildings—as both a principle and a cultural and economic benefit—is something that deserves attention. Having reviewed how economic, social and geographic forces have had an impact on the architectural landscape of my own city in a recent Medium post, I wanted to share not only that story but also a recent conversation on the subject I had on local radio.

That Medium essay, LITTLE BIG TOWN: How Akron’s Unique History Has Impacted its Architecture – got a fair share of reads. The essay goes into some detail on how several consecutive waves of economic development have impacted Akron’s built environment, resulting in a situation where very few buildings from the canal-era or late 19th-century still exist. It also outlined the successes and failures of 20th century development, including downtown urban renewal, mid-century highway construction, and the failure of city government to embrace historic preservation within city neighborhoods.

The article made enough impact that I was invited to discuss the subject on one of the local radio stations, WAKR-AM. The entire segment, from the Jason Sokol Show, can be heard HERE.

Now Available: Mind Your Manors Collectible Country House Card Game

Wednesday, December 30, 2015 0 comments
The cards are full color - 54 included
I have always loved trading cards. Collecting baseball cards and football cards is something almost every kid in America has done. When I was growing up in the 60’s, we also collected card decks for our favorite TV shows, like Batman, The Green Hornet, The Man from Uncle and many other popular shows. My own son has collected more modern collectable card games, like Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering.

Surfing the internet, I’ve also seen vintage card games like In Castle Land, and been fascinated by the innumerable series of trading cards that were once offered with cigarettes and tobacco.

With all of these in mind, it seemed only natural to utilize my printing and publishing experience to develop a game and a series of collectable cards that featured famous English houses. Naturally, these would initially focus on examples from the Medieval, Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

As a result, we are now releasing our first collectible card game, Mind Your Manors, which was designed with our printing partner, American Biblioverken and produced by The Gamecrafter, a US company that specializes in custom, print-on-demand games. The cards are high-quality, printed to the same specifications as most playing cards or popular gaming decks you would find in any hobby or retail store.

As for the game, it is a simple, turn-based game, where the object is to be the first to collect one or more suits of a particular color; the play is somewhat similar to old games like In Castle Land or Happy Family – and you may wish to develop your own rules.

The real star here is the card deck. Each game deck includes 52 full color cards, each of which depicts a country house illustration on the front and a brief history and notes on the reverse side. I’m sure many people would enjoy the decks for their collectible value alone, and we are currently developing supplemental card decks as well, including additional country houses and manors from this period, as well as other periods, including the Victorian and Edwardian Ages. Future plans also include a card deck and a separate board game featuring many classic town and country pubs.

To read more about the game and to order game decks, visit The Mind Your Manors page at The Gamecrafter. The company does ship internationally; check their order page for costs and delivery info. It’s also important to note that since the games are print-on-demand, additional time may be needed for production.

If you are a retailer, a gift shop at a Heritage house (your house may be in the deck!) or other museum shop and desire to purchase in quantity, please contact us and we will help you obtain stock at a lower price. Simply email us at

Here is a list of the houses included in the deck:






20 DORTON    


28 HOWSHAM        








53 Card List & Intro Text
54 Rules


Buildings Under Threat: But What Will Be The Response?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 0 comments
Back in 1986, I was sitting in the kitchen of Elsie Snyder, a local preservationist, along with a few other people, wondering what we could do to avoid the demolition of an old historic apartment building near Akron’s Grace Park. Those gatherings, and that initial effort—which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful—led to the founding of a local group called Progress Through Preservation, (now known as the Preservation Alliance of Greater Akron) which still operates today. I bring this up for two reasons. One – more of our local historic structures are seriously threatened with demolition. And Two – I am wondering if anyone in Akron will make a concerted effort to stop it.

The buildings in question are two of Akron’s most historic, and have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for many years. They include the former St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and adjacent Sunday School Building and Parish House, located at East Market and Forge Streets. These remarkable gothic structures are among the few remaining links to 19th Century Akron, and the Sunday School is one of the better preserved examples of the historic “Akron Plan” that was developed by Lewis Miller and utilized in hundreds of church buildings across the nation up until WWI. They are attractive, generally well-preserved structures, dating from the 1880’s – 1890’s.

I believe the plan is to raze them to help create some sort of “grand entrance” to the University of Akron from East Market Street; I suppose to complement a similar plan they have for a southern entrance off East Exchange Street. Needless to say, the plan—and the building’s demolition—is unnecessary and short-sighted, and wholly representative of the school’s new administration, which has alienated itself from the greater community through a number of recent missteps such as this.

As to my second reason, I am waiting to see how Akron’s “preservation” community responds to this challenge. One reason I never joined the local organization was that—at least during its early years—I saw the organization as being a little too “West-Akron-centric” in its membership and attitude. I lived in a historic neighborhood on the other side of town (Goodyear Heights) and it always seemed to me that there was little interest in anything outside of Highland Square/West Hill or areas near downtown. That may have been an unfair assessment, but it was my impression at the time; also, I began working in Shaker Heights shortly thereafter, and my daily commute made it difficult to get involved in much of anything during those years.

I may resolve to join yet, but I may wait to see what, if anything, the group will do to help stop the demolition of these historic buildings. The fact is, there is so little left of Akron from the pre-Rubber Boom era that we should be making a special effort to preserve buildings like these. Aside from a few church buildings, the only other structures left from this era are the Robinson Mansion at Buchtel Avenue (currently for sale) and an old funeral home. This stretch of East Market used to be lined with large mansions, much like Cleveland’s old Euclid Avenue—another victim of “progress.”

I don’t know if this is true in many other places—somehow, I suspect it is—but it seems that some preservation organizations that were active, militant and vocal about preservation during the years when they were established have devolved into “historic architecture social clubs”. These groups plan neighborhood tours, handout preservation awards and maybe talk about appreciating old houses, but no longer take an active role in promoting, planning and fighting for historic preservation.

Years ago, the founders of these organizations would criticize historic groups who only looked at preservation through the concept of “historic house/building museums” – an approach based on taking a few of the very best old buildings, and preserving them in a glass case for future generations to enjoy. Thirty years ago, “real” preservationists knew that approach alone was not sufficient; they knew that preservation also meant saving neighborhoods, promoting adaptive re-use, promoting education, demanding government support, and weaving preservation into the fabric of our cities.

Just this last summer, the local preservation group I’ve mentioned held a Fir Hill neighborhood tour right where these buildings are currently under threat. I wonder what they were looking at. On that street alone, two of the large houses, an 1870’s era Alumni Center and a large 1890’s era mansion (most recently a fraternity house) had been demolished over the last couple of years, leaving just a handful of buildings on the street. If this pattern continues, there won’t be much to see there in coming years.

Distant tours of Detroit—which have also been on the group’s itinerary—will only have value if lessons learned in those cities are brought back to Akron and put into action. Preservation isn’t about talking to ourselves, or touring old houses with “enthusiasts” – it’s about preserving and protecting an environment, and reconnecting with our heritage.

I’ve written my “Letter to The Editor” regarding the possible demolition of these historic structures—and I would happily protest any effort toward their removal. The question is, will anyone join me?


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