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Historic Exteriors: Brick and masonry

The Old House Web

Preservation experts from the National Park Service recommend the following steps in restoring any historic structure. First, identify the historically significant features. Second, protect the features that are historically significant. Third, repair damage to historically important features. Fourth, replace what cannot be repaired. Fifth, recreate missing features that were historically significant. And lastly, avoid new additions that alter the historical appearance inside, or outside. These steps are based on guidelines developed by the Department of the Interior.

Masonry: an introduction

masonrypension50.jpg (20178 bytes)The longevity and appearance of a masonry wall is dependent upon the size of the individual units and the mortar.

Stone is one of the more lasting of masonry building materials and has been used throughout the history of American building construction. The kinds of stone most commonly encountered on historic buildings in the U.S. include various types of sandstone, limestone, marble, granite, slate and fieldstone. Brick varied considerably in size and quality. Before 1870, brick clays were pressed into molds and were often unevenly fired. The quality of brick depended on the type of clay available and the brick-making techniques; by the 1870s--with the perfection of an extrusion process--bricks became more uniform and durable. Terra cotta is also a kiln-dried clay product popular from the late 19th century until the 1930s. The development of the steel-frame office buildings in the early 20th century contributed to the widespread use of architectural terra cotta. Adobe, which consists of sun-dried earthen bricks, was one of the earliest permanent building materials used in the U.S., primarily in the Southwest where it is still popular.

Mortar is used to bond together masonry units. Historic mortar was generally quite soft, consisting primarily of lime and sand with other additives. After 1880, Portland cement was usually added resulting in a more rigid and non-absorbing mortar. Like historic mortar, early stucco coatings were also heavily lime-based, increasing in hardness with the addition of Portland cement in the late 19th century. Concrete has a long history, being variously made of tabby, volcanic ash and, later, of natural hydraulic cements, before the introduction of Portland cement in the 1870s. Since then, concrete has also been used in its pre-cast form.

While masonry is among the most durable of historic building materials, it is also very susceptible to damage by improper maintenance or repair techniques and harsh or abrasive cleaning methods.

Step 1: Identify, retain, preserve

untitled.jpg (8819 bytes)Identify, retain, and preserve masonry features that are important in defining the overall historic character of the building such as walls, brackets, railings, cornices, window architraves, door pediments, steps, and columns; and details such as tooling and bonding patterns, coatings, and color. Materials and craftsmanship are illustrated in this stone wall.

Not recommended:

  • Removing or radically changing masonry features which are important in defining the overall historic character of the building so that, as a result, the character is diminished.
  • Replacing or rebuilding a major portion of exterior masonry walls that could be repaired so that, as a result, the building is no longer historic and is essentially new construction.
  • Applying paint or other coatings such as stucco to masonry that has been historically unpainted or uncoated to create a new appearance.
  • Removing paint from historically painted masonry.
  • Radically changing the type of paint or coating or its color.

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Step 2: Protect and maintain historically significant features

1.jpg (13247 bytes)Protect and maintain masonry by providing proper drainage so that water does not stand on flat, horizontal surfaces or accumulate in curved decorative features.

Clean masonry only when necessary to halt deterioration or remove heavy soiling.

Carry out masonry surface cleaning tests after it has been determined that such cleaning is appropriate. Tests should be observed over a sufficient period of time so that both the immediate and the long range effects are known to enable selection of the gentlest method possible.

Clean masonry surfaces with the gentlest method possible, such as low pressure water and detergents, using natural bristle brushes, as illustrated above.

Inspect painted masonry surfaces to determine whether repainting is necessary. This graffiti, below, was removed from granite by means of a poultice.

2.jpg (6028 bytes) 3.jpg (6499 bytes)

Remove damaged or deteriorated paint only to the next sound layer using the gentlest method possible (e.g., hand-scraping) prior to repainting.

Apply compatible paint coating systems following proper surface preparation.

Repaint with colors that are historically appropriate to the building and district.

Evaluate the overall condition of the masonry to determine whether more than protection and maintenance are required, that is, if repairs to the masonry features will be necessary.

Not recommended:

  • Failing to evaluate and treat the various causes of mortar joint deterioration such as leaking roofs or gutters, differential settlement of the building, capillary action, or extreme weather exposure.
  • Cleaning masonry surfaces when they are not heavily soiled to create a new appearance, thus needlessly introducing chemicals or moisture into historic materials.
  • Cleaning masonry surfaces without testing or without sufficient time for the testing results to be of value.

4.jpg (11542 bytes)Do not sandblast brick or stone surfaces using dry or wet grit or other abrasives. These methods of cleaning permanently erode the surface of the material and accelerate deterioration, as shown at left.

Also not recommended:

  • Using a cleaning method that involves water or liquid chemical solutions when there is any possibility of freezing temperatures.
  • Cleaning with chemical products that will damage masonry, such as using acid on limestone or marble, or leaving chemicals on masonry surfaces.
  • Applying high pressure water cleaning methods that will damage historic masonry and the mortar joints.
  • Removing paint that is firmly adhering to, and thus protecting, masonry surfaces.
  • Using methods of removing paint which are destructive to masonry, such as sandblasting, application of caustic solutions, or high pressure water-blasting.
  • Failing to follow manufacturers' product and application instructions when repainting masonry.
  • Using new paint colors that are inappropriate to the historic building and district.
  • Failing to undertake adequate measures to assure the protection of masonry features.

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Step 3: Repair damaged historical features

Repair masonry walls and other masonry features by repointing the mortar joints where there is evidence of deterioration such as disintegrating mortar, cracks in mortar joints, loose bricks, damp walls, or damaged plaster work.

masonrystucco40.jpg (22535 bytes)Remove deteriorated mortar by carefully hand-raking the joints to avoid damaging the masonry.

Duplicate old mortar in strength, composition, color, and texture.

Duplicate old mortar joints in width and in joint profile.

Repair stucco, as shown at right, by removing the damaged material and patching with new stucco that duplicates the old in strength, composition, color, and texture.

Use mud plaster as a surface coating over unfired, unstabilized adobe because the mud plaster will bond to the adobe.

Cut damaged concrete back to remove the source of deterioration (often corrosion on metal reinforcement bars). The new patch must be applied carefully so it will bond satisfactorily with, and match, the historic concrete.

p_repstones02.jpg (12619 bytes)Repair masonry features by patching, piecing-in, or consolidating the masonry using recognized preservation methods. At left, is a picture of replacement stones tooled to match the original. Repair may also include the limited replacement in kind--or with compatible substitute material--of those extensively deteriorated or missing parts of masonry features when there are surviving prototypes such as terra-cotta brackets or stone balusters.

Apply new or non-historic surface treatments such as water-repellent coatings to masonry only after repointing and only if masonry repairs have failed to arrest water penetration problems.

Not recommended:

  • 5.jpg (15489 bytes)Removing non-deteriorated mortar from sound joints, then repointing the entire building to achieve a uniform appearance. An example of this is shown at right.
  • Using electric saws and hammers rather than hand tools to remove deteriorated mortar from joints prior to repointing.
  • Repointing with mortar of high Portland cement content (unless it is the content of the historic mortar). This can often create a bond that is stronger than the historic material and can cause damage as a result of the differing coefficient of expansion and the differing porosity of the material and the mortar.
  • Repointing with a synthetic caulking compound.
  • Using a "scrub" coating technique to repoint instead of traditional repointing methods.
  • Changing the width or joint profile when repointing.
  • Removing sound stucco; or repairing with new stucco that is stronger than the historic material or does not convey the same visual appearance.
  • Applying cement stucco to unfired, unstabilized adobe. Because the cement stucco will not bond properly, moisture can become entrapped between materials, resulting in accelerated deterioration of the adobe.
  • Patching concrete without removing the source of deterioration.
  • Replacing an entire masonry feature such as a cornice or balustrade when repair of the masonry and limited replacement of deteriorated of missing parts are appropriate.
  • Using a substitute material for the replacement part that does not convey the visual appearance of the surviving parts of the masonry feature or that is physically or chemically incompatible.
  • Applying waterproof, water repellent, or non-historic coatings such as stucco to masonry as a substitute for repointing and masonry repairs. Coatings are frequently unnecessary, expensive, and may change the appearance of historic masonry as well as accelerate its deterioration.

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Step 4: Replace what cannot be repaired

Replace in kind an entire masonry feature that is too deteriorated to repair--if the overall form and detailing are still evident--using the physical evidence as a model to reproduce the feature. Examples can include large sections of a wall, a cornice, balustrade, column, or stairway. If using the same kind of material is not technically or economically feasible, then a compatible substitute material may be considered.

Not recommended:

Removing a masonry feature that is not repairable and not replacing it; or replacing it with a new feature that does not convey the same visual appearance.

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Step 5: Recreate missing features

Design for missing historic features represents the particularly complex technical or design aspects of rehabilitation projects. It should only be considered after the preservation concerns listed above have been addressed.

Design and install a new masonry feature, such as steps or a door pediment, when the historic feature is completely missing. It may be an accurate restoration using historical, pictorial, and physical documentation; or be a new design that is compatible with the size, scale, material, and color of the historic building.

Not recommended:

  • Creating a false historical appearance because the replaced masonry feature is based on insufficient historical, pictorial, and physical documentation.
  • Introducing a new masonry feature that is incompatible in size, scale, material and color.

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To see a list of all of the stories in this series, click here.

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