Masonry stains can make historic restoration easier

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House History, Historic Preservation

Being a lover of old houses, a history buff and a die-hard reader, I had to take a look at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. The author of Gone with the Wind lived in the grand place when it was a boarding house, and that’s where she wrote the majority of her famous novel. She affectionately referred to her small apartment as “the Dump,” a quaint name that is no longer fitting after the extensive renovation the house has seen.

The house in 1899: Courtesy Margaret Mitchell House

One of the most interesting things about the renovation project was the brick facade. The owners of the home wanted the house to look just as it had when Margaret Mitchell lived there. However, after years of deterioration and two fires, much of the brick had to be replaced. This left the project in a quandry, because as any old house enthusiast knows, the look of new brick is definitely not even close to the look of old brick.

Masonry staining was the answer. Masonry staining makes a lot of sense for renovation, both in terms of materials and the bottom line. Since many structures simply need a section rebuilt, that gives owners a difficult decision. If they simply add new brick to the area that needs it, the new brick and old brick will be mismatched. In order to match it precisely, replacing the old with new is a way to ensure that — but that means demolishing even more of the historical character of the structure.

In addition, Nawkaw Corporation — the company that handled the masonry work on the Margaret Mitchell House — points out that staining new masonry to match the old can cost only about 15% of the price of decladding and rebricking. That’s a big chunk of change, especially when the project is on a tight budget and the money is needed to preserve other historical features.

The stain is not a temporary fix. Most companies today offer a 25-year warranty on the work. Colors can be blended to match the original, or a historical look can be reproduced for an entirely new building. A complete change of brick color is also available through staining, though this is not often the goal of historic preservationists. Staining also works well to remove graffiti, which could allow owners to avoid the use of harsh chemicals that can sometimes eat away at the old, delicate masonry.

Today, the Margaret Mitchell House has a perfect facade that looks like brick from the early 1900s. But that hides the true history of the house, which includes serious disrepair and two devastating fires. Even with the difficulties the house has faced, many architectural details still remain, like the leaded glass window that Margaret Mitchell often gazed out of as she was writing her book. Besides the historical value, the 1899 beauty is an excellent example of Tudor Revival architecture. But it’s the new that is worth seeing: the renovation on this place is just astounding.

The house in 2010: Courtesy of Margaret Mitchell House