There are several architectural features that quite distinctly define Metro Vancouver: the Vancouver Special, forests of glass condominium towers, west coast modernism and the oddest one of them all – bottle-dash stucco. Predominately found in Vancouver, bottle-dash stucco appears throughout the Lower Mainland and occasionally in the rest of the province.
Also known as ‘beer bottle’ stucco, ‘broken bottle’ stucco or ‘crushed bottle’ stucco, ‘bottle-dash’ stucco is something of an enigma.*** If you are not familiar with what it is, houses with bottle-dash (unlike pebble-dash) have bits of glass (most often brown beer and green pop bottles), instead of the more commonly used rock bits, embedded in the exterior stucco finish. I have been curious about bottle-dash stucco since I was a child and first saw it on my great aunt’s house in East Vancouver. Back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, it was quite common to see it on Vancouver houses of a certain era. When I decided to research bottle-dash stucco, I found that there was very little historical information about it.
Basically, stucco is comprised of an aggregate, a binder, and water. It is applied wet and hardens to a very dense solid. Stucco in some form goes back to ancient times, however, the form of stucco that most of us are familiar with, made with Portland cement, was invented about 250 years ago.
In the 20th C, the process was to apply stucco onto wooden lathe (new construction) or it was applied on galvanized chicken wire attached over existing siding. Stucco is traditionally applied in 3 coats – the scratch coat, the brown coat and the finish coat. It was the finish coat where the colour and/or texture was added and creativity could shine. For ‘dash’ stucco, after the first two coats were applied and dried, a final mixture of cement and lime was applied, and while still fresh had aggregate dashed into it with a scoop.
In BC, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s when stucco became the “popular choice for houses”. According to John Atkin, it “was a key element of the French and English revival styles popular in North America.” Initially, this style of stucco was part of the structure of the house. It was a little later that stucco became more decorative, as various dashes were added to its surface.
In the early days the aggregate for dashes was mostly just simple beach or river gravel. In the earliest example of this style of finish, one can occasionally find sea shells, crab legs and other such bits. Starting as early as the mid 1930s more refined crushed rock (like white quartz and black obsidian) was used to impregnate the surface. This style of finish is known as pebble or rock dash.
Like most things ‘west coast’, we did things a little differently. Bottle-dash stucco shows up in new construction and on older houses in the 1930s and 1940s. An apparent local variant to rock-dash, bottle-dash was used to add some colour and sparkle to the stucco finish. Crushed glass (brown beer bottles, green pop bottles, clear milk bottles and blue milk of magnesia bottles) was added to a white quartz aggregate.
Some rock-dash stucco can be quite dynamic (especially the later versions of it), but it seems that the addition of glass really steps it up a notch.
In her 2004 book, Bungalow Details: Exterior, author Jane Powell comments on her first experience with bottle-dash stucco:
When I first saw this product in Canada, it looked like a variant of pebble-dash with some kind of shiny pebbles in it. But, no, it was explained to me in the sort of hushed tones that preservationists usually reserve for aluminum siding, [Bottle-dash stucco] was retrofitted onto numerous Canadian homes with the encouragement of the government. The shiny pebbles were, in fact, crushed beer bottles…I guess you have to admire the recycling aspect.
For older buildings (like the one in the photo below), rock-dash or bottle-dash was an inexpensive way of insulating houses. The “stucco-ization” of older wood frame houses was encouraged by the government. Federal government grants were available to homeowners through the 1970s to encourage its use. John Atkin explained that the application of exterior stucco was also seen as a way to “quickly modernize the house and hide the signs of renovations – especially as steel and aluminum windows were being promoted by the same grant program to replace ‘old-fashioned’ wood windows”. Retrofitting new windows of a different proportion often left homeowners with ugly patches in the siding. Stucco could hide the scars of renovation.
As many current homeowners can attest to, maintaining a painted wood siding home is a large commitment. So, after two World Wars and the Depression the lure of easy upkeep and modernization must have been very enticing for local homeowners. A house updated with a bottle-dash (or other dash) stucco exterior requires little, if any maintenance.
Unlike regular rock-dash stucco which was quite common in North America, bottle-dash stucco seems to be a purely Pacific Northwest phenomenon. I would suggest that it must have been a Canadian invention, though I have found no confirmation of that fact. On a couple of online discussion forums I found some references to instances of bottle-dash stucco appearing in the Lower Mainland and occasionally in the rest of the province. There was also mention of bottle-dash stucco cropping up on a few homes in Alberta and Washington State. Historian, John Atkin believes the reason you don’t see much of bottle-dash stucco in the States was due to the popularity of aluminum siding in the post WW2 period.
Historic Hoy House in Quesnel, B.C. is early evidence of bottle-dash stucco appearing outside of the Lower Mainland. It was the home of C.D. (Chow Dong) Hoy and his family. C.D. Hoy (1883-1973) was one of Canada’s most famous early photographers. Between 1909 and 1920, Hoy took more that 1,500 photographs of the Chinese, First Nations, and Caucasian pioneers in Quesnel and the Cariboo region. At the time of its construction in 1934, Hoy House was the first house in Quesnel to have a stucco exterior, or more specifically, a bottle-dash stucco exterior. In her 2009 biography, I am Full Moon: Stories of a Ninth Daughter, Lily Hoy Price recalls the day in 1934 when her family showed their new house to the community.
They admired the intricate exterior stucco which my father described in his journal to his children: “The red colour is from the rocks packed in from Red Bluff just outside of Quesnel and carefully screened by hand. The green in the stucco is made of crushed ginger ale bottles and the amber is from smashed beer bottles. The white is marble brought in by train from Vancouver.” A man named Frank Hill applied the stucco…. While most people admired the house, others eyed it skeptically. They believed a stucco house couldn’t and wouldn’t withstand the frigid Quesnel winters and, consequently, wondered about my family’s sanity.
My personal memories of bottle-dash stucco centre around my great aunt’s house on East Georgia in Vancouver. My mother told me that my great Aunt’s house was purchased as a new build in 1946 already covered in the bottle-dash stucco.The exterior of her house was similar to the house above – from a distance it was a spotty, light reddish brown. But up close, that was another story!
Predominated by bits of brown and green glass, my aunt’s house also had bits of blue glass dotting its stuccoed surface. My mother once told me that when she was young, she recalls rare instances when bits of red glass were found. When I was a child, I was fascinated by the bits of coloured glass on my great aunt’s house and was scolded for picking out the bits of glass. I even made several attempts to try and find the rare bits of red amongst the sea of coloured glass – a futile effort not unlike my childhood searches for a lucky four-leaf clover (who didn’t spend their childhood looking for those!)
I never found the elusive red glass bits in the stucco on my aunts house, probably picked out by a previous generation of children. So I can’t tell you how excited I was to find a piece of it in the stucco of a house (see photo below) just down the street from where I currently live. Small victories.
I was disappointed by the limited information on bottle-dash that I was able to glean. As I still have many unanswered questions. For example, why broken glass was ever chosen as a dash medium in the first place? Perhaps it is a simple case of an excess supply of glass? An early attempt at recycling? Or simply a cheap way to add some colour to stucco? Under the often dull, gray skies of Vancouver the aesthetic appeal of coloured glass in stucco might have been a cheap and cheerful way to brighten things up. If anyone can shed some more light on the subject, I would be delighted to hear from you.
I was surprised, however, to discover that when you are actively looking for it, you can still see many examples of bottle-dash in Vancouver today. A testament to its durability. Though I suppose as the years continue to go by and property prices increase, the instances of bottle-dash will diminish as older homes are torn-down, renovated or restored, and even painted. My great aunt’s house still stands, but the current owners have chosen to paint the exterior, in an attempt to bring the house into the 21st Century.
According to John Atkin “stucco is a fascinating topic and a misunderstood building material.” I have to agree, especially here in Metro Vancouver, where we have been plagued by the “leaky condo crisis.” During the condominium construction boom of the 1980s and 1990s, acrylic stucco was improperly applied, resulting in mass building envelope failure. Stucco is a reliable building material when done correctly – bottle-dash stucco houses are a perfect example of this. I guess they just don’t make ’em like they used to!
*** UPDATE: A reader, Neale, informs me that the commercial name for bottle-dash was Sparkle Stucco. Neale says his friend told him that his father and uncle were the Vancouver area distributors of this stucco in the 1950/60s. I found a listing in the city directories of the time for Stucco Supply Co. – “stucco dash of all types” – they were located at 937 Main Street in Vancouver.
POST SCRIPT: Since I wrote this post in February 2014, I’ve gotten a lot of questions (see comments) from people about how to remove, repair or fix their bottle-dash. I’m sorry, but I can’t offer any help there. I’m not a stucco specialist, a contractor or even a home owner. My only experiences with bottle-dash are my childhood memories and my appreciation of it from a far.
UPDATE – Here is a DIY tip from a reader in Victoria about how to patch your bottle-dash:
“After removing a deck, I tried to hire someone to patch my bottle-dash in Victoria and was told by a couple professionals that it is no longer manufactured. Here is a possible simple solution: take a short 2X4 and scrape off loose pieces all around the house, catching them on a tarp. I did this and came up with a wheelbarrow full of bottle-dash. The original stucco work is so well done, I couldn’t tell the difference between where I had scraped and where I hadn’t. Once you have enough chips, repair your area with stucco of similar color, and then throw the chips on.”