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Book Review: The Magic of Scagliola - Historic Properties and Traditional Architecture | Traditional Building

Book Review: The Magic of Scagliola

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David Hayles' book on scagliola de-mystifies the techniques behind this mysterious preservation art.

The Magic of Scagliola
By David Hayles
David Hayles Imprint
326 pp; hardcover; more than 350 full-color and b&w images;
$90; ISBN: 978-0-692-35187-1

the magic of scagliola

Reviewed by Clem Labine

Production and restoration of scagliola is the last great technical mystery in preservation. Many people don’t even know the term scagliola – although everyone has seen it in theaters, banks, churches, courthouses and other public buildings. And even those who know that scagliola is hand-made artificial marble – composed of gypsum plaster, animal glue, various pigments and water – they wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to make a realistic-looking scagliola column.

The Superior Court Room #1 in the Allen County Courthouse, Fort Wayne, IN, makes extensive use of Marezzo scagliola for columns, panels and moldings. Hayles was part of a team that restored damaged scagliola for the building’s centennial celebration in 2002.

The Superior Court Room #1 in the Allen County Courthouse, Fort Wayne, IN, makes extensive use of Marezzo scagliola for columns, panels and moldings. Hayles was part of a team that restored damaged scagliola for the building’s centennial celebration in 2002.

Knowledge of scagliola production had almost completely disappeared in the U.S. by the late 20th century. Earle Felber, a master craftsman in architectural plaster, who passed away in Horsham, PA, in 1996 at age 89, was one of the last Americans with experience in producing commercial scagliola ornament. Earle had worked on some of the elaborately decorated theaters and movie palaces in the 1930s – and fortunately he was able to pass along some of his trade secrets to a few interested craftsmen late in his life. One of the artisans who worked with Earle Felber was a young David Hayles – author of just-published The Magic of Scagliola – and a master craftsman in architectural plaster decoration who has by now probably made and restored more scagliola than any other living person.

Scagliola (sometimes nicknamed “scag”) found widespread use in the U.S. in the first third of the 20th century in churches, theaters, banks, courthouses and capitol buildings. When we see “scag” in the interiors of such places, we don’t notice it because our eye tells us it is natural marble. (Hayles gives us a simple test to distinguish between the two: Real marble feels cool to the touch, while scagliola feels warm.)

Color and veining in scagliola is integral to the material, so scratches and dings in the surface don’t remove the color as happens with painted marbleized surfaces. Scag’s integral color makes it possible to patch, restore and rejuvenate panels and columns that become damaged.

Scagliola is somewhat more economical than natural marble, but it has other advantages besides cost. First and foremost is creative freedom for the architect. A designer can specify any type and combination of “marble” without worrying about sourcing from far-away quarries and long fabrication and delivery times: An experienced scagliola studio can be the single source for any color and shape of “marble.” Because it is worked in a plastic state, it is easier to produce complex ornamental shapes in scagliola than via fabrication of hard natural marble.

Although the materials are simple, procedures for making scagliola are not. Creating scagliola demands the manual skills of a master plasterer, extensive knowledge of the materials involved, plus the keen eye and instincts of an artist. The number of subtle variations in production techniques and recipes are probably as numerous as there are scagliola artisans. That’s why for centuries craftsmen zealously guarded their scagliola secrets.

Secrets of the Benedictine Monasteries

The book Hayles gives us is the only modern text on scagliola and is his attempt to summarize everything he has learned about the topic in his lifetime. It is part historical survey and part pages from a craftsman’s notebook, built around three interwoven themes. First, there’s a history of scagliola’s evolution in the Renaissance, starting as a closely guarded secret in Benedictine monasteries, which gradually found its way into numerous European churches and palaces – Buckingham Palace among them.

Turning to the New World, Hayles recounts the history of scagliola in the U.S., illustrated by installations and restorations in nine major U.S. buildings – including the U.S. Capitol, Milwaukee Public Library and the New Jersey State Capitol. In many of these places, Hayles has worked on scagliola restoration, and provides text and photos to give an idea of the scope of work. Restoration work at the New Jersey State Capitol was especially complex and Hayles devotes 10 pages to the project, including production of veined “marble” via the silk skein method.

In the final section, Hayles provides recipes, techniques and photos for making eight specific types of scagliola, including porphyry, malachite and Verona rosa. In addition, there is history and recipes for Marezzo scagliola based on Keene’s cement (also called “American scagliola” because of its wide use in the U.S. in the early 1900s). For historical context, the author also provides 10 reprinted pages on scagliola from William Millar’s 1897 classic Plastering, Plain and Decorative.

But let the novice beware: the recipe section assumes a certain technical knowledge of the plaster arts. The beginner will need a lot of hands-on practice – and coaching – to be able to reproduce the results shown in the book. It should also be noted that as a self-published book, there are some editorial quirks and typos – along with color images that are of varying quality. This is not a glossy coffee-table book, but rather a unique compendium for the professional who wants to know the history, lore, beauty and craft of traditional artificial marble.

Currently, the source for this limited-edition book is Steven Schuyler Bookseller (www.rarebookstore.net). Price is $90, postpaid.

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