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CIRCA School: Rustication

by Jon Valalik (photo by Wendell Rocky1)

Grab your No. 2 pencils, everyone! It’s time for CIRCA School, where we uncover the fascinating facts behind everyone’s favorite old house details.
Last week, our High Style column looked at the Richardsonian Romanesque style, on which one often encounters heavy rusticated stone. Rustication is such a powerful word, isn’t it? The term ultimately describes a type of stonework intentionally carved to look like rough masonry. The blocks that make up a rusticated wall are squared to fit together when stacked, with chamfered edges that make a wide, V-shaped joint between them.

Often times this is all that’s done to the stone before it’s used, but occasionally the face of the each block is sculpted in such a way that it has the appearance of having just been plucked from a quarry, with rough scratches and jagged edges. Many architectural elements can be described as beautiful, but rustication isn’t one of them. When applied, it quickly gives a home a substantial sense of solidity and stoutness. Rustication is not beautiful; rustication is handsome.
The technique of creating rusticated masonry gained a lot of popularity during the Italian Renaissance. Many public and religious buildings of the time used the technique, but the most popular examples appear in palazzos, or palaces, of the Italian elite. Typically used on the first story, or “piano nobile,” it gave the impression of sturdier, more robust and imposing construction, whereas the top stories would be finished with smoother, and more delicate detail.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York is a feast of rustication! Photo by Peter Eimon.

In the United States, the technique of rusticating masonry has historically been used, most often, in the Beaux Arts, Italian Renaissance and Richardsonian Romanesque styles of architecture. Italian and Beaux Arts cases generally stick to the renaissance trend of rusticating only the first story, while American homes in the Richardsonian Romanesque style might be found completely covered in rusticated stone. These types of homes were generally built in the late 1800’s and a number of attractive, historically significant examples survive today. Three stories of solid masonry don’t fall down easily, after all!
mount-vernonWell before this type of stone masonry in homes caught on in the United States, however, Americans, in an effort to imitate European examples, would distress wood siding to give it the appearance of rusticated stone blocks. It became a popular technique in the 18th century and was even used on the siding of George Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon (see photo on the right, courtesy of Mount Vernon). The creation of rusticated wood siding of Mt. Vernon, as it was at many other homes in the Northeast, was a two-part process. First, the wood siding was carved to look like rectangular masonry blocks with V-shaped joints. This first step alone did a pretty convincing job of selling the idea of rusticated stone, especially from a distance. In order to even better mimic rough stonework, a second step was taken, where sand was either mixed with paint and then applied to the building, or it was sprinkled to the still wet paint after it had been applied.
From the mid-18th century to the present, rustication has remained a popular trend among architects and builders in the United States, even in cases in which the resources to execute it properly have not been available. It adds a certain level of robustness to a building, and gives the appearance of age that almost demands respect, even in new construction.


Jon grew up in South Carolina and studied Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. His time in Charleston sowed a deep appreciation for both classical and vernacular styles and the importance of their conservation. He is currently working in Charlotte, North Carolina and hopes to break into the field of architectural preservation soon.


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