When my husband and I began hunting for a vintage Spanish home earlier this year, many of the houses we saw had an unusual tile-like material in the entryway and staircase.
Sometimes it was reddish brick. In other houses, it was gold and brown. Some of the floors featured green highlights and were stamped with interesting designs. Most often, the individual pieces were octagon-shaped, but sometimes we saw squares or rectangles.
Was this stuff imported, we wanted to know, or had it been made domestically, like the vibrant California pottery that has become such a find for collectors? And was it still made? If not, how could we replace or repair pieces that had cracked or crumbled?
No one seemed to know.
Then one day, we toured a two-story Spanish house in the Rossmoyne area of Glendale that was being fixed up lovingly by the children of the original owners.
"That's magnesite," they told us. "We thought it was tile until we found a contractor--he must be in his 70s--who explained it to us. It's an old-fashioned type of flooring. We're going to have him come out and restore it," they told us.
We didn't buy that house, but at least we had gained an inkling about our mystery material. When we finally found a two-story Spanish fixer near the Brand Library that irresistibly called out to us, lo and behold, there it was again, magnesite, throughout the entryway and up the stairs.
And so we began to learn about the lost art of this once-popular building material that adorns many an old Spanish home in Southern California. And the more we learned, the more intrigued we grew, vowing to preserve our lovely magnesite floors as we restored our home to its original splendor.
Though it may look like tile to the casual observer, magnesite is actually an organic compound made from magnesium. It is a powder that is mixed with water and poured like concrete.
As it sets, the magnesite can be stamped with tile designs, and cut and scored to look like tile or marble.
"Sometimes they used a brush to mark it in rectangular blocks or they dragged a wire brush through it to create tiny pockmarks, so it looked like Travertine," said John Acquist, a 69-year-old craftsman from Lincoln Heights whose firm, Duralite, specializes in magnesite.
In its original state, magnesite is a creamy off-white, but in decades past, workmen added color to the sludgy mixture until they achieved the ruddy earth tones that people wanted in their tiled Mediterranean homes.
"No two homes with magnesite are alike," said Acquist, who learned the trade half a century ago from his father-in-law. "People think it's brought in in pieces, like tile, but it's not. We form it on the job, right on the stairs and floors."
To those early builders, magnesite had many advantages.
"The beauty was you could pour it only a half-inch thick right over wood. It set quickly, it was strong and hard, it was cheaper than tile or concrete, and it weighed less," said Kyle Smith, a real estate agent with Progressive Properties in Los Feliz who has sold many homes with magnesite.
First Used in the Mid-1800s
How hard is magnesite?
"You could smack it with a hammer and it would leave a mark like you'd get on a hardwood floor, but it probably wouldn't crack or break," Acquist said.
Magnesite was first used in Germany in the mid-1800s, said Ron Hill, owner of Hill Brothers, a chemical company in Orange that manufactures magnesite powder.
Hill's great-grandfather, who founded the company in 1923, owned magnesium mines in California. In fact, Acquist said that Hill Brothers was so intent on maintaining the integrity of its product that it refused to sell magnesite to craftspeople whose work had drawn complaints.
Hill says that in its original incarnation, magnesite was favored by dentists for making dentures. But the versatile material soon expanded into other uses, including building and warfare.
For instance, the Germans used it in World War I for foundations for gun placements because it set so fast, Acquist said.
In World War II, the U.S. Navy used magnesite extensively in warships, installing magnesite floors where ammunition was stored because the material is fire resistant and doesn't spark, meaning sailors could nail pallets of ammunition to the floor without fear of blowing up the entire ship, Hill said.
Magnesite became a popular building material in the United States in the 1920s and can still be seen in many homes and public buildings.
Popular With Art Deco Styles
Hill said there are more than 4 million square feet of magnesite floors in the Los Angeles Basin, including outdoor decking. He estimates that tens of thousands of homes in Los Angeles have magnesite floors, although some may be covered with carpet or linoleum.
"It hit its peak of popularity in the 1930s to the 1950s, when Art Deco was so very popular," Hill said, "because it really lent itself to being almost sculpted and could be made in lots of different shapes and colors. It could be molded, cast, troweled and sculpted." Some say that magnesite was considered a poor man's tile. But others maintain that it was a grand material in its time because it can be found in some of the city's most opulent historic homes.
Magnesite was also easier to work with than tile, which can be extremely difficult to cut and lay on staircases.
Still, it required a skilled craftsman who understood the material.
"One of the expensive things is the installation," Hill said. "It has to be mixed to certain proportions and takes skill to apply. It's not like laying concrete. It's a diminishing art, but there are a few artisans who remain."
They include Acquist, who has passed the lore onto magnesite restorer Arturo Ferrel of Sun Valley.
"Just because you know what a trowel is doesn't mean you can work with it," Acquist said. "It's so thin, see, so you have to keep it out of sun. I won't apply it if it's above 90 degrees, because it will set so fast you can't handle it. Or on a windy day either. It will crack like a riverbed."
Craftsmen Can Still Be Found
Those who hunt can still find craftsmen familiar with the material. Realtor Smith, who renovates homes with his wife, Nancy, said he ran across a Russian emigre workman who told him the material is still popular in the former Soviet Union.
It was from him that the Smiths learned about magnesite, and they installed a new magnesite floor in the bathroom and entryway to complement a magnesite staircase in a home they were renovating.
Magnesite restorers say the material is common in larger homes in Glendale, San Marino, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Beverly Hills and Hancock Park.
"It gives you that sort of permanent stone look without the difficulty of dealing with stone," said Barry Milofsky, an architect who is on the board of Hollywood Heritage and has a magnesite staircase in his 1926 Silver Lake home.
Realtors who work in older neighborhoods say magnesite floors can add to a home's resale value. If properly restored, magnesite can boost the value of a Spanish house by 10%, depending on how extensive the flooring is.
Indeed, magnesite is part of the vintage look--which includes wrought-iron lighting fixtures, tile bathrooms, arched entryways and hardwood floors--that buyers in search of authenticity will often pay a premium for.
Although many homes have magnesite entryways and staircases, some of the more elaborate ones include magnesite hallways, bathroom and kitchen floors and even counter tops, especially in old-fashioned butler pantries.
"It's a glorious thing to behold," Smith said. "Once in Los Feliz, I saw a magnesite hallway that was inlaid with colorful Italian glass tiles in 1-inch squares. It was magnificent."
As Spanish homes declined in popularity after World War II, the red-hued magnesite fell out of favor. But creamy white magnesite was still in demand in apartment buildings in the 1950s, especially for staircases, for which the material's fireproof quality made it highly prized.
Magnesite was also popular in the Mediterranean-style homes being built in West Los Angeles, especially around Westwood. There, the magnesite was also kept in its original creamy white color.
Hill says the material grew scarce after the 1950s because it cost more than linoleum, carpet and tile, although it is still cheaper than hardwood floors.
As demand for their skills declined, the magnesite contractors and tradespeople kept their little secret, and moved on to tile and other materials that were more in demand.
Only within the last 20 years have preservationists started to research magnesite and look for people to restore it.
A Mini-Revival of the Material
Today, there is also a mini-revival of the material, as a handful of contemporary designers incorporate magnesite into new building design. Hill, for instance, has installed new magnesite in his San Clemente home. He's not alone.
"I wouldn't call it a renaissance, but, in a lot of the high-end custom homes, we're starting to see more and more of it," he said. "Art Deco and retro looks are popular again. Architects are speccing it in where cost is not an issue."
Hill says that new magnesite costs from $7 to $8 a square foot to install and that craftsmen can use inorganic pigmentation to create any color desired.
Still, the material often draws puzzled stares.
Carol Maruyama, office manager at Roberts Refinishing Co. in Silver Lake, estimates that magnesite accounts for half of her company's work. But one out of every two customers starts the process unsure of what it is they have on their floors.
"They call up and describe it to us, and we get an idea that it's magnesite," Maruyama said.
Acquist recalls being summoned to the home of a little old lady in San Marino who wanted to have her floors redone.
"She told me it was imported marble from Italy and I never told her different, that it was really magnesite," Acquist said, with a chuckle.
"I let her dream on."
How to Repair Magnesite
The good news is that magnesite adds character--as well as value--to an older house. The bad news is that since most magnesite floors are 60 or more years old, they invariably show signs of wear and tear.
Those whose homes have only hairline cracks and discoloration can consider themselves lucky. But many a once-fine magnesite floor has been pitted or chipped by long-ago carpet or linoleum installers who hammered nails into the magnesite or glued down their new floor covering.
"Many of the carpet layers, they thought it was just cement, so they used heavy cement nails to hammer through it. Then the new owner lifts a little piece off and says, 'Hey, what's this?' " says Arturo Ferrel, a magnesite restorer in Sun Valley.
When you pull up all that old carpet or linoleum, you may find your magnesite floors need a serious face lift. And that can be expensive, running from $500 to more than $2,000, Ferrel said, depending on the condition of the individual floor and the work needed to restore it.
What Ferrel does for starters is slowly strip off all the old varnish and dirt on a tiny patch of the magnesite to expose the original color. He will then discuss with you whether you want to restore that color or try something new.
Ferrel takes notes on the colors before he strips off the layers of carpet glue, varnish, paint, etc. Once the entire floor has been stripped, he can begin to patch holes and cracks. Ferrel then sands down his work to match the original flooring.
In badly cracked or crumbled areas, he may need to cut out the damaged areas and call Acquist to pour new magnesite infused with color to match the original flooring.
Working on his hands and knees, Ferrel then paints on additional color highlights. Often, he must also repaint the lines in the magnesite that form the octagons, squares and rectangles. Then he stains--if necessary--and revarnishes the magnesite.
"The magnesite itself teaches you how it will be finished," Ferrel said. "Through the years I've seen many magnesites, so I know what it's supposed to look like."
Denise Hamilton is a Los Angeles freelance writer.