The ‘Bottle Dash’ Houses That Still Glitter In The Vancouver Sun

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You have passed them a thousand times and not even noticed. Then one sunny winter day a glint of light catches your eye. Why is that older stucco dwelling sparkling in the sunlight? Congratulations, you have just seen your first bottle-dash house!

If you are not familiar with the form, buildings with bottle-dash have bits of glass – most often brown beer, clear milk, green pop and blue milk of magnesia bottles – embedded in their exterior stucco finish instead of the more commonly used rock bits (rock-dash). It is commercially known as ‘Sparkle Stucco’ but also commonly referred to as ‘beer bottle’, ‘broken bottle’ and ‘crushed bottle’ stucco. At first glance when seen from a distance it can appear a little drab (save for a sunny day). The delight lies in closer inspection…

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When I first wrote about the stuff some four years ago I was surprised to find little information about it. I discovered this is still the case while researching this article for Scout. I still do not know where, how or why it was invented. And who was the first person that thought adding shards of glass to stucco was a good idea?!

Luckily, I was able to gather some new insight into bottle-dash due to thoughtful responses to my original blog post. I discovered I’m not the only one fascinated by this interesting exterior finish. The majority of the comments recalled people’s personal experiences with and memories of bottle-dash houses. One responder recalled that as a child, Vancouver was “sparkle town”.

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Sadly, what most Vancouverites know about stucco exteriors comes from the failure of the 1980s leaky condo era. This is unfortunate, because stucco has a long and storied history. Stucco – in some form – goes back to ancient times.

Basically, stucco is comprised of an aggregate, a binder and water. It is applied wet in three coats and hardens to a very dense solid. It’s the finish coat where colour and texture can be added and creativity can shine. For ‘dash’ stucco, after the first two coats are applied and dried, a final mixture of cement and lime is added, and while still fresh, aggregate (usually bits of rock) is “dashed” or thrown onto it with a scoop. Finally, the dash is pressed into the stucco with a trowel.

At some point in the stucco and dash game someone came up with a dash variant utilizing broken glass bottles. Crushed glass was added to a white quartz aggregate to provide some colour and sparkle to the stucco finish. Bottle-dash stucco shows up in both new construction and retrofitted on older houses starting in the late 1930s and 1940s. Examples are found all over Canada, but mostly in the western provinces. (They also appear in the U.S., especially on the west coast.) While bottle-dash is not unique to Vancouver, it certainly flourished here. In Metro Vancouver, the popularity of bottle-dash stucco lasted until the 1960s.

For older structures (see 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 with Federal government grants available to homeowners through the 1970s to promote its use.

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Local historian John Atkin further 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 such renovation scars. A house “modernized” with a bottle-dash (or other dash) stucco exterior requires little, if any, maintenance. Stucco exteriors from this period (1930s to 1960s) are very durable, as some current homeowners can attest to as they frustratingly try to remove it during renovations.

A reader comment on my 2014 blog post revealed that local company, Stucco Supply Co., was the local distributor for Sparkle Stucco. They started business in 1937 at East 6th and Scotia, coincidentally in the same brick building that originally housed Vancouver Breweries Ltd (now known as the Brewery Creek Building). Glass was crushed at this location to be used for bottle-dash. The company stayed at that location until 1950, at which time Stucco Supply Company – “stucco dash of all types” – moved to 937 Main Street. The last appearance for the company is in the 1970 City Directory, coinciding with the construction of the current Georgia Viaduct. (Millross Community Gardens is now located on this property.)

Bottle-dash is not just another sparkly, pretty face. It has a dark side as well. As one can imagine, the dangers of children playing around a house covered in broken glass were great. A raucous game of tag or some ill-placed rough housing could result in tears and the loss of a layer of skin on tender arms and legs. A friend of mine has a visible scar from such an incident 40 years ago.

My own memories of bottle-dash stucco centered on my great aunt’s house located in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood of Vancouver. The 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 spotty, light reddish brown. But up close it was completely different story!

Predominated by bits of brown, clear and green glass, my great aunt’s house also had the occasional shard of blue glass dotting its rough surface. As children, these bits of coloured glass fascinated my sister and me. We were often scolded for trying to collect the tiny treasures. My mother once told me that when she was young, she recalls rare instances when bits of red glass were found. I made several attempts to try and find the rare bits of red in the sea of coloured glass – a futile effort (most likely picked out by a previous generation). So I can’t tell you how excited I was 4 years ago, while researching bottle-dash, to find a piece of red glass in the stucco of a house (see photo below) near where I used to live. Small victories!

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When I was younger, back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was still quite common to see it on Vancouver houses of a certain vintage. Sadly, this isn’t still the case. This unique stucco dash variant never acquired the ‘retro-cachet’ that something like the “Vancouver Special” did. And with the increase in demolitions of modest single-family homes, the examples (housing stock) of buildings featuring bottle-dash stucco is dwindling. Though not unique to Vancouver, the stuff is a unique and colourful illustration of a period of time in the city’s built history — a small visual gift fit for discovery by locals and visitors alike.

  • Bottle-dash exterior sparkling in the winter sun.
  • Two examples of bottle-dash stucco garages. Green glass and white quartz (L) and multi-colored glass with white quartz aggregate.
  • Bottle-dash garage with orca tag in Fairview.
  • Bottle-dash apartment building in Grandview-Woodlands.
  • Example of older wood home on East Hastings 'modernized' with bottle-dash stucco.
  • Bottle-dash house on East Hastings. An example of an older house 'updated' with bottle-dash stucco.
  • Bottle-dash stucco house on Keefer St.
  • Twin bottle-dash houses on Prior Street.
  • Bottle-dash stucco row houses on Victoria Drive.
  • Close-up detail of two bottle-dash stucco exteriors.
  • The elusive red-glass shard found in Fairview.
  • My favorite example of a bottle-dash stucco house in Grandview-Woodlands.

There are 14 comments

  1. I’ve always loved the sight of houses with this and it is a little mysterious, like beach treasures mixed with old Roman tile mosaics:)
    Raven Raven

  2. Christine thanks for another great article. Our house built in 1938 has this colourful stucco. When we did a renovation in 2000 and wanted to match the stucco we were unable to find dash that included the green, blue and red glass colours. We thought about trying to round up some old coloured bottles, smash them, and try and mix the glass bits into the closest matching dash available, but gave up on the idea. So unfortunately the back of our house does not match the rest.

  3. I grew up in one of these houses, east Van to be precise. Lancaster St. House is no longer there,alas, re-placed by a Vancouver special . Occasionally I would pick off my favourite colour,green, and consider my small handful a glittering treasure.

  4. We have the “old” stucco on our house in Calgary with the shards of glass embedded in it.
    My wife keeps talking about renos and I keep trying to put her off because a) it’s expensive.. and b) it likely means the end of our “vintage” stucco.
    By comparison, ‘today’s stucco’ looks extremely DRAB and boring!!
    !@#$%^%$#@!

  5. This brought me back to my childhood home, which had similar stucco dash. I too looked for the precious odd-coloured stones. Thanks for researching and writing this.

  6. So interesting! The same glass stucco finish were on many a Richmond home too. Thanks for the wonderful write up.

  7. I live in a Saanich (suburb of Victoria), in a 1930 house that not only has crushed glass in the stucco, but crushed shells as well. I love it!! However, it is really difficult to repair the cracks.

  8. What a neat topic for heritage hounds! The photos that accompany this article may not show the most attractive architecture, (more a case of re-muddling than renovation) but sadly with all the demolition that goes on here, few examples of this nifty stucco remain. Growing up I recall seeing many charming smaller homes all over Vancouver with with this exterior coating. They tended to have attractive architectural features such as rounded windows, and side extensions with arched gates leading to the back garden. They also often had carefully manicured topiary shrubs and hedges in the front yard. Their inviting curb-appeal combined with the stucco’s sparkle and flash in sunlight absolutely fascinated me as a kid!

  9. I can recal many scrapes on my arms as I ran down the narrow walkway on the side of our Vancouver special in N Burnaby. I can still hear Mom’s voice scolding me for picking off the beautiful blue glass. The house still stands, bottle-dash and all. Nice article!

  10. I’m glad so many enjoyed this article. I’m sorry that so many have the scars to prove it.

  11. I used to live about a block up from Sir Mathew Begbie Elementary back in the mid to late 70’s and our house had bottle-dash stucco! I remember all too well how it felt to fell against it. It’s probably a miracle that I don’t still carry the scars some 40 years later! I have no idea if the house still stands or not as I haven’t been able to visit my old neighbour in years because I moved out of the province. But I will never lose the memories of living in that house 🙂

  12. Our 1926-28 house in central Pennsylvania has bottle glass stucco; all colors on a very light grey surface. We bought it in 2013 from the 2nd owner who bought it in the 1960s. She said the stucco was already there when she bought it, and she assumed it was applied in the beginning.

  13. I remember my neighbour “aunty” Gertie yelling at the (usually smaller) kids in the neighbourhood: “Stop picking at it!” That was in Kits in the 70s. Her tiny house was bulldozed in the late 80s and is now a duplex, still stucco but no glass.

  14. Interesting fact from years of sampling houses for asbestos: bottle dash is more commonly asbestos containing than other types of stucco. Stucco was usually mixed on site before application; a company would have bags of cement, aggregate, and asbestos which they would mix before application. This meant that, as asbestos is water-proof, it would usually bundle up in pebble sized “dough-balls” and distribute itself throughout the stucco, all in all forming a finish that contains about 5% chrysotile asbestos.

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