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…
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”.
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.
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!
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.