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Floor Show

Popular from the 1920s-50s, durable magnesite is now coveted for its vintage look.

July 11, 1999|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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