When tin ceilings were high-tech.

Author:Postrel, Virginia

IN THE LATE 1970s, Barbara Schiller and her husband bought a decaying brownstone in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, then in its early stages of gentrincation. The house was structurally sound, but the ceilings were a mess. Water damage had ruined the ones in the master bedroom and dining room, while the parlor's had an "ominous crack," and the plaster rosebuds trimming the edge "were dropping like hailstones."

When their architect suggested using decorative metal panels instead of replastering, the couple balked at first. "Tin ceilings" would certainly be cheaper, but they sounded like a poor substitute for the real thing. Once he showed them the ones in his own restored Victorian home, however, they were convinced. The couple was so pleased with the eventual result that Schiller wrote an article about the experience for This Old House Journal. "Their intricate designs," she wrote, "give an authentic feeling of the old days that cannot be matched at the price by any other material."

Now de rigueur in the type of hipster bar The New York Times calls "ersatz speakeasy," tin ceilings have always challenged the meaning of authenticity. In their heyday from the 1890s through the 1920s, they were at once modern and old-fashioned, genuine and fake.

Calling them "tin" is as much a slur as a description, suggesting a cheap imitation (see: tinhorn, tin-pot, Tin Lizzie). The panels were in fact steel, a material whose cost had dropped dramatically in the late 19th century. The same technological innovations that supplied railroads, automobiles, and steel-framed skyscrapers gave rise to decorative metal ceilings.

To create the patterns, sheets were pressed between a bottom die of hard iron and a top die of softer zinc. Once installed, the ceilings were painted to resemble plaster, stucco, or, occasionally, wood. (Letting the metal shine through is a latter-day style.)

"Critics objected not only to sheet metal's imitation of other materials, but also to the very nature of its mass-produced, mechanical-looking qualities," observed the late design historian Pamela H. Simpson in her 1999 book Cheap, Quick, and Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870-1930. For instance, the Australian architect Hardy Wilson condemned their "mechanical" surface and declared that the ceilings "would not have been appreciated at any period earlier than the commercial-Victorian."

But appreciated they were. People installed tin ceilings in schools and hospitals...

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