Then & Now: An obsession with cracks

A good prop can help distract from a crack. Photo credit Randy Fletcher.

BY RANDY FLETCHER

Face cracks

I can remember as a child sitting on my grandmother’s lap, looking up at all the wrinkles on her face. She had a ton of them. Her skin was tan and the wrinkles were deep, like cracks in the pavement. She was proud of her wrinkles and even laughed with her sisters about having inherited the weathered Norwegian face of her father, a farmer who immigrated to America in the late 19th century.   

My grandmother always looked put-together. She never wore slacks, her lips were always painted red, and she always had a lace handkerchief tucked into her wristwatch. She put powder on her face, perhaps an attempt to smooth out her wrinkles, but the powder only enhanced their depth. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person with more wrinkles than my grandmother.

My sister once asked, “Mama,” — that is what we called her  — “why do you have so many wrinkles?” Mama simply replied, “I’m old. I’ve seen a lot in my time; my wrinkles give me character. I wouldn’t trade them for the world.”

Mud cracks

Years later, long after Mama passed away, my siblings and I spent the summer in Minnesota with our cousins. Our days were filled with swimming and fishing. It was dry that summer and the water receded into the lake, leaving an exposed muddy bank that was dried out and cracked.

The patterns of the cracks in the mud were beautiful. They almost looked like tree roots. I observed a cluster of these “roots” and noticed a small, shiny yellow rock protruding from a big crack. I pulled out the stone and discovered that it was an arrowhead, which I later learned was used to kill buffalo. The discovery of this arrowhead excited us all, and we spent hours digging around, trying to find other treasures hidden in the mud.

Later, we brought buckets of water up to the dried bank and dumped them into the cracks, which we would smooth out with our hands. However, the mud soon dried out again, and the cracks came back.

Wall cracks

More years later, as an owner of a very old home, I soon discovered a whole new world of cracks. I noticed a very long crack coming from the ceiling down to the doorjamb in our living room. I worried about that crack day and night, wondering if it could be catastrophic. Always on the lookout, I discovered more and more cracks.  

I went online to research old plaster walls and found the “Preservation Briefs” from the U.S. Department of the Interior. These informative briefs give the history of plaster, how it was installed, and how to repair it.

I learned that our walls are made with lime-based horsehair plaster. (As a professional crack observer, I had already noticed the bristly horsehairs.) When applied, the plaster is dragged upward over the wall, forcing it into the gaps between the laths (long narrow strips of wood) and leaving a layer on the front about 14 inch thick. The curls of plaster pushed into the lathing gaps are called keys and are necessary to keep the plaster on the lath. In three-coat plastering, it is standard to apply a second layer in the same fashion, leaving about ½  inch of rough, sandy plaster (called a brown coat). A smooth, white finish coat goes on last. After the plaster is completely dry, the walls are ready to be painted. Traditional three-coat plaster is typically ⅞ inch thick. When you add in the ¼-inch wood lath that supports the plaster, you have a wall that is more than 1 inch thick, compared to today’s most common drywall thickness of only ½ inch. Plaster, applied in this way, is rock hard and was applied to the walls and ceilings of nearly every house in this country until the 1950s.

Armed with my new knowledge, I found someone who could fix those pesky old cracks. But it was not long before I noticed new cracks. Like the mud cracks of my youth, they were coming back! Clearly my crack dilemma was not solved. My obsession was escalating until I remembered what my grandmother had said: “My wrinkles give me character.” Though still obsessed, I have come to terms with my house of cracks. I have learned that they are not necessarily catastrophic but are merely cosmetic. So though this old house may be old and weathered, it wears its cracks proudly — just like my grandmother!

The Hyattsville Preservation Association seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city. Visit www.preservehyattsville.org for more information.