"Marble" floor tiles made of rubber
Courtesy the BTHL "Marble" floor tiles made of rubber

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

Stone is often called the noblest building material, with structures such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the Great Wall of China attesting to its durability. But despite the material’s enduring history and appeal, stone can be expensive, prohibitively heavy, and difficult to source.

As a result, artisans and manufacturers throughout history have developed alternative materials and methods that mimic the look of stone at reduced financial and environmental costs.

Here, the BTHL chronicles various faux stone alternatives made popular in the 20th century. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Bloom Studios, Contracting Plasterers, Philadelphia, 1908
First pioneered in 17th-century Italy and used for highly decorative interiors, scagliola is the art of using plaster to imitate stone. This Philadelphia plaster contractor advertised the use of three scagliola designs as “acknowledged, approved, and recommended by discriminating architects throughout the United States as the standard of beauty, quality and economy.” The brochure showcases samples of the material installed in interiors of theaters and public spaces.

The Hercules Cement Stone Machine, Century Cement Machine Co., Rochester, N.Y., 1907
The use of cement to imitate stone started with its very name—Portland cement was named for the Portland stone found in England. In the early 20th century, the use of concrete blocks with a “rock face” shaped by molds was popular.

Concrete Machinery: Triumph, Wizard, and Knox Block Machines, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, 1915
Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold equipment used to make decorative concrete blocks with a wide variety of designs. Options include broken ashlar face, pressed brick face, shallow rock face, medium rock face, and heavy rock face.

Terra Cotta Details, Conkling-Armstrong Terra Cotta Co., Philadelphia, 1914
Architectural terra-cotta was widely used for commercial buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century. Molded terra-cotta replicated carved stone details at a fraction of the cost, and could be installed as a lightweight veneer on steel-framed structures.

The W.F. Norman Co., Nevada, Mo., 1910
An innovation of the early 20th century, stamped sheet metal was widely used for architectural ornamentation, but large panels mimicking brick and other materials were produced as façades.

Ancient Beauty for Modern Buildings, Union Metal Manufacturing Co., Canton, Ohio, 1923
Union Metal advertised the application of painted, galvanized steel columns to imitate classic Greek and Roman stone architecture “at a very reasonable cost.”

Rubber-Marble Flooring, David E. Kennedy Co., Brooklyn, N.Y., 1926
This catalog outlines the various advantages of using rubber-marble as an indoor flooring alternative, describing the material as “practically indestructible.” The manufacturer does add that “[the product] is not intended, however, as an imitation or marble or other product.” Insteadm the name refers to the material’s “variegated and characteristic mottlings and veining of different colors.”

Perma-Stone: More For Your Home-Building Dollar, Perma-Stone Co., Columbus, Ohio, 1954
Perma-stone was a brand of stone-like concrete veneer that could attach to any substrate. The facing compounds were made of Portland cement, aggregates, crushed quartz, mineral color, metallic hardeners, and waterproofers “molded in plastic condition directly on a prepared wall surface.” This material was popular for both new construction and renovation.