When Tin Ceilings Were High-Tech

Reason , October 2017

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 gentrification. 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, churches and lodge halls, restaurants and hotels. The metal panels promised to resist fire, to improve hygiene, and to prevent collapsing plaster. They offered beauty at an affordable price—and the very qualities that drew criticism infused them with meaning. "Metal ceilings were not a 'hollow sham'; they were better than the material they replaced," wrote Simpson in a 1995 article. "To choose a ceiling of steel was to choose the best that modern industry and technology could supply. To choose a metal ceiling was also to participate in the spirit of the age of enterprise that had produced them."

Hit first by the Great Depression and then by the wartime diversion of steel, tin ceilings fell out of style after World War II, when commercial buildings embraced high modernism. Decoration was out; truth to material was in. Tin ceilings were too fussy. Many buildings needed the practicality of easily removable acoustic panels.

By the 1970s, the "commercial-Victorian" was history, and restoring old buildings was the latest thing. Nostalgia buffs embraced tin ceilings, especially for homes and restaurants. So did cutting-edge designers with a penchant for mashups and industrial materials. The ceilings, observed Suzanne Slesin in a 1976 New York article on the revival, "look sort of Renaissance-meets-the-industrial-revolution." Their impurity made them appealing, offering a balance of decoration and modernity, history and tech. Today we might call that combination steam-punk. Except that tin ceilings really existed.

Nowadays, you can also get them in plastic—a cheaper, lighter alternative. Purists may recoil, but even they've grown tolerant of other people's choices. "The plastic faux panels make me shudder," writes homeowner Jessica Lemmon in an Old House Forum post soliciting advice about her 1850 kitchen's crumbling plaster ceiling, "but that's just me."

Objecting to a newer technology's imitation of an old technology's imitation of a yet older technology's imitation of carving is too ridiculous to sustain. The authenticity that tin ceiling enthusiasts enjoy comes not from the metal itself but from the look it achieves and the associations it evokes. Given enough time, plastic ceiling tiles themselves may seem like old-fashioned goodness.