Editor's note: The following is one of a series of columns from the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.
Ceilings in Butte must compete with cornices for the record for the greatest volume of tin in town. The tin ceiling "craze" was beginning when Butte began in the 1860s, and peaked during one of Butte's greatest periods of growth in the 1890s.
Tin-coated iron was used originally as a fire and moisture retardant in homes and businesses, but inexpensive pressed tin panels quickly became the preferred decorative element in many structures. Designs in tin emulated intricate patterns carved and molded at considerable expense into plaster in European buildings, and through mass production and middle-class popularity, tin ceilings became a primarily North American phenomenon.
Simple and complex repeating geometric patterns are common in ceiling tiles, and European influences such as fleurs-de-lys and other floral designs are also found.
Cheap, long-lasting, easy to ship and install, and almost maintenance free, tin ceilings appeared in most businesses and many homes until the invention of gypsum-based wall and ceiling panels in 1894 changed the nature of home construction. Drywall was cheaper than imported Bolivian tin and provided greater insulating properties — though it was arguably not nearly as beautiful as the patterns in tin, which were often customized so that few ceilings in Butte are identical.
Tin tiles were standardized at two feet by two feet, but the embossed patterns sometimes were designed to emulate rows and diagonals, giving a wild diversity in ceiling appearance.
The renewed popularity of these historical patterns means that both antique and new tiles (with modern ones sometimes made of aluminum or other materials, often called "faux tin") are readily available.
In their original context, historic ceilings contribute significantly to the integrity, feeling, and style of Butte's buildings.
Dick Gibson is secretary and webmaster for Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization. For more information about CPR, visit www.buttecpr.org or stop by the office on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 405 W. Park St., Suite 200.