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Facilities Tech Tip
March 2006
7300 Facilities
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Early 20th-Century Building Materials: Introduction

Richa Wilson Intermountain Regional Architectural Historian
Kathleen Snodgrass Project Leader

This tech tip is the first in a series about innovative building materials developed in the first half of the 20th century and commonly used in U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service buildings. The series will provide information that will help engineers, heritage staff, and others maintain and preserve historic facilities (figure 1). This tech tip provides general information about early 20th-century Forest Service buildings and identifies documents and Web sites with additional information.

Photo of a ranger standing in front of an old model auto in front of the Judith River Ranger Station.
Figure 1—The Judith River Ranger Station was built in 1908 by
ranger Thomas "Guy" Meyers from a $450 kit and local logs.
It is near the Middle Fork of the Judith River in the Little Belt
Mountains of central Montana in the Lewis and Clark National
Forest, Northern Region.


  • Forest Service facilities built during the first half of the 20th century are being examined now for their historic significance and possible preservation.

  • Knowledge of building materials used during a particular period is important when examining the historic significance of a facility and when rehabilitating it.

  • This tech tip and others in this series will provide information on building materials used in Forest Service facilities during the early 20th century.

More To Come

Each of the other tech tips in this series will provide practical information about a particular group of materials. They will not tell you everything you need to know about rehabilitating historic buildings. However, they will help you identify the materials by describing their history, physical characteristics, composition, and method of manufacture. Each tech tip also will provide guidance on maintenance, repair, and replacement and will address common problems with the particular materials.

Historical Overview

The early 20th century was a time of unprecedented innovation and development in building materials. Names, such as Homosote, Cushocel, Nucrete, Straublox, Formica, and Kentile, reflect the inventive origin and application of the new materials. Many of these materials were composites of natural and synthetic substances, while others represented new forms of materials that had been used for decades, if not centuries.

The following sections identify construction materials and trends by decade.

1900s and 1910s

In the early 1900s, the National Board of Fire Underwriters led a campaign for fire-resistant construction. This campaign encouraged development of new materials and products treated or made with asphalt, metal, gypsum, plastic, and asbestos.

Asbestos was considered a "miracle material" and was used extensively because it enhanced fire resistance and durability. In the 1970s, the health hazards of asbestos became apparent and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began regulating it. To determine whether your building contains asbestos, start by reviewing the asbestos surveys conducted at Forest Service facilities during the 1980s. For more information on working with and remediating asbestos, contact your environmental engineer or refer to the Hazmat in Buildings tool in MTDC's Facilities Toolbox at
on the Forest Service's internal network or on the Internet at

New technology also made it possible to reconfigure traditional materials. Rigid boards made of processed wood fibers were created for insulation, plaster lath, and finish materials. Common trade names for these materials include Fir-tex, Celotex, and Masonite.

Portland cement, an improvement over earlier cement formulations, was first produced in the 19th century. It was increasingly used in the early 20th century, when advancements in kiln technology led to better quality and widespread production. Eventually, Portland cement replaced lime in mortar mixes. It also became an important ingredient for concrete blocks, as well as asbestos-cement siding and roofing.

Other materials were developed for military applications during World War I. New types of plywood were created for airplane fuselages. Plastic laminates known as Micarta and Formica were used in electrical devices and gears. When the war ended, the surplus materials found their way into the civilian building market.

The Forest Service emphasized the use of forest products—specifically wood—rather than these new materials. The 1906 Use Book contains the following statement, "Wherever possible cabins should be built of logs, with shingle or shake roofs." Because these were often the only materials available, many rangers had no problem conforming to this policy. By 1908, the Washington Office had issued a book of standard building plans for facilities, all of which were of log or frame construction (figure 2). The accompanying materials lists included other wood products, such as tongue-and-groove flooring and beadboard for walls and ceilings.

Photo of the Koosharem Ranger Station.
Figure 2—The Koosharem Ranger Station dwelling in central
Utah on the Fishlake National Forest in the Intermountain
Region was built in 1910 from Standard Plan No. 12 in the
Washington Office's 1908 book of standard plans.

1920s and 1930s

The 1920s saw a postwar building boom and increased scientific research, both of which were tempered by the Great Depression of the 1930s. New products included batt insulation (some with aluminum or copper reflective faces), advanced plastics, perforated acoustical tiles, and Plexiglas. The Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory made significant contributions to plywood technology, including the development of stressed-skin panels. The construction industry was greatly influenced by these products, as well as the emergence of standardized dimensions and common acceptance and use of a 4-foot width as a standard size for panel-type construction materials.

Unlike the private sector, the Forest Service benefited from scores of construction projects during the Great Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and other New Deal relief programs constructed recreation and administrative facilities, bridges, roads, and other improvements from 1933 until 1942 (figure 3).

The Washington Office, responding to the increased construction activity, published the Improvement Handbook in 1937. Although synthetic materials became increasingly available, the handbook continued to encourage the use of wood-based products in construction. Other materials could be used instead of wood only when they were clearly more suitable and durable, if required by the structure's design, if the initial and life-cycle costs would be significantly lower, or if building codes did not allow lumber construction.

In addition to promoting wood framing and log construction where regionally appropriate, the handbook directed forests to use wood shingles or shakes for roofing and wood siding or shingles for cladding. For interiors, acceptable wall and ceiling materials included wood-based products, such as fiberboard and hardboard. Although log construction continued, frame construction with wood siding (figure 4) became more common.

Photo of the Tellico Office of the Tellico Ranger District.
Figure 3—Since 1936, the Tellico Office has been the headquarters
of the Tellico Ranger District of the Cherokee National Forest.
The office is near the town of Tellico Plains, TN, in the Southern
Region. Recently, the office was restored to its 1930s condition.

Photo of the Cle Elum Ranger Station office.
Figure 4—The Cle Elum Ranger Station office was built in 1936
to serve the Cle Elum Ranger District of the Wenatchee
National Forest. Cle Elum, WA, is on the east slope of the
Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest Region.

1940s and 1950s

In the 1940s and 1950s, the cycle of wartime restrictions followed by a postwar construction boom was repeated on a larger scale than during the 1920s. The Wartime Production Board restricted construction and the use of many building materials during World War II, beginning with rubber and metals. This led to minimal use of reinforcing in concrete, elimination of reflective foil on insulation, substitution of fiberglass for asbestos in many applications, and use of gypsum board lath instead of metal lath for plaster. Many wartime structures were built with asbestos-cement siding and roofing because it was easy to assemble and was fire resistant.

Manufacturing boomed during the war. Factories were built to make aluminum that was vital to aircraft production, as well as other materials and products. As a resource agency, the Forest Service was charged with providing the raw materials for increased production of lumber and minerals and was assigned special projects, such as extracting rubber from the guayule plant. The Forest Products Laboratory helped meet the need for stronger, lighter wood products by developing improved laminated timber and plywood.

When the war ended, the U.S. military was left with thousands of buildings it no longer needed. Many of these surplus facilities were sold to civilians or transferred to local, State, and Federal agencies. The Forest Service acquired its share of Quonset huts, prefabricated housing, and metal radio boxes.

The postwar civilian housing shortage created a market for cheap houses that could be erected easily and quickly. Many houses were built with modern materials, such as concrete block, hardboard, plywood, gypsum board, composition shingles, and plastic laminate. Construction costs were reduced and architectural styles changed as roof pitches were lowered, overhangs and porches were eliminated, and open floor plans were adopted.

As the Nation recovered from World War II, the prosperity of the 1950s was reflected in sturdier construction and larger houses, particularly the sprawling, one-story, ranchstyle home. A revived interest in color led to interesting hues of paint, flooring, plumbing fixtures, and appliances. Forest Service structures from the period reflected those trends.

The Forest Service constructed few facilities during World War II or the years immediately afterward. However, by the 1950s, the postwar demand for forest products and the accompanying increase in Forest Service staff prompted construction of numerous district offices and employee housing units. Many of the new structures were built from modern, standard plans (figure 5). The Forest Service continued to emphasize the use of wood for windows, doors, siding, and interior wainscot and trim, although modern materials, such as composition roofing, resilient flooring, and drywall, became more common.

Photo of the Murphy Lake District office.
Figure 5—The Murphy Lake District office was built in 1963
for the Fortine Ranger District of the Kootenai National Forest
in northwestern Montana using a standard Northern Region plan.
Dozens of district offices were built throughout the region in the
late 1950s and early 1960s using this plan. This photo was
digitally altered to remove distracting elements.

1950s and Afterward

Innovations in architectural styles and building materials continued during the second half of the 20th century. Particleboard and oriented-strand board (OSB) were adopted for sheathing. Lightweight metal framing became relatively common, as did cultured stone, metal-clad doors and windows, and fiberglass products, such as insulation, roofing shingles, and bathtubs.

Plastic-based materials replaced many earlier products. Aluminum siding fell out of favor after vinyl siding was introduced in 1963. Vinyl flooring captured the largest part of the resilient flooring market, while vinyl windows became ubiquitous in modern housing developments. As the Forest Service experimented with bold and dramatic building designs during the 1960s and 1970s, it continued to incorporate wood products, often prominently (figure 6).

Photo of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area visitor center and office of the Sawtooth National Forest.
Figure 6—The Sawtooth National Recreation Area visitor
center and office on the Sawtooth National Forest in the
Intermountain Region was constructed in 1976 near
Ketchum, ID, and the Sun Valley resort. The innovative,
modern design emphasizes wood products and echos
the jagged peaks of the nearby Sawtooth Mountain Range.