Q: While having lunch at a local restaurant, my wife and I admired the fancy stamped-metal ceiling adorned with metal crown molding. What sort of craftsperson would likely have made and installed these ceilings? Can you give us a bit of background information?

— Albert, Pittsburgh, PA

A: Norm Abram replies: Your question brings back memories of my grandmother, who ran a small luncheonette and boarding house near a woolen mill in Rhode Island. Every room in her place had fancy painted-metal ceilings. Preservation expert Mary Dierickx says that metal ceilings were first manufactured in the 1870s; powerful presses stamped the patterns into pieces of sheet steel. "They probably got their name 'tin ceilings' because the metal was so thin," she says. A metal ceiling nails into place fairly easily — "They were installed by homeowners or handymen," Dierickx says — allowing people to decorate their homes in the Victorian style for a lot less money than it would cost to use wood or plaster. Metal also has the advantage of being fireproof. Metal ceilings are still being made — we installed one in the Nantucket project in 1996. We left it shiny, although in the Victorian era, Dierickx says, they were almost always painted.
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