Elle Ewell had always been a wood-floor person: "I grew up with them." But for her house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, her husband, Mickey, a restaurateur, insisted on a material she'd never heard of: terrazzo. "We have it in one of our restaurants," he says. "It was built in 1947, and the floor's like brand-new. Really low-maintenance."
Terrazzo—chips of marble, glass or other aggregates embedded in tinted cement, ground smooth and polished to a silky sheen—may have been yet another of mankind's accidental discoveries. In the 15th century, mosaic artisans in northen Italy swept waste marble chips out onto their terraces, terrazzi, and smoothed the surface simply by walking over it. When workers learned to press the chips into a more permanent clay base, then grind and polish them with heavy stones, terrazzo caught on. Michelangelo used it in St. Peter's Basilica. George Washington strode over it in his cherished Mount Vernon. In the 1950s, Richard Neutra and other modernist architects specified terrazzo in their designs, and by the '60s, it covered floors in developer houses across the Southeast and Southwest. But as installation costs rose, terrazzo once again became a relatively pricey option—approx. $10 or more a square foot—for custom-built houses.