How to Fix Those Cracking, Crumbling Plaster Walls

Q: Our Gramercy co-op was built in 1929. The thick plaster walls have so many benefits, but no sooner do we paint a room than new cracks appear. The ceiling plaster is another problem. It wants to come down in big, thick pieces. I asked our super if we could put sheet rock on the ceiling and start fresh, but he said there would be no good way to affix it. What can I do to prevent or repair cracking in the walls? Or can I cover them with wallpaper? And how do I repair the ceiling?

A: Old lath and plaster walls are prone to cracking. Over time the plaster separates from the lath, creating structural cracks. Plaster is also prone to thinner spider-web cracks, which occur when the topcoat of the plaster degrades.

It’s common to have both kinds of cracking — and both types can be repaired. How can you tell the difference? A structural crack “will be beefier, it will be longer,” said Foster Reeve, the owner of Foster Reeve Architectural & Ornamental Plaster in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A structural crack will also move when you press one side of it “like plate tectonics.”

The cracks keep returning because you haven’t repaired the underlying problem — you’re just covering up the wound with paint. Wallpaper would give you the same result. You need to repair the walls before you cover them. A professional painter should be able to repair minor cracking.

The damage to your ceiling, however, may be more significant, and may require the expertise of a plaster restoration company. If large chunks are falling, the plaster keys that grip the lath may be failing. (If you can see the wooden lath in the places where the chunks have fallen, that’s worrisome.) Check for signs of water damage, as a leak from above your apartment could be the culprit. “If a plaster wall gets wet and stays wet, the plaster will rot,” Mr. Reeve said.

Push a screwdriver into a small piece of the ceiling to test the plaster’s integrity. If the screwdriver can easily poke a hole through the surface, your plaster likely needs to be removed. You could replace the plaster with Sheetrock, according to Mr. Reeve, but be prepared for a messy and involved job, which may be why the super discouraged it.

You may need to inform the board about your plans, but most co-ops would not require you to get an alteration agreement, according to Leni Morrison Cummins, a real estate lawyer in the Manhattan office of the law firm Cozen O’Connor.

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