Historic Preservation Basics No. 3

Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation. No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation.

No. 3 = Let’s Talk about Architecture / The Very Beginning of Describing Buildings

Much of historic preservation has roots in historic architecture. Our built environment is, well, built; and, in order to appreciate and discuss our surroundings, preservationists and others alike use an architectural vocabulary. This vocabulary provides a cohesive literature for reading about, writing about and talking about buildings. These architectural terms are the foundation for how architectural styles are identified, studied, and described. It can be complicated; students spend years studying historic architecture. Entire dictionaries of architectural vocabulary exist, and entire books are devoted to architectural styles.

Keep calm and keep reading: this post will not recreate those dictionaries and books.  This post will guide you as you look at a building, because before you can start classifying buildings, you need to feel confident in looking at the elements.

To look at a building and to identify what you see may seem intimidating. But, you do not need to know every architectural term in the books or every style – not even close. Rather, you can visually find your way around a building with a few categories and lessons on how to talk about what you see. Once you start talking about buildings and noticing their elements and characteristics, you’ll never look at a building the same way, and you’ll gain a greater understanding of your built environment.

Let’s start at the beginning. Buildings are easiest when thought of in largest to smallest elements. For now, let’s stick to the basics. How would you describe the overall look of a house? You can start without knowing any architectural vocabulary. Forget the complicated architectural dictionary; let’s just look at the basic shape, layout, and some details of a building. You’d talk about the number of floors, the siding, the colors, porches, windows, etc., right? And that is close to what preservationists do – we just tweak our colloquial vocab a bit and go into more detail.

Here’s a fairly simple building for practice. Let’s go through a few basic items. I’ll give some short explanations and the answers for this building will be in red. Okay, what do you see?

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 2010.

1. How many stories?

A story/floor is a full story. A half-story means that the top floor does not have a full height wall and ceiling.

This red house has 2.5 stories.

2. What is the shape of the house footprint?

Is it a  rectangle? A square? An octagon?

From this angle, it appears to be a rectangular shaped foundation with a smaller rectangular addition.

3. Look at the front of the house – how many windows/doors are on the first floor?

The number of windows and doors = the number of bays.

Click and go to page 3.

There are two windows on either side of the door, so this house has five bays. The side of the house has two bays.

4. What shape is the roof?

Gable, mansard, hipped, pyramidal, shed, flat, gambrel? The easiest and most common roof is the gable — it’s the triangular shaped roof, the kind most of us drew as little kids. Gables can be in the front (front gable) or on the side (side gable). Mansard is the most ornate, and looks like another story rather than a roof. Pyramidal looks like a pyramid, with all roof sides equal. Hipped is almost like pyramidal, but all faces of the roof are not the same length. Shed is one plane on an angle and flat is flat. Gambrel reminds most of us of a barn.

Hopefully that makes sense, but if not … see the image to the right, which is from the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Guidelines: Roofs on Historic Buildings booklet.

This house has a side gable roof. The rear addition has a shed roof.

5. Describe the windows.

Typically windows are hung sashes (one or both sashes slide up and down). The sashes hold panes of glass. How many panes are in the window on the top sash? The bottom sash? As an example, you would describe windows as six-over-one (6/1), meaning the top sash has six panes of glass on the upper sash above the bottom sash, which is a single pane of glass.

You’d have to get up closer, but for the sake this exercise, let’s discuss if they are replacement windows or original windows. Replacement windows, most often, are a single pane. Any pieces (muntins) dividing the sash are simply attached to the window. Historic windows would have individual pieces of glass set into the muntins.

The way a window opens will also help you to describe it: do both sashes move up and down? Does the window swing open? Lift open? Not open? You can guess sometimes, but it is best if you can actually open the window yourself.

If the windows were original, they would be six-over-six. If they are replacement, they are likely one-over-one. Unless the top sash is fixed (in place), these windows are probably double hung (meaning both sashes move up and down). We’ll pretend they are original because they’re more fun to describe — see below.

6. Look at other details of the building that strike you.

Paint colors may help to highlight elements. Are there chimneys? What is the foundation?

This house has cornerboards (the white vertical boards on the edges — and the eaves (the edges of the roof) are white as well). From this angle, there does not appear to be a chimney. The foundation is stone. See that triangle over the door – that’s a pediment.

Alright, number six was just leading you to thinking about more.  Here is the house again. Let’s put these descriptions together – nothing fancy or stylized, just plain. Go down the list.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 2010.

This is a 2.5 story, five bay x two bay, side gable building. The main rectangular block has a shed roof addition to the rear. The house sits on a stone foundation. On windows are six-over-six double hung sash.

Alright, that wouldn’t win any description awards — effectively and succinctly describing buildings takes practice, but you have to start somewhere. But before you hone your architectural writing craft, you need to look at a building, pull out the elements, and put them together.

So, there you have it! You just told me what you see in that building. It’s not so bad, right?

Once you have the basic ideas, then you can get into more details. Now you’ll notice that not all houses are boxes, not all roofs are gables, windows can be incredibly detailed. Door frames and window frames come into play. Corner boards, water tables, materials… it’s good stuff.

Go take a walk and tell me what you see.

Next week we’ll add in another level of description — more nuances.


8 thoughts on “Historic Preservation Basics No. 3

  1. TJB says:

    Great stuff, Kate! If I keep reading these, Maria will think I’m some sort of idiot savant when I tell her I want a shed with a gambrel roof!

  2. Kayla says:

    Loving this series! I love approaching the building in a series of questions.

    The other question that I would ask would be to describe the building in the context of its lot and other buildings. For instance, this building is at the front of the lot almost on the road and is part of a series of a similar houses on the road.

  3. Gary says:

    Curious that all writing on building description tells the reader what to write, but not how to write. If we had all the components could we build a house? Precious little paper space is ever spent on the craft of writing good architectural description. In part perhaps because the goodness depends upon the purpose(s). But my personal opinion is that ones with talent for reading architecture and writing prose and fiction such as yourselves could help the hand in architectural writing as Susan Sontag aided the eye in photography, or as James Agee and Walker Evans aided empathy.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Excellent point, Gary. Getting a concise, yet descriptive architectural statement is a true skill, one that needs to be taught and then practiced. I like the building a house metaphor. Maybe preservation curriculum should include a writing class?

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