Historic Preservation Basics No. 4

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.

No. 4 = Let’s Talk about Buildings A Bit More

Historic Preservation Basics No. 3 introduced a simple outline for learning how to approach a building; how do you talk about the buildings around you? Now you have the basics: number of stories, roof shape, windows, footprint, and then details. The first four are easy; as they say, the devil is in the [architectural] details.

Let’s first establish that architectural details can be structural or aesthetic. Details matter because architectural styles are read through details, shapes, massing, and materials. So, the more you can identify on a building, the more likely you are to clearly match it with a style. (A slight disclaimer: the majority of buildings will fall under more than one architectural style; just be able to support your reasoning.)

If you want to become familiar with architectural styles, pick up a copy of Virginia & Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses or another style book. Read it. Mark it. Refer to it constantly. Professionals do it all the time.

Again, I will not write a book here. Instead, let’s look at details. The intent is to train your eye to pull out details and to know where to look.

1. Door/window surrounds

How are the doors and windows accented? How are they set in the building? What surrounds them? Are there columns? Moldings? Arches over the windows? Pediments (think triangles) over the windows?

Madison Heights, VA. June 2008.

This set of double doors is striking, right? It’s a feature that you don’t see everyday or on modern houses, so you know that you want to mention it when talking about the building. Each door has 14 panes of glass over an inset panel. There is a four light/pane transom over the door. You could also mention the screen doors. The molding is hard to see in this photograph, but you can see some detail near the transom, indicating that it’s probably part of the style.

2. Windows

What are the shapes of the windows? Of the window panes? What are the materials?

Burlington, VT. August 2008.

The 1/1 window in this picture is likely a replacement window, based on the materials not the fact that it is 1/1. (Albeit, this replacement is not nearly as bad as white vinyl windows.) The interesting feature about this is the cast iron lintel (above the window) and the cast iron sill.

3. Decorative Details

Different styles will have varying levels of details. To find details, just pick out anything that seems beyond the standard box frame that you would draw for a building. Look for anything that doesn’t seem structural (as in, the house could stand up if it were removed).Note the surfaces and materials of walls and details.

Thousand Island Park, NY. August 2008.

(This house has so much to talk about! But let’s start with the details.) You can see the stickwork in the gable (thanks to the thoughtful painting) and the turned balusters (porch railings) and turned, decorative porch support posts. The porch roof has patterned shingles. The screen door detailing flows with the details.

Shelburne Farms Inn, VT. September 2009.

This image shows false timbering (the stripes in this image between bricks and the stucco, which beckons Tudor style usually). Note the diamond pane windows in the bay and the brackets under the eaves (the overhang of the roof).

4. Roof

Aside from the shape, what are the roofing materials? Is it patterned? Is there anything distinctive about it?

Montpelier, VT. October 2009.

This church steeple has a distinctive patterned slate roof; obviously, you’ll talk about it in your building description.

5. Massing

Another important part of describing buildings involves the massing, or how the elements of the building fit together in terms of scale and proportion. It isn’t always something that you can describe, but something that you can judge. Consider the massive McMansions and how large they are. Then compare them to pre-mid 20th century homes. The massing or scale of the elements of modern homes is exaggerated and often looks wrong.

Burlington, VT. April 2010.

Burlington, VT. April 2010.

Massing, shapes, elements, and sections of the buildings are just one thing to keep in mind. What else can you notice about this pictures? Window size, window panes, roof details? Wall materials? Porch entry? Chimney location?

While this is just a brief overview of talking about buildings, hopefully it gets you thinking the next time you’re looking around your built environment. Once you are comfortable picking out elements of buildings, pick up an architectural style book and start browsing through the styles. You’ll probably find that details such as lots of stickwork or 6/6 windows can help you find the style of and date your building. In addition, construction techniques and interior details can help your categorize and date your building, too. For now, just enjoy the buildings and know that quite often, the details tell the story.

Readers, this was a short list – feel free to add!


5 thoughts on “Historic Preservation Basics No. 4

  1. Terri says:

    I have to disagree with the characterization in this post and #3 that suggests that all 1-over-1 windows are replacements. I have an American 4 Square built in 1913 with original 1-over-1 windows. You will find them in some Victorians of the era as well. 1-over-1 windows became available in the late 1800s and help define the character of some houses of the time period!

    • Kaitlin says:

      Terri, I did not mean to suggest that all 1/1 windows are replacements, though I see how it could come across that way. I’ve seen these windows in person, obviously, and in the picture if you click and zoom in, you can tell they are replacements. I’ll fix the sentence above so no one gets the wrong impression. Thanks for the note!

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