Preservation ABCs: R is for Railing

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.


R is for Railing


A variety of railings. Top left: a modern cable railing in a historic railyard turnable (Montpelier, VT). Top right: a pedestrian railing on a truss bridge (Woodstock, VT). Bottom left: An elaborate Federal style balustrade (Rutland County, VT). Bottom right: a joint on a simple storefront railing (Randolph, VT).

Porch railings, stair railings (balusters & banisters), bridge railings, pedestrian railings, even small handrails – all of these might be small elements of our historic buildings and structures, yet they contribute to historic integrity and have the potential to make quite an impression, subliminal or obvious. Varying in height, detail, material and purpose, railings are elements that have changed over time; they are part of architectural style classifications just as doors, windows and interior details.

Due to deterioration of metal or rot of wood, railings exposed to the elements are often replaced. In terms of transportation, pedestrian railings and bridge railings are often replaced due to new crash ratings and safety standards. In public buildings, railings are often replaced because the old one doesn’t meet height requirements. And structures that did not have originally have railings often have later additions, perhaps on stairs or fire escapes – wherever one might be needed. Some might be historically appropriate to the architectural style of the building or structure; however, there is a chance that this new railing addition is an inappropriate, generic selection or 2x4s or standard w-beam (on bridges that is) when it should be something else. Modern railings on historic structures are often meant to fade into the background, such as cable rails, in order to not convey a false impression of what is historic on the structure.

In fact, railings might be something you notice without thinking about it. Next time you are walking or driving over a bridge, look to the side. What is the railing? Does it tell you about the bridge? When you walk into a building, what do you hold onto as you enter? How about when you climb the stairs or stand on a balcony? And then consider this: do you think the railing has been replaced? Even if you haven’t studied architectural history, does this railing seem like it matches the building?

Before replacing a railing consider if it can be rehabilitated. Minor repairs or a creative solution, like adding a parapet to get pedestrian height might solve your problem.

What do you think about railings?


4 thoughts on “Preservation ABCs: R is for Railing

  1. marylandis says:

    At the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City, the decorative ironwork was recently subjected to a thorough microscopic paint analysis. What we discovered was a surprise. While such ironwork is often painted black, as ours was, the fact is that in mid-nineteenth century, our ironwork was painted an olive green. The closest contemporary match is Benjamin Moore’s “Peale Green.” So–in the interest of making our 1850 interpretive date more accurate, the railings, basket urns, and fence in front of this 1832 row house were just repainted—green! According to a study done in Great Britain, green was a common color for ironwork in mid-19th century there.

  2. jane says:

    Owners with old railings which need repair need to know that – per the building code – if they take them out the railing will have to be replaced by ones that meet the current code.

    This means that a 30″ high rail, a common height, will have be replaced by a 36″ high rail. If any of the spacings between the balusters were more than 4″ they will now have to be changed.
    For an old house this can dramatically change its design and character.

    Repair, fix, update your railings. DO NOT remove them.

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