Few things are more stunning than intact, intricate ceilings in historic buildings.
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.
C is for Ceiling
Ceilings say a tremendous amount about a particular room. Often ceilings are neglected features of buildings, covered by drop ceilings due to failed plaster or sound and energy efficiency. Buildings that have had continual use are often victims of lowered ceilings and blocked in windows for those same reasons. Have you seen rehabilitated buildings with drop ceilings? What a crushing disappointment it is to walk into a rehabilitated or renovated building, only to look up and see the skeletal network of acoustic tile or other drop ceilings.
When outside preservationists look up at buildings (c for cornice, as well) because we know interesting features exist beyond the ground floor. Just as it is important to protect and highlight the architectural details of a building facade, it should be as important to preserve the integrity of the building’s interior. And when a ceiling cannot be preserved or restored, it should be replaced in kind.
To make a difference in a room, ceilings do not have to be ornate like the murals in the US Capital, the Sistine Chapel or ornamental plasterwork found in Virginia plantation homes (e.g. Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg, VA).
Where are you sitting right now? Look up. What do you see? What does the ceiling bring to mind? What would you rather see? Do you think the ceiling matches the building? A sheetrock ceiling is likely more appealing than a styrofoam-esque drop ceiling. What do you think? Even some restaurant chains are attempting to create a more pleasing environment by choosing black ceiling tiles or utilities.
Next time you’re in a new place, look up and stare at the ceiling. A tin or plaster ceiling has more to tell about a building and creates a more interesting environment. Just as the windows and floors, ceilings are part of the building’s history, too. Ceiling height can indicate purpose and importance of a room or be indicative of climate.
What do you think about ceilings?
Sometimes even rehabilitated buildings have little quirks that make you stare and ask, “What is that?” Sitting in a cafe in Bellows Falls, I looked up at the ceiling of this interesting historic building. I wondered what the circles on the ceilings were. They lined the original store front at the ceiling appeared to be capped (with some exposed insulation). A preservation colleague and I stared for a while, contemplating what it could be. Take a look at these photographs and see if you can guess and come up with what we did.
In full disclosure, my colleague suggested the answer. I agreed. Do you know? Do you give up? Want the answer?
We figured it was recessed lighting for the previous store (obviously the lights are not historic features of the building). If it’s that obvious – to our credit, we hadn’t eaten all day long. Buildings are always entertaining.