PART 2 OF THIS SERIES of working on your old home explores replacement in-kind. Replacement in-kind refers to replicating the original in all respects except improved condition, when absolute preservation is not possible. This is a follow-up to Part 1’s general information about maintaining your home’s historical relevance and period style. Regarding replacement, it is easy to think that if the look of a historical building is maintained, as well as the types of materials used, then the building has been successfully preserved. But preservation is not just about preserving how something looks, it is primarily focused on preserving how something is, so that it remains as original as possible for future generations. 

Photo of Keperling Preservation Services’ completed work on the Harris Mansion porch in 2014, which necessitated some replacement in-kind. 

As important as it is to preserve how our historical buildings actually are, inevitably replacements will need to be made when features are so deteriorated that stabilization, conservation, or restoration are simply not viable options. In these instances, the National Park Service’s Standards for Preservation and Guidelines for Preserving Historic Buildings allow for “replacement in-kind” (replicating the original feature in all respects, except improved condition) if there are surviving features that can be used as prototypes. The Standards & Guidelines also notes that, “The replacement materials need to match the old both physically and visually, i.e., wood with wood, etc. Thus… substitute materials are not appropriate in … preservation.”

Using similarly styled or patterned ceramic tile to replace a terracotta tile, using a different wood when replacing cabinetry, removing wallpaper in favor of uncovering the plaster walls, using shingles that are of a different dimension, are all changes that can easily be made in ways that are in keeping with your building’s period of significance. Yet doing so can be confusing to anyone researching historical architecture by suggesting these features (or aspects of them) were there during the building’s period of significance when, in reality, they weren’t.

Further, removing these features permanently alters your building’s historical fabric, sometimes irretrievably. Original wallpaper that is often destroyed during the removal process can’t usually be replaced with in-kind period wallpaper. Replacing one species of wood with another sometimes can’t be undone if the original species of wood is not readily available, or is priced so exorbitantly that it is not financially feasible for your project. In order to avoid significant, and sometimes irreparable, damage to your building, consider replacing only the deteriorated or missing parts of your building’s features, use materials that match the old in design, color, and texture (both physically and visually), and document the original material and the replacement process and materials used extensively for future reference and research.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I have documentation of all former replacements, including documentation of the original features?
  • Have I had my buildings evaluated by a qualified contractor to identify any inappropriate replacement materials or approaches?
  • Do I document all replacements I do, including written and photographic documentation, noting the materials, details, and tooling on both the original and the replacement?
  • Are there any parts of my building’s original features that are deteriorated or missing and need replacement?
  • Is it possible to just replace the deteriorated parts instead of replacing the whole feature?
  • Have I checked with a qualified contractor to see if remediation is needed for any not-in-kind replacements previously performed on my building?

Next week: PART 3 OF THIS SERIES focuses on using a good design.

PART 1 OF THIS SERIES of working on your old home explores options for property owners to save the home’s historically relevant aspects specific to when and how it was built, versus mixing time periods and styles. Maintaining your home’s historical relevance necessitates preservation and restoration tactics that honor the home’s appropriate time period. If too much of the historic fabric is lost (e.g., removed or replaced), the methods and materials that make a historical building special are also lost. At a certain point so much may be lost that the property becomes “just” an old building.


Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

There is over 400 years of architectural history in the United States, including a diversity of styles as rich as the diversity of our people. Early Colonial architecture still intact today displays magnificent examples of the Spanish and English influences prevalent when European settlers first immigrated here. Revolution period buildings demonstrate the forging of a new nation with Federalist and Jeffersonian features. Homes and buildings from the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s capture the two “moments” in American time that define the experience of our culture’s Revival Period and Gilded Age.

Every historical building has a period of significance that determined how that building was constructed and the features it would have that, together, define its architectural importance. Maintaining your historical building in keeping with the period of significance that defined it as an important piece of our built history, is essential to its historical integrity. Mixing and matching period styles can permanently alter your building to the point of historical insignificance

Historical materials, and the craftsmanship used when working with those materials, are easily damaged by modern renovation attempts – even when your intention is focused on preserving your building’s features. For example, using a power sander while restoring original wood that was hand-planed will result in woodwork that can never again reveal the same character as the original woodwork did. Painting wood flooring in a house from a period when a wooden floor would never have been painted is something typically considered reversible, but isn’t always if the wrong paint is chosen or when the removal of the paint causes significant damage to the original flooring. Original porches (and other projections), building footprints and materials, period layouts and unique features can all be altered to the point of no return while adding living space meant to bring a historical building in line with more modern functional style (i.e., failed reconstruction attempts). Removing original wallpaper, or installing wallpaper on a house from a period when wallpaper wasn’t used, isn’t just affecting the aesthetic integrity of a historical house – it can permanently damage the original plaster walls behind it.

If your ultimate goal is to maintain the historical integrity of your property’s time period, focus on preservation (focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time), restoration (depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods), or even reconstruction (re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes) if possible or necessary. Essentially, avoid making changes that may try to make it appear older, newer, or fancier than what it really is. Even small, subtle changes can permanently damage the integrity of your building. The National Park Service details these options further in terms of standards and guidelines for treatment of historic properties (https://www.nps.gov/tps/standards/four-treatments/treatment-restoration.htm).

Ask yourself:

  • Do I know my building’s period of significance?
  • Do I know the architectural features common during my building’s period of significance?
  • Have any of the architectural features original to my building been altered, removed, or renovated?
  • Has the interior layout of my building been changed?
  • Have I checked with a qualified contractor to see if any changes to my building that I want to make are incompatible with my building’s architectural integrity, or can it be done in a more compatible way? Consider professional help given the potential for such a project to overwhelm you (see our helpful tips on hiring a qualified contractor https://practicalpreservationservices.com/hiring-the-right-contractor/). The qualified contractor will best be able to navigate the National Park Service standards and guidelines referred to above.

Next week: PART 2 OF THIS SERIES focuses on replacement in-kind.

 

Typically, on homes built in the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s, the most unexpected maintenance problem deals with the internal gutter system. This is because the problem is hidden until the failure has begun. However, regular inspection and maintenance can catch the problem before it is too late, and damage is done.

First, I bet you are wondering, “what is an internal gutter system?” What we call internal gutter systems are also known as “Yankee Gutters,” or built-in, sunken, box or integral gutters. These drainage systems have been used on houses from the 1700’s through the early 1900’s, though they are most commonly found on buildings from the Victorian period. Typically, they are incorporated into the cornice along the roof line, on a porch, or bay window. The usual construction is a wood trough lined with metal. Because of the cornice trim covering the gutter, problems with the metal lining (typically the first problem – allowing water into the structural framing and eventually the trim) remains unseen until damage is spotted from the water infiltration.

Signs your system is not functioning properly include: peeling paint, moist wood, damage to the masonry (at the roof level), and plaster damage on the interior of the house (at the bay window). Unfortunately, once these symptoms are presented, there is often damage to the structural walls or ceiling, not to mention the decorative moldings of the cornice, making the repair a restoration project (replacement to match the original) rather than a preservation project (maintenance) – an expensive proposition.

One way to minimize the cost is to make sure the gutter is regularly inspected and the solder joints in the metal are properly maintained. These inspections can be done semi-annually when the gutters are cleaned of leaves and other debris.

PRO TIP: Never use roofing tar to seal the joints (rather than soldering the metal seams). This will trap the water into the wood, causing the same problems you are trying to prevent.

Some people roof over the internal gutter system and use external gutters for their water management – this is an option for saving money, but it does change the original appearance of the building by covering the decorative cornice. Further, this solution does not address the damage to the structural systems. Often, unenlightened homeowners will wrap the problem in vinyl or aluminum using the “I can’t see it, so it’s not a problem” approach to maintenance. Of course, this causes larger problems and sometimes results in losing the entire front porch.

If you have external gutters, you should regularly inspect them (semi-annually) to ensure that they are doing their job keeping water out of the house and moving it away from the foundation. If replacement becomes necessary, be sure you replace them with half-round gutters and round or rectangular downspout styles appropriate for historic buildings. NEVER replace them with K-style or corrugated downspouts.

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Colonial Revival Style 1880 – 1960

Identifiable Features

1.  Columned porch or portico
2.  Front door sidelights
3.  pedimented door, windows or dormers
4.  Broken pediment over front door
5.  Pilasters
6.  Symmetrical Facade
7.  Double-hung windows, often multi-paned
8.  Bay windows or paired or triple windows
9.  Wood shutters often with incised patterns
10.  Decorative pendants
11.  Side gabled or hipped roofs
12.  Cornice with dentils or modillions

Colonial

One of the most frequently produced and enduring popular styles in America is the Colonial Revival style.  It can be seen in a seemingly endless variety of forms throughout the state and the country and still continues to influence residential architecture today.  Basically, the Colonial Revival style was an effort to look back to the Federal and Georgian architecture of America ’s founding period for design inspiration.  Less commonly, the Post-Medieval English and Dutch Colonial house forms were an influence on the Colonial Revival style.  This enthusiasm to explore the architecture of America ’s founding period was generated in part by the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 celebrating the country’s 100th birthday.  This trend was further promoted by the Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago .

Like most revival efforts, the Colonial Revival style did not generally produce true copies of earlier styles.  Although, in the early years of the 20 th century (1915-1935) there was a real interest in studying and duplicating Georgian period architecture.  Generally, the Colonial Revival style took certain design elements—front façade symmetry, front entrance fanlights and sidelights, pedimented doorways, porches and dormers—and applied them to larger scale buildings.  These colonial era details could be combined in a great variety of ways, creating many subtypes within this style.  In the 1940s and 1950s a more simplified version of the  Colonial Revival style became popular for homes, usually featuring a two story building, a side-gabled or hipped roof, classically inspired door surrounds and windows, shutters and dormers.  Less common are examples of the Dutch Colonial Revival which are distinguished by a gambrel roof, and sometimes a shallow pent roof over the first floor.  Likewise, there are fewer examples of the Colonial Revival style with a second story overhang inspired by the form of Post Medieval English buildings.

The Colonial Revival style was also popular for public buildings, applying common achitectural details of the style to a larger form.  Colonial Revival public buildings include government offices, post offices, libraries, banks, schools and churches.

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Sullivanesque Style 1890 – 1930

 

Identifiable Features

1.  Intricately patterned, wide decorative cornice
2.  Vertical bands of windows
3.  Terra cotta or plaster panels with sculptural ornamentation
4.  Flat roof with deep projecting eaves
5.  Tall (6 stories or more) building
6.  Porthole windows at cornice level
7.  Large round or Syrian (Ogee) arch at entry
8.  Curvilinear and entwined decorative pattern – Celtic influenced
9.  Buildings have three distinct parts: top, middle and bottom

Sullivanesque

The Sullivanesque style was created by Louis Sullivan  (1856-1924), a prominent turn of the century  architect. Sullivan was educated at MIT and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and worked for premier Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, before moving to Chicago.    The Sullivanesque style developed in response to the  emergence of tall, steel-frame skyscrapers in the 1890s.  This new building type presented a new design challenge.  Sullivan’s approach was to use ornament and design to delineate a tall building into three distinct parts, an entry level with prominent window and door openings, a mid section with bands of windows with vertical piers, and a top with a highly decorative cornice, often featuring round porthole windows.  Sullivan applied classical design principals to these early skyscrapers.  His tripartite design was distinctive and elegant and shows the influence of the concurrent Art Noveau movement in the decorative panels using geometric forms, curving lines and Celtic inspired entwined patterns.  This elaborate form of ornamentation marks a building as Sullivanesque more so than any other feature.

While several of Sullivan’s early works were constructed in Philadelphia between 1849 and 1860, many of his best-known works are located in the Midwest.  Sullivan worked with and influenced many other significant American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright,George Grant Elmslie, and William Gray Purcell.  The Sullivanesque style is an urban style, primarily  seen in large cities or regional centers.

 

 

 

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Renaissance Revival Style 1890 – 1930

Identifiable Features

1.  Low-pitched hipped or flat roof
2.  Symmetrical facade
3.  Masonry construction
4.  Impressive size and scale
5.  Round arch entrance and windows
6.  Classical details: columns, pilasters
7.  Roof line parapet or balustrade
8.  Arcaded and rusticated ground level

Italian

The Italian Renaissance Revival style developed at the very end of the Victorian period of architecture. Like the Romanesque styles and other later classically-inspired styles, the Italian Renaissance Revival style looked to Italy and the ancient world for inspiration. This style developed in direct contrast to the medieval form and appearance of other popular styles of the time, the Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, and Shingle styles. This style and the earlier Italianate style both were modeled on the 16th century buildings of the Italian Renaissance. However, Italian Renaissance Revival style buildings are much closer stylistically to the original form than the Italianate style. This added authenticity was due to greater familiarity with the original buildings—via photographs versus pattern books—and advances in masonry veneering techniques that developed in the early 20th century.

The most predominant feature of this style is its imposing scale and formal design incorporating classical details such as columns and round arches and balustrades. This style can take several distinct forms, but all variations are almost always of masonry (usually stone) construction. One version of the style features a large rectangular building, usually three or more stories in height, topped by a flat roof with a crowning balustrade. Another common feature for this flat roof version of the Italian Renaissance Revival style is a rusticated stone first floor with upper floors having a smooth finish. Porch arcades and porticos are often seen in this  version as well. The other most common form of this style features a hipped roof, often of clay tiles, with broadly overhanging, bracketed eaves. This variation bears some resemblance to the Spanish Colonial Revival style (also known as the Mission style) which was popular in the same period. While having a similar form and tiled roof, the Spanish Colonial Revival style lacks the classical details like columns, pilasters and pedimented windows.

The Italian Renaissance Revival style was first popularized on the East Coast by architects such as McKim, Mead & White as early as the 1880s. This elegant style is seen mostly in up-scale, architect-designed buildings, such as mansions or public buildings. While many examples of this style can be found in Pennsylvania, it is most common in city settings. The 1920s-era State Office complex (North and South Office Buildings, Finance Building, and Forum Building), adjacent to the Beaux Arts State Capitol building in Harrisburg, is of this style.

 

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture High Victorian Gothic Style 1860 – 1890

Identifiable Features

1.  Linear decorative polychrome bands of brick or stone
2.  Masonry construction
3.  Stone quoins
4.  Pointed arch (Gothic) windows and doorways
5.  Steeply gabled roofs, often with cross gables
6.  Ornamental pressed brick and terra cotta tiles
7.  Patterned brick chimneys
8.  Corbelled brickwork
9.  Turret with conical roof

high

 

The High  Victorian Gothic style is similar to the earlier Gothic Revival style, but is a more heavier, more substantial version of the style.  The High Victorian Gothic style was used mostly for large scale public buildings like schools, churches, or government offices, but was sometimes chosen for mansions or homes of substantial size.   Always executed in brick or stone, High Victorian Gothic buildings  are distinguished by the use of polychrome bands of decorative masonry.   Stone quoins, pressed brick,  and terra cotta panels  were commonly used.  Windows and doors were accented with brick or stone trim, often in contrasting colors.   The Gothic pointed arch may be present  at windows, entrances, and decorative dormers and cross gables.  Round turrets with corbelled brickwork and conical roofs are common to this style as well.

The High Victorian Gothic style developed in England in  around the mid point of the 19 th century. English architect John Ruskin, author of “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849)  was a major proponent of the style, finding “constructural coloration” superior to superficially applied color.  Initially, this style was inspired by  English medieval architecture, but later it drew from medieval French and German building traditions as well.  The High Victorian Gothic style did not fully emerge in the United States until after the Civil War.  Since this style was most often employed for high-style public buildings or mansions, it was essentially an urban building type.  It was often used for the design of schools and libraries.  One of Pennsylvania ’s best examples of this style  is the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia , designed by Frank Furness in 1876.

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Exotic Revival Style 1830 – 1850, 1920 – 1930

Identifiable Features

Egyptian Revival Style
1.  Massive columns resembling bundles of sticks
2.  Vulture & sun disk symbol
3.  Rolled (cavetto) cornice
4.  Window enframements that narrow upward

Moorish or Oriental Revival Style
1.  Ogee (pointed) arch
2.  Complex and intricate details with a Middle Eastern or Oriental theme
3.  Recessed porches
4.  Onion dome or minaret
5.  Mosaic tile trim

Swiss Chalet Revival Style
1.  Front facing projecting gable with wooden cut out trim
2.  Second floor porch with cut out balustrade and trim
3.  Patterned stickwork on exterior walls
4.  Low pitched roof with wide overhanging eaves

exotica

 

 

 

The Exotic Revival style actually encompasses several different styles, all somewhat rare, but so distinctive in design that they are worthy of mention. There are two periods of popularity associated with the Exotic Revival style, an earlier mid-19th century one when the style was first introduced and a subsequent period in the early 20th century when the style was reintroduced and revived again.   Buildings from the later period especially of the Exotic Revival style are often of grand size and scale and public use, such as churches, banks, theaters and government offices.

The Egyptian Revival style is simply the addition of Egyptian inspired columns and decorative motifs to buildings that are similar to the Greek Revival or Italianate styles in form. Scholarly interest in the archaeological discoveries of ancient Egypt early in the 19th century led to the development of Egyptian-themed buildings. The style attempted to recreate the appearance of Egyptian temples, especially with the use of massive columns that resemble sheaves of sticks tied at the top and bottom. Details refer to ancient Egyptian symbols—the phoenix, the sphinx, and the vulture and sun disk. This style was most often applied to public buildings, banks, prisons, courthouses, offices, and cemetery structures. This style was often chosen for buildings representing eternity and the afterlife. The Egyptian Revival Style flourished yet again for public buildings (especially movie theaters) from 1920 to 1930, often utilizing poured concrete as a building material. The 1835 Philadelphia County Prison (demolished in 1968) was one of the first Egyptian Revival buildings in the U.S., of imposing stone design by architect Thomas Ulrich Walter. Most surviving examples of the Egyptian Revival style are theaters, cemetery mausoleums and entry buildings, and banks.  The entrance gate to the Pottsville Cemetery with its massive columns and use of symbolic funereal decorative details is an excellent example of the Egyptian Revival style.

Another variation of the Exotic Revival is the Moorish or Oriental Revival style. This style, evocative of the Middle East or Far East, is notable for its ogee or pointed arch which appears at windows, and porches. Trim is delicate and ornate, sometimes with a lacey pattern. Some Moorish or Oriental Revival buildings have recessed porches or Turkish onion domes. The style was inspired in the late 18th and early 19th century by the increasing trade and contact with the Far East. The stylized and traditional architecture of this region appeared exotic and romantic. Like the Egyptian Revival, the Oriental Revival became popular again in the 1920s and 1930s.  While employing different decorative details and massing, the YMCA Building and Zembo Mosque in Harrisburg  are both examples of the Moorish Revival style. Chuches reflecting the Eastern European cultural tradion often are designed with gilded Moorish style onion domes. While that is a distinctive Moorish Revival style feature, it may be the only element of that style present in the overall design.

The Swiss Chalet Revival Style is another variation of the Exotic Revival style. Examples of this style appeared in the pattern books of Andrew Jackson Downing, which promoted other Romantic styles. Buildings of this style emulate the appearance of Swiss chalets, with a protruding front facing gable. A distinctive element is the second floor porch or balcony with flat cut out balustrade and trim. Sometimes stickwork or half timbering appears on the wall surfaces as well. The style also has a low-pitched roof with wide overhanging eaves supported by with brackets. This style was considered appropriate for rustic or mountainous settings, but it appears, sometimes in a more vernacular form, in varied settings throughout the state.  Few examples of the Swiss Chalet Revival variation of the Exotic style have been identified in Pennsylvania.

All three variations of the Exotic Revival style are relatively rare in Pennsylvania, but are easily identifiable due to their distinctive details.

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Second Empire/Mansard Style 1860 – 1900

Identifiable Features

1.  Mansard roof
2.  Patterned shingle roof
3.  Iron roof crest
4.  Decorative window surrounds and dormers
5.  Eaves with brackets
6.  One story porch
7.  Tower
8.  Quoins
9.  Balustrades

second

The Second Empire style, also called the French Second Empire style or Mansard style, was an immensely popular style throughout the United States in the 1860s and 1870s. It was used extensively in the northeastern and midwestern parts of the country. The Second Empire style had its beginnings in France, where it was the chosen style during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-70), France’s Second Empire, hence its name. Well-attended exhibitions in Paris in 1855 and 1867 helped to spread Second Empire style to England and then the United States. The Second Empire style actually harkens back to an earlier time, the 17th century designs of French architect Francois Mansart, for whom the mansard roof is named.  The mansard roof is the key identifying feature of this style and was considered both a fashionable and functional element since it created a fully usable attic space.

In its time, the Second Empire style was viewed as a contemporary “modern” style, rather than revival style, since it was popular in France and the United States simultaneously and its combined design elements did represent a new building form. The style was first seen in America in the 1850s and flourished after the Civil War. It was so commonly employed in that era that it was sometimes referred to as the “General Grant style.”

Perhaps the best-known example of this style in Pennsylvania is the Philadelphia City Hall, built in 1871-1881. While it is distinguished by its crested mansard roof, City Hall has opulent Second Empire details throughout, including dormers with decorative hoods and elaborate columned window surrounds. Examples of the Second Empire style can be found in almost every Pennsylvania town, usually in the form of single residences, duplexes or rowhouses. Second Empire mansions or public buildings are often elaborately detailed, but many other buildings of this style have only the curving lines of the shingled mansard roof to mark them. Other commonly seen details are a bracketed cornice beneath the mansard roof, round arched windows, decorative dormer windows, an iron crest at the roofline, and columned porches or porticoes.

 

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Commercial Style 1890 – 1920

Identifiable Features

1.  Vertical emphasis: 6-20 stories in height
2.  Flat roofs
3.  Masonry wall surfaces
4.  Three part windows or projecting bay windows
5.  Decorative cornices
6.  Steel and beam construction
7.  Ground floor storefronts

Commercial Style

The Commercial style reflects advances in construction technology that permitted the creation of very tall buildings, the first skyscrapers in the urban landscape.  This style is sometimes referred to as the Chicago style, after the city where steel-framed, relatively unadorned, utilitarian, tall commercial buildings first appeared in great numbers in the 1890s.  Advances in commercial architectural design in Philadelphia and New York City laid the groundwork for the full development of the Commercial style in Chicago.  William Le Baron Jenney was the first architect to employ the steel frame construction in his design for the Home Insurance building completed in Chicago in 1885.   Other prominent architects who worked in the development of this new building technology included the firms of Adler and Sullivan (Sullivan’s  embellishment of this style became its own distinctive architectural style, the Sullivanesque), Burnham and Root, and Holabird and Roche.  While the style thrived in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, examples of the Commercial style can be found in many other cities.

Prior to the development of steel frame technology, building height had been limited by the need for massive masonry support walls.  The strength of the steel skeleton allowed for much taller buildings without the bulk of heavy masonry walls.  The invention of the elevator also facilitated the design of tall buildings by making upper floors more easily accessible.  Commercial style buildings reflecting this first wave of skyscraper construction are usually between six and twenty floors in height.  The distinguishing characteristics of this style are a steel skeleton construction, expressed externally as a grid of intersecting piers and cross spandrels, a flat roof with modest cornice, and large bands of windows.  Windows often featured a projecting bay which extended from the ground floor to the top of building.  Another common window type used for Commercial style buildings was the “Chicago window,” comprised of a large fixed central pane, flanked by two narrow casements for ventilation.  The ground floor of Commercial style buildings usually contained large display windows for storefronts.  Some examples of this style employ decorative elements of other popular styles of the era, such as Romanesque or Gothic Revival ornament.  Sullivan’s uniquely curvilinear Art Nouveau inspired ornamental panels led to its distinction as a separate architectural style. Some buildings of Commercial style are very simple in design with no notable ornamentation or reference to past architectural styles.  These bare bones commercial buildings were the precursors of even taller and more simplistic modern skyscraper design.

While the purest description of Commercial style buildings best fits early skyscrapers, many much shorter buildings are sometimes described as Commercial style.  These one to four story brick buildings date from the same era, were designed for commercial use, have large pane windows on the ground floor  and flat roofs, often with decorative parapets.  Early car dealerships and repair shops often take this form with large windows or garage door bays on the ground floor.  This subtype of the style is a more vernacular version that is more prevalent in Pennsylvania than the true high style Commercial style skyscrapers.