A façade. What is it? Most of us know that its most basic definition is “face.” In the case of architecture, this refers to the exterior side of the building, usually the front. Façades on buildings are often the first defining features we see. As times change, so do architectural design styles, and this is reflected in façades on old and new buildings. Façades can provide varying amounts of information about the building’s past and current functioning, or they can simply be really nice to look at. Regardless, they are often the one aspect of architecture that almost anyone has access to simply by being in front of us. Read on to learn why historical façades are more than aesthetics.


Exterior shot of the Kosciuszko House, from our archives.

 

IMPORTANCE OF FACADES

You may be thinking to yourself: Why is a façade important? Isn’t it just for aesthetic-purposes? The answer is: Yes, it is partially focused on aesthetics. And one person’s visually-pleasing cup-of-tea is not someone else’s, so not every façade is attractive to every eye. However, a façade serves many more purposes and provides many other benefits than simply fulfilling an aesthetic goal.

  • Historical Streetscape and Cultural Landscape. The front façade of your home is an important focal point not only for curb appeal, but for the entire community. The rhythm of the entire streetscape is set by the street-facing façade. A well-preserved façade helps to maintain the historic fabric and cultural landscape of the building and the area around it, further contributing to the identity of its environment and community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Mainstreet America provide further information on the impetus to save and preserve façades in keeping with these community and cultural concepts.

 

  • Visual Historical Records. Even things that were considered merely decorative at the time of their construction may currently serve a function as a visual replacement for a historic plaque, by virtue of their historically-defining characteristics. Essentially, period-appropriate façades that are preserved are visual clues to the time period of the building, enabling us to visually “read” some aspects of a building’s history.  We can discern the time period of the building based on the style, as well as time periods of later additions. Style also indicates the socioeconomic status of the builder/original owner.

 

  • Form and Function. A preserved or period-appropriate façade also may include functional aspects. Although the nature of design has clearly evolved, we know that form and function often go hand-in-hand in older buildings and this often rings true even on a façade. The ingenious marriage of form and function in their designs often lend to the “charm” that modern people associate with them, and that is typically missing from newer buildings. For instance, historical shutters most-definitely served a function as much as they added to the decoration of a home. Their functions included protecting occupants from prying eyes or intrusion,  weather protection, as well as UV protection of items inside the home, including wooden furniture. They might also provide a breeze to come through without having the window gaping open, and in some cases were substitutes for glass windows. Porches also served dual functions, providing a grand decorative entrance to the home, while also allowing for outdoor socialization (as well as alternative sleeping accommodations in the case of sleeping porches). Other façade design elements can also be functional in many ways. 

 

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES

Contractors, building owners, city planning committees, and the public do not always agree on how façades or their buildings should be built, preserved, or maintained, leading to a variety of outcomes and controversies.

  • Façade lost or destroyed. In some cases, an old home or building’s façade is modified, rendering it unrecognizable from its original configuration, and important historical elements are forgotten or lost. Some of the aspects most-threatened by these facelifts include original windows and doors, due to homeowners’ concerns about energy efficiency, cost, and maintenance, and the highly-advertised “maintenance-free” trap

 

  • Façade preserved but interior lost or destroyed. In other cases and as is more common, the façade is preserved while the interior is not. The Secretary of the Interiors’ guidelines for Historic Preservation focuses on the preservation of exterior features (the façade) by allowing historic commissions/HARB districts to regulate changes to buildings within the designated districts to what is visible from the public street (“streetscape” is the term that is used).  The interior is not regulated even in historic districts – leading to gutting of interiors while the exteriors are preserved.  I think this is because the historic preservation policy is based off of community preservation (“rhythms and patterns” is the term that is used) balanced with property owners’ rights – which is still a tension in regulated neighborhoods.  Easements are the only preservation tool that can preserve the interior (if stipulated in the agreement). We will discuss more of this in an upcoming blog post on interiors.

 

  • Façadism. This term refers to an even more extreme example than the one above. Simply put, façadism is when the façade is preserved but the building behind is completely lost or destroyed, and replaced by a completely new building. This is often seen in the case of adaptive reuse. This obviously is a controversial topic in the field of preservation, and some believe it should not be associated with true historic preservation. Locally here in Lancaster, the preservation victory of preserving the Watt and Shand Department Store façade in downtown Lancaster for the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center has been controversial, but I’d rather see the façade preserved than lost.

 

  • Façade and interior restored or preserved. In some cases, façades and interiors are beautifully restored and saved. See this post on an example of one of our complete exterior and interior restorations from several years ago. Another unique local example is also part of the Marriott complex. The Montgomery house’s exterior was preserved as the convention center was built around and incorporated the home into it, and the interior of the house was renovated to meet modern needs, making this a more thorough example of restoration incorporated into adaptive reuse. 

 

FAÇADE PRESERVATION TIPS

There are several things you can do to preserve or restore your historical façade, and we’ve included a breakdown of each of the most common elements of your home’s façade, as well as comprehensive information on overall maintenance and aesthetic/architectural style elements.

  • Entrances (porches and doors). The entrance to a home is one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of a façade. Visit our previous post on porches and doors for more information on restoring or updating your entrance. You can also visit our porch archives.

 

  • Windows and Shutters. Windows are another key component of a façade, and we’ve discussed many times the importance of maintenance or restoration of old windows vs. falling for the “maintenance-free” new window trap that is heavily touted by modern manufacturing companies and many contractors. Visit the National Park Service’s (NPS) site on windows, and NPS’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s website on windows, and our window archives for more information on approaching your historical windows.

 

  • Siding and Paint. Siding can be just as vulnerable as windows are to replacement with inappropriate modern materials. Paint poses its own challenges in terms of safety (lead in old paint) but also benefits of historically-accurate (minus the lead) paints and paint colors. Visit NPS’s briefs on exterior paint issues and substitute materials, as well as our articles on siding and painting your historical home

 

  • Roofs and Chimneys. Roofs and chimneys can be essential elements of a home’s design and are distinctively different across architectural styles. Visit the NPS’s preservation briefs on roofing and mortar, as well as The Trust for Architectural Easement’s piece on historic masonry chimneys. The Wisconsin Historical Society also has a piece on Preserving Original Roof Features of your Historic Building

 

  • Gutters. Although these utilitarian features are often overlooked when one thinks of more common aesthetic and functional features of a building’s façade, they are no less essential. The Trust for Architectural Easements discusses preservation of gutters and downspouts, and we’ve discussed gutters in our archives

 

  • Additions. Additions to homes, especially ones visible from the front of the home, are another important thing to consider when attempting to preserve most historical aspects of a façade. Visit NPS’s brief on exterior additions and Sheldon Richard Kostelecky’s article regarding sympathetic additions. 

 

  • Architectural character. Character is a major aspect of streetscapes and the cultural landscape, as well as period-appropriate architectural design style. Visit NPS’s brief on architectural character and our archives on architectural design.  

 

  • Overall maintenance. Visit our maintenance archives, including many recent and up-to-date articles on maintaining your home’s exterior. 

IN SUMMARY:

There’s more to a façade than meets the eye. If you would like help preserving or restoring your home’s  façade beyond the resources presented throughout this article, feel free to contact us to discuss your options. 

 

At first glance, porches and doors may seem like no more than a way to get in or out of a home or business.   But there is much more to these architectural gateways.  They are frequently exemplary examples of carpentry that give us a peek into the artisanship of our architectural history and have a quality of craftsmanship difficult, but not impossible with the right skills and knowledge, to reproduce today.

The entrance of a house often defines its architectural identity more than any other element.  This is particularly true on the facades of Colonial townhouses (sometimes referred to as row houses), where the flat facades can easily run into each other.

In Colonial and early-American porches and doorways, elements of several different architectural styles can be seen.

  • The Post-Medieval English Style (1600-1700) can be seen in transom lites and drop finials (those that project downward).
  • Dutch influences show up in elevated wooden stoops, eaves, and slender turned columns with square bases.
  • The French tendencies find there way into our entrance architecture with raised paneled doors and arched brick lintels.
  • Our very own early Colonial entrances are more pragmatic – with simple triangle pediments and smaller porch platforms.
  • Late Colonial entrances became more expansive and decorative – with curved brackets, keystones, and decorative sunbursts above the doors, as the Georgian and Federal styles made their way to center stage.

When evaluating the significance of your historic porch, there are two important questions to ask:

What did your entranceway look like originally?

More often than not, changes were made to your porch that may not reflect the original architecture of your house.  You can consult with a contractor that specializes in historic architecture to evaluate any necessary restoration work.  Early photographs, insurance maps, tax records, documents at historical societies or libraries, house histories, and physical evidence can all be used to make a determination of what the porch would have been originally.

What historical evolution has your porch or doorway experienced?

There is a great debate in the preservation world – is it more important to preserve the original architecture of a building or to honor the architectural evolution it experienced over the years?  This is not an easy question (and in cases of historic sites it is often tied to the period of historical relevance) and it is up to you, as steward of your building, to determine what you think is the right answer.  Determining what architectural evolutions your entranceway has experienced may help you decide which preservation approach is important to you. 

Exploring the answers to these two questions will help you define which architectural features make up the character of your entranceway, how it contributes to the overall architectural fabric of your historic building, and which period of architecture you want to preserve.

Keep in mind that if you live in a historic district any changes to the exterior of your house must first have approval from your local historic commission (often if you are not making changes or you are just repairing/maintaining this can be done at the staff level without a hearing).