Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Classifying Albany's Cornices

This article might seem pedantic to some of you. Classifying cornices? Really? Albany has a wide variety of cornice types, but they tend to fall into categories of patterns. These patterns aren't just useful for looking at Albany's architecture; they are applicable to a wide variety of cornices in upstate New York and other areas like Cincinnati, the Midwest. I said that one aspect of this blog was to examine regional vernaculars, and Albany's cornices definitely fall into a vernacular style. These decorative and elaborate cornices are a product of the 1860s and 70s, when the sobriety of earlier Italianate design was embellished according to changing tastes. A look at furniture styles that were popular during this period, Renaissance revival and Eastlake, provide a good parallel for this type of elaboration in exterior architecture. The accretion of panels, projecting pieces, elaborate fringed borders, and heavy plaques reflect Renaissance revival furniture, while the incised decoration, made possible by the invention of new saws that saved time, and changes in principles of decoration from complex carved design to simpler outlines of symmetrically arranged vegetation reflect the influence of Eastlake. These elaborate cornices are less commonly seen on detached houses or houses outside of an urban setting in which the cornice runs around the entire building. They are extremely common on domestic architecture in a city and can be particularly found on commercial buildings. Elaboration such as this can sometimes be expressed in wood, but it is also a feature of cast iron cornices.

I use the term cornice loosely in this post. The cornice is properly on the top molding of an entablature, that consists of a top molding, cornice, bottom molding, architrave, and center section, the frieze. Properly I am classifying entablatures, but because cornice is so commonly used to denote the entire thing, I've decided to go with 'cornice', as a generalizing term.  The nomenclature I come up with and my division of these into types is my own. In doing so I hope to add a new level of classification to the vagaries that comprise Italianate architecture.

The Horizontal Cornice
The horizontal cornice is the most traditional type. The heavy top molding, the cornice, is supported by brackets, while the base molding, the architrave, is straight. The frieze, or the space between the cornice and architrave is only made up of horizontal bands of molding, often in various patterns like cable, dentil, or egg and dart.
The Paneled Cornice
The paneled cornice is one in which the frieze includes horizontal moldings as well as panels. The panels can be squares, rectangles, or even triangles. In general most other cornice types I will be discussing are paneled cornices that follow specific patterns.

The Arched Cornice

The arched cornice has a horizontal architrave and moldings, but its central feature is a strip of molding laid in a semicircle in the center. Often the spandrels, the triangular shapes to the upper right and left of the arch's curve, have shaped panels. The part within the arch may also have a panel. A keystone can also sometimes be found at the arch's center.

This third example, showing a normal arched cornice to the left also shows a variant to the right, where an arched third story window intersects the architrave.

The Bull's Eye Cornice

The bull's eye cornice is similar to the arched cornice. This cornice features a circular window or panel, a bull's eye window, that breaks the horizontal architrave and drops below it. The window is usually placed so that the center of the circle would be bisected by the architrave. To the right and the left, there are commonly panels that have curved edges that follow the circle's curve.

The Fillet Cornice

The fillet cornice is like the bull's eye in that it features a central window or panel in the shape of a rectangle filleted (with curved corners) in the upper two corners. The straight run of the architrave, however, is not broken. Panels to the right and left of the rectangle mirror the filleted corners of the central feature.

The Undulating Cornice

The undulating cornice is one in which the architrave itself forms an arch between longer brackets, creating a rippling effect when looking at the whole. Often the frieze moldings in this type of cornice will follow the curve of the architrave. There may be some type of fringe (lower picture) or drop (upper picture) descending from the arched architrave.

The Fringed Cornice

The fringed cornice is one in which the architrave is broken up or replaced entirely by a descending series of frieze sections that form a fringe, akin to the elaborate tassels attached to drapes. This fringed finish can take a variety of patterns. The upper image shows a geometrical diamond based fringe, while the lower shows a curved fringe.

In looking at these types, we can see that the last two, the fringe and undulating cornices, deal with the shape of the architrave, while the others deal with the frieze. The arched, bull's eye, and fillet cornices all feature a central section, an arch, circle, or rectangle, that panels are placed around. These three might be called 'medallion cornices' since they feature a central medallion. The treatment of these cornices has almost endless variation, although they tend to fall into these types. There is always an outstanding cornice here or there; how a cornice is treated can be as diverse as builder's minds. These cornices, however, are often the most elaborate and distinctive pieces of these otherwise uniform row houses. It is in the trimming of this traditional form that the builder or owner could express themselves and make an impression. Thus, what we are looking at in these varieties of decoration is a vernacular method of social presentation and individuality that today makes strolling down Albany's streets a delight.

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