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Listening to the Past :: How Architectural Details Inform Our Work

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If you have an old house to work on, do some homework before you start your project. It can be as simple as looking the house over for details that give the house its style.  It may be obvious (or subtle) clues, architectural details that guide new work so it “fits” the home.

You do not need to be an architectural historian to be able to place the home in a particular period or recognized style (Victorian, Craftsman, Tudor, Colonial, Greek Revival, etc.—though that helps).  Some homes are simply an eclectic mix of influences. In this case, you may get to choose the direction you go.

Taking Queues From Existing Details

This balustrade was chosen by the owner based on the obvious sunburst design over the front door. I also offered to build a diamond pattern into the rail to echo the diamonds over the door.

Before the sunburst was chosen, we toured the inside of the home too. A pattern in a metal heating grate in the fireplace was actually my favorite design, but it would not make sense to someone walking by, who had not been inside the house.  It would also have been more expensive to build the more elaborate design.

Identifying and Building on Themes

I recently posted piece on Hometalk.com titled How a Heat Register and a Doorway Morphed into a Fence.  In the post I stated that “I like finding details in homes and using them… not copying them exactly, but being inspired by them to create something that fits with the theme of the home.” This fence in the backyard, is overlooked by the dining room with the arches and craftsman style registers, so everything just “works.”

My point is that you may not need to use Google images or Pinterest to find something you like. No matter how great a resource the internet is, your project may find the best inspiration right where you live. Something marvelous you see places like this blog post may not be as good a fit as something right beneath your nose … or in the register at your feet.

Doorway & register that inspired a Craftsman style fence.

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Brian Campbell is currently a finish carpenter in St. Paul, MN and has worked in the trades for thirty years in Minnesota and Colorado. He has had his work featured in Fine Homebuilding, the Journal of Light Construction, and Old House Journal.

I am fortunate enough to find myself in two Facebook groups with Brian.  Judging from the pics he posts in these groups, one can tell he is extremely talented.  And after only some gentle prodding, he offered his thoughts here. Thank you Brian. You can find him on Facebook (and give him a Like) at Basswood Artisan Carpentry

For more on taking queues from architectural details, perhaps my post on Selecting Interior Doors. For more about the language of architecture, and how to interpret it, see our post – 10 American Home Styles. Cheers. ~jb

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