Techniques > Architectural Character

 

 
 

Architectural Character: Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings as an Aid to Preserving Their Character
Lee H. Nelson, FAIA

With additions from Every Old Building Has Character!

Every old building is unique, with its own identity. Very simply, the terms "visual character" or "architectural character" refer to all those distinctive tangible elements and physical features that comprise the appearance of every historic building. Character-defining aspects of a historic building include its shape, materials, features, craftsmanship, decorative details, interior spaces and features, as well its site and environment.

A complete understanding of any property may require documentary research about its style, construction, function, its furnishings or contents; knowledge about the original builder, owners, and later occupants; and knowledge about the evolutionary history of the building. Even though buildings may be of historical, rather than architectural significance, it is still the tangible elements that embody their significance for association with specific events or persons and it is those elements, both on the exterior and interior, that should be preserved.

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties embody two important goals:

    1. the preservation of historic materials and,
    2. the preservation of a building's distinguishing character.

Every old building is unique, with its own identity and its own distinctive character. Character refers to all those visual aspects and physical features that comprise the appearance of every historic building. Character-defining elements include the overall shape of the building, its materials, craftsmanship, decorative details, interior spaces and features, as well as the various aspects of its site and environment

The purpose of this Brief is to help the owner or the architect identify those features or elements that give the building its visual character and that should be taken into account in order to preserve them to the maximum extent possible.

There are different ways of understanding old buildings. They can be seen as examples of specific building types, which are usually related to a building's function, such as schools, courthouses or churches. Buildings can be studied as examples of using specific materials such as concrete, wood, steel, or limestone. They can also be considered as examples of an historical period, which is often related to a specific architectural style, such as Gothic Revival farmhouses, one-story bungalows, or Art Deco apartment buildings.

There are many other facets of an historic building besides its functional type, its materials or construction or style that contribute to its historic qualities or significance. Some of these qualities are feelings conveyed by the sense of time and place or in buildings associated with events or people. A complete understanding of any property may require documentary research about its style, construction, function, its furnishings or contents; knowledge about the original builder, owners, and later occupants; and knowledge about the evolutionary history of the building. Even though buildings may be of historic, rather than architectural significance, it is their tangible elements that embody its significance for association with specific events or persons and it is those tangible elements both on the exterior and interior that should be preserved.

 

 
 
 
 

Therefore, the approach taken in this Brief is limited to identifying those visual and tangible aspects of the historic building. While this may aid in the planning process for carrying out any ongoing or new use or restoration of the building, this approach is not a substitute for developing an understanding about the significance of an historic building and the district in which it is located. If the various materials, features and spaces that give a building its visual character are not recognized and preserved, then essential aspects of its character may be damaged in the process of change.

A building's character can be irreversibly damaged or changed in many ways, for example, by inappropriate repointing of the brickwork, by removal of a distinctive side porch, by changes to the window sash, by changes to the setting around the building, by changes to the major room arrangements, by the introduction of an atrium, by painting previously unpainted woodwork, etc.

A Three-Step Process to Identify A Building's Visual Character

This Brief outlines a three-step approach that can be used by anyone to identify those materials, features and spaces that contribute to the visual character of a building. This approach involves first examining the building from afar to understand its overall setting and architectural context; then moving up very close to appreciate its materials and the craftsmanship and surface finishes evident in these materials; and then going into and through the building to perceive those spaces, rooms and details that comprise its interior visual character.

Step 1. Identifying the building's overall visual aspects, by examining the exterior from afar to understand its distinctive features, and its overall setting and architectural context.

Step 2. Identifying the visual aspects of the exterior at close range by moving up very close to appreciate its materials and the craftsmanship and surface finishes evident in these materials.

Step 3. Identifying the interior visual aspects — spaces, features and finishes — by going into and through the building.

Conclusion

Using this three-step approach, it is possible to conduct a walk through and identify all those elements and features that help define the visual character of the building. In most cases, there are a number of aspects about the exterior and interior that are important to the character of an historic building. The visual emphasis of this brief will make it possible to ascertain those things that should be preserved because their loss or alteration would diminish or destroy aspects of the historic character whether on the outside, or on the inside of the building.

Nelson, Lee H., FAIA. Preservation Briefs 17: Architectural Character Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings as an Aid to Preserving Their Character, Washington, D.C.: Technical Preservation Services (TPS), National Park Service, September, 1988 (Web: Last Modified: Thursday, April 25 2002 08:30:08 am EDT, KDW) [Layout for this version has been changed: new images, captions and links have been added.]