Every profession has its own vocabulary. When I got my first “real” job out of graduate school, I incorporated words like “fenestration” and “corbelling” into almost every conversation…a vastly annoying habit. I’ve tempered my approach since then, but I thought beginning a new series of posts about the language associated with historic buildings would be appropriate for Preservation Month. Although there are many terms that start with “A,” none are particularly compelling, nor (in my experience) the cause of too much brow-furrowing – “B” words, however, are a different story…
A balustrade is a railing with supporting balusters – most staircases and porches have balustrades. A baluster is the single, upright (vertical) member that holds up a railing or handrail – a series of balusters, then, is a balustrade. When I describe a porch on a house, for instance, I will describe what type of balustrade it has: the material, the design, and any noteworthy elements.
Balustrades come in all shapes and sizes, and are usually either open rail, with a series of balusters spaced evenly (an open rail balustrade), or a solid (or closed) balustrade. Of course, there are also in-between types, with fanciful shapes or carvings cut into the wood that forms the balusters. If there is open space there – I call it open!
The last quarter of the 19th century, during the Victorian period of architecture, saw creative shapes and ornamentation on almost every aspect of some buildings – especially porches and their balustrades.
The porch balustrade often (except sometimes when you have a bad replacement balustrade) complements the architectural style of the house. Closed or solid porch balustrades become more common the first three decades of the 20th century, as the Craftsman style popularized solid brick balustrades or balustrades with the brick arranged in patterns.
Porch balustrades are one of the most-replaced elements on historic houses. Wooden balustrades give way to metal railings – which don’t convey the same type of charm. Sometimes, homeowners remove their balustrades all together – and although it can make a porch seem roomier, it can also make it look slightly naked. Balusters and balustrades come in all types, and are one of the first things I notice about historic houses.