Gardens to Gables

“B” is for Balustrade: An Alphabet Soup of Architectural Terms

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…

One of the most common porch balustrades in Kentucky, from the late-19th century into the 20th is the open rail, with turned and chamfered balusters. Often, the porch posts mimic the balusters and are also turned and chamfered. This example is from the community of Summer Shade in Metcalfe County, Kentucky.

One of the most common types of porch balustrades in Kentucky, from the late-19th century into the 20th is the open rail, with turned and chamfered balusters. Often, the porch posts mimic the balusters and are also turned and chamfered. This example is from the community of Summer Shade in Metcalfe County, Kentucky.

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.

A nice detail of a single baluster (on the left) and a balustrade (on the right). Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

A nice detail of a single baluster (on the left) and a balustrade (on the right). Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

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!

This porch balustrade in Elliott County, Kentucky, demonstrates both types: a solid panel on the first floor, and a more open balustrade on the second story.

This porch balustrade in Elliott County, Kentucky, demonstrates both types: a solid panel on the first floor (which is a replacement – the original either matched the upper story or was a more traditional open rail with turned balusters), and a more open balustrade on the second story.

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.

This two-story porch in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, displays some of the inventiveness found in Kentucky domestic architecture in the late-19th century. The first story balustrade even manages to combine both a solid portion and an open segment!

This two-story porch in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, displays some of the inventiveness found in Kentucky domestic architecture in the late-19th century. The first story balustrade even manages to combine both a solid portion and an open segment!

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.

This circa 1930s brick balustrade is on a bungalow in Bellevue, Campbell County, Kentucky.

This circa 1930s brick balustrade is on a bungalow in Bellevue, Campbell County, Kentucky.

 

This little T-plan house in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, has a most delightful porch balustrade.

This little T-plan house in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, has a most delightful porch balustrade.

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.

Two types of balustrades are visible in the photo of a house in Maysville, Kentucky: two stone balustrades, and what appears to be a replacement metal balustrade on the house itself.

Two types of balustrades are visible in the photo of a house in Maysville, Kentucky: two stone balustrades, and what appears to be a replacement metal balustrade on the house itself.

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3 Thoughts on ““B” is for Balustrade: An Alphabet Soup of Architectural Terms

  1. David Ames on May 3, 2016 at 11:11 am said:

    This is great. Actually for “A” it might be fun to define “architecture” itself since it has an interesting history as it has gone from exclusive association with high style to vernacular and from buildings only to include landscape. Just a thought.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on May 3, 2016 at 4:02 pm said:

      Thanks David! That is a very good thought – perhaps on a day when I have a few more brain cells at my command…defining the complex history of architecture requires a bit more thought than balustrades!

      • David Ames on May 4, 2016 at 10:58 am said:

        Fair enough!! But don’t think brain cells is an issue :)! Waiting for “C” — so many possibilities!! I shared this on my FB pages with a comment.

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