Architectural Character: Identifying the Visual Aspects of Historic Buildings

By The Old House Web

Lee H. Nelson, FAIA


Home page logo:  Close-up of brick wall, showing extraordinary craftsmanship. Photo: NPS files.

 Three-Step Process to Identify the Visual Character
 Step 1: Overall Visual Aspects
 Step 2: Visual Character at Close Range
 Step 3: Interior Spaces, Features and Finishes
The ArchitecturalCharacter Checklist/Questionnaire





The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties embody two important goals: 1) thepreservation of historic materials and, 2) the preservation ofa building's distinguishing character. Every old building is unique,with its own identity and its own distinctive character. Characterrefers to all those visual aspects and physical features thatcomprise the appearance of every historic building. Character-definingelements 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 architectidentify those features or elements that give the building itsvisual character and that should be taken into account in orderto preserve them to the maximum extent possible.

There are different ways of understanding old buildings. Theycan be seen as examples of specific building types, which areusually related to a building's function, such as schools, courthousesor churches.


Buildings can be studied as examples of using specificmaterials such as concrete, wood, steel, or limestone. They canalso be considered as examples of an historical period, whichis often related to a specific architectural style, such as GothicRevival farmhouses, one-story bungalows, or Art Deco apartmentbuildings.

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

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

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



A Three-StepProcess to Identify A Building's Visual Character

This Brief outlines a three-step approach that can be used by anyoneto identify those materials, features and spaces that contributeto the visual character of a building. This approach involvesfirst examining the building from afar to understand its overallsetting and architectural context; then moving up very close toappreciate its materials and the craftsmanship and surface finishesevident in these materials; and then going into and through thebuilding to perceive those spaces, rooms and details that compriseits interior visual character.

Step 1: Identify the Overall Visual Aspects

Identifying the overall visual character of a building is nothingmore than looking at its distinguishing physical aspects withoutfocusing on its details. The major contributors to a building'soverall character are embodied in the general aspects of its setting;the shape of the building; its roof and roof features, such aschimneys or cupolas; the various projections on the building,such as porches or bay windows; the recesses or voids in a building,such as open galleries, arcades, or recessed balconies; the openingsfor windows and doorways; and finally the various exterior materialsthat contribute to the building's character.


Step One involveslooking at the building from a distance to understand the characterof its site and setting, and it involves walking around the buildingwhere that is possible. Some buildings will have one or more sidesthat are more important than the others because they are morehighly visible. This does not mean that the rear of the buildingis of no value whatever but it simply means that it is less importantto the overall character. On the other hand, the rear may havean interesting back porch or offer a private garden space or someother aspect that may contribute to the visual character. Sucha general approach to looking at the building and site will providea better understanding of its overall character without havingto resort to an infinitely long checklist of its possible featuresand details. Regardless of whether a building is complicated orrelatively plain, it is these broad categories that contributeto an understanding of the overall character rather than the specificsof architectural features such as moldings and their profiles.

Step 2: Identify the Visual Character at Close Range

Step Two involves looking at the building at close range or arm'slength, where it is possible to see all the surface qualitiesof the materials, such as their color and texture, or surfaceevidence of craftsmanship or age. In some instances, the visualcharacter is the result of the juxtaposition of materials thatare contrastingly different in their color and texture. The surfacequalities of the materials may be important because they impartthe very sense of craftsmanship and age that distinguishes historicbuildings from other buildings. Furthermore, many of these closeup qualities can be easily damaged or obscured by work that affectsthose surfaces. Examples of this could include painting previouslyunpainted masonry, rotary disk sanding of smooth wood siding toremove paint, abrasive cleaning of tooled stonework, or repointingreddish mortar joints with gray portland cement.

There is an almost infinite variety of surface materials, texturesand finishes that are part of a building's character which arefragile and easily lost.

Step 3: Identify the Visual Character of Interior Spaces, Features and Finishes

Perceiving the character of interior spaces can be somewhat moredifficult than dealing with the exterior. In part, this is becauseso much of the exterior can be seen at one time and it is possibleto grasp its essential character rather quickly. To understandthe interior character, Step Three says it is necessary to move through the spacesone at a time. While it is not difficult to perceive the characterof one individual room, it becomes more difficult to deal withspaces that are interconnected and interrelated. Sometimes, asin office buildings, it is the vestibules or lobbies or corridorsthat are important to the interior character of the building.With other groups of buildings the visual qualities of the interiorare related to the plan of the building, as in a church with itsaxial plan creating a narrow tunnel-like space which obviouslyhas a different character than an open space like a sports pavilion.Thus the shape of the space may be an essential part of its character.


With some buildings it is possible to perceive that there is avisual linkage in a sequence of spaces, as in a hotel, from thelobby to the grand staircase to the ballroom. Closing off theopenings between those spaces would change the character fromvisually linked spaces to a series of closed spaces. For example,in a house that has a front and back parlor linked with an openarchway, the two rooms are perceived together, and this visualrelationship is part of the character of the building. To closeoff the open archway would change the character of such a residence.

The importance of interior features and finishes to the characterof the building should not be overlooked. In relatively simplerooms, the primary visual aspects may be in features such as fireplacemantels, lighting fixtures or wooden floors. In some rooms, theabsolute plainness is the character-defining aspect of the interior.So-called secondary spaces also may be important in their own way,from the standpoint of history or because of the family activitiesthat occurred in those rooms. Such secondary spaces, while perhapshistorically significant, are not usually perceived as importantto the visual character of the building. Thus we do not take theminto account in the visual understanding of the building.

Overall Visual Character: Shape



distinctive boxlike shape with projecting story in the middle

The shape of a building can be an important aspect of its overallvisual character. The building illustrated here, for example,has a distinctive horizontal boxlike shape with the middle portionof the box projecting up an extra story.


This building has othervisual aspects that help define its overall character, includingthe pattern of vertical bands of windows, the decorative horizontalbands which separate the base of the building from the upper floors,the dark brown color of the brick, the large arched entranceway,and the castle-like tower behind the building.

Overall Visual Character: Openings

distinctive opening on a principal entry

The opening illustrated here dominates the visual character ofthis building because of its size, shape, location, materials,and craftsmanship. Because of its relation to the generous staircase,this opening places a strong emphasis on the principal entry tothe building. Enclosing this arcade-like entry with glass, forexample, would materially and visually change the character ofthe building.


Overall Visual Character: Roof and
Related Features


visually significant roof with decorative stonework

This building has a number of character-defining aspects whichinclude the windows and the decorative stonework, but certainlythe roof and its related features are visually important to itsoverall visual character. The roof is not only highly visible,it has elaborate stone dormers, and it also has decorative metalworkand slatework. The red and black slates of differing sizes andshapes are laid in patterns that extend around the roof of thislarge and freestanding building. Any changes to this patternedslatework, or to the other roofing details would damage the visualcharacter of the building.


Overall Visual Character:
Roof and Related Features


On this building, the most important visual aspects of its characterare the roof and its related features , such as the dormers andchimneys. The roof is important to the visual character becauseits steepness makes it highly visible, and its prominence is reinforcedby the patterned tinwork, the six dormers and the two chimneys.Changes to the roof or its features, such as removal or alterationsto the dormers, for example, would certainly change the characterof this building. This does not discount the importance of itsother aspects, such as the porch, the windows, the brickwork,or its setting; but the roof is clearly crucial to understandingthe overall visual character of this building as seen from a distance.

decorative cast iron balcony that projects outward

Overall Visual Character: Projections

A projecting porch or balcony can be very important to the overallvisual character of almost any building and to the district inwhich it is located. Despite the size of this building (3-1/2stories), and its distinctive roofline profile, and despite theimportance of the very large window openings, the lacy wrap-aroundiron balcony is singularly important to the visual character ofthis building. It would seriously affect the character to removethe balcony, to enclose it, or to replace it with a balcony lackingthe same degree of detail of the original material.

Overall Visual Character: Trim

decorative wood trim around eaves and porch

If one were to analyze the overall shape or form of this building,it would be seen that it is a gable-roofed house with dormers anda wrap-around porch. It is similar to many other houses of theperiod. It is the wooden trim on the eaves and around the porchthat gives this building its own identify and its special visualcharacter.


Although such wooden trim is vulnerable to the elements,and must be kept painted to prevent deterioration; the loss ofthis trim would seriously damage the overall visual characterof this building, and its loss would obliterate much of the closeupvisual character so dependent upon craftsmanship for the moldings,carvings, and the see-through jigsaw work.

Overall Visual Character: Setting

character-defining urban setting with plantings and sidewalk


Even architecturally modest buildings frequently will have a settingthat contributes to their overall character. In this very urbandistrict, setbacks are the exception, so that the small frontyard is something of a luxury, and it is important to the overallcharacter because of its design and materials, which include theiron fence along the sidewalk, the curved walk leading to theporch, and the various plantings. In a district where parkingspaces are in great demand, such front yards are sometimes convertedto off-street parking, but in this instance, that would essentiallydestroy its setting and would drastically change the visual characterof this historic property.

Arm's Length Visual Character: Materials

distinctiven broken stone foundation

At arm's length, the visual character is most often determinedby the surface qualities of the materials and craftsmanship; andwhile these aspects are often inextricably related, the originalchoice of materials often plays the dominant role in establishingthe close range character because of the color, texture, or shapeof the materials.

In this instance, the variety and arrangement of the materialsis important in defining the visual character, starting with thelarge pieces of broken stone which form the projecting base forthe building walls, then changing to a wall of roughly rectangularstones which vary in size, color, and texture, all with accentuated,projecting beads of mortar, then there is a rather precise andnarrow band of cut and dressed stones with minimal mortar joints,and finally, the main building walls are composed of bricks, ratheruniform in color, with fairly generous mortar joints. It is thejuxtaposition and variety of these materials (and of course, thecraftsmanship) that is very important to the visual character.Changing the raised mortar joints, for example, would drasticallyalter the character at arm's length.

Arm's Length Visual Character: Craft Details

tour-de-force craft details on masonry wall

There are many instances where craft details dominate the arm'slength visual character. As seen here, the craft details are especiallynoticeable because the stones are all of a uniform color, andthey are all squared off, but their surfaces were worked withdiffering tools and techniques to create a great variety of textures,resulting in a tour-de-force of craft details. This texture is veryimportant at close range. It was a deliberately contrived surfacethat is an important contributor to the visual character of thisbuilding.

Interior Visual Character: Individually Important Spaces

significant interior space

In assessing the interior visual character of any historic building,it is necessary to ask whether there are spaces that are importantto the character of this particular building, whether the buildingis architecturally rich or modest, or even if it is a simple orutilitarian structure.

The character of the individually important space, which is illustratedhere, is a combination of its size, the twin curving staircases,the massive columns and curving vaulted ceilings, in additionto the quality of the materials in the floor and in the stairs.If the ceiling were to be lowered to provide space for heatingducts, or if the stairways were to be enclosed for code reasons,the shape and character of this space would be damaged, even ifthere was no permanent physical damage. Such changes can easilydestroy the visual character of an individually important interiorspace. Thus, it is important that the visual aspects of a building'sinterior character be recognized before planning any changes oralterations.

Interior Visual Character: Related Spaces

sequence of interior spaces

Many buildings have interior spaces that are visually or physicallyrelated so that, as you move through them, they are perceivednot as separate spaces, but as a sequence of related spaces thatare important in defining the interior character of the building.The example which is illustrated here consists of two spacesthat are visually linked to each other.
The top photo shows a vestibule which is of a generoussize and unusual in its own right, but more important, it visuallyrelates to the staircase off of it.

sequence of interior spaces

The stairway, bottom photo, is the second part of this sequence of related spaces,and it provides continuing access to the upper floors.These related spaces are very important in defining the interiorcharacter of this building. Almost any change to these spaces,such as installing doors between the vestibule and the hallway,or enclosing the stair would seriously impact their characterand the way that character is perceived.


Interior Visual Character: Interior Features


utilitarian space with ornamental stairway

Interior features are three-dimensional building elements or architecturaldetails that are an integral part of the building as opposed tofurniture. Interior features are often important in defining thecharacter of an individual room or space. In some instances, aninterior feature, like a large and ornamental open stairway maydominate the visual character of an entire building. In otherinstances, a modest iron stairway (like the one illustrated here)may be an important interior feature, and its preservation wouldbe crucial to preserving the interior character of the building.


Such features can also include the obvious things like fireplacemantles, plaster ceiling medallions, or paneling, but they alsoextend to features like hardware, lighting fixtures, bank tellerscages, decorative elevator doors, etc.

Interior Visual Character: Surface Materials and Finishes

interior finish called scagliola

When identifying the visual character of historic interior spacesone should not overlook the importance of those materials andfinishes that comprise the surfaces of walls, floors and ceilings.The surfaces may have evidence of either handcraft or machine madeproducts that are important contributors to the visual character,including patterned or inlaid designs in the wood flooring, decorativepainting practices such as stenciling, imitation marble or woodgrain, wallpapering, tinwork, tile floors, etc.

The example illustrated here involves a combination of real marbleat the base of the column, imitation marble patterns on the plastersurface of the column (a practice called scagliola), and a tilefloor surface that uses small mosaic tiles arranged to form geometricdesigns in several different colors. While such decorative materialsand finishes may be important in defining the interior visualcharacter of this particular building, it should be rememberedthat in much more modest buildings, the plainness of surface materialsand finishes may be an essential aspect of their historic character.

Interior: Exposed Structure

character-defining structural featuress

If features of the structural system are exposed, such as loadbearing brick walls, cast iron columns, roof trusses, posts and beams, vigas, or stone foundation walls, they may be important in defining the building's interior visual character.



Fragility of A Building's Visual Character


brickwork showing damaging cleaning and repointing techniques

Some aspects of a building's visual character are fragile andare easily lost. This is true of brickwork, for example, whichcan be irreversibly damaged with inappropriate cleaning techniquesor by insensitive repointing practices. At least two factors areimportant contributors to the visual character of brickwork, namelythe brick itself and the craftsmanship. Between these, there aremany more aspects worth noting, such as color range of bricks,size and shape variations, texture, bonding patterns, togetherwith the many variable qualities of the mortar joints, such ascolor, width of joint and tooling.


These qualities could be easilydamaged by painting the brick, by raking out the joint with powertools, or repointing with a joint that is too wide. As seen hereduring the process of repointing, the visual character of thisfront wall is being dramatically changed from a wall where thebricks predominate, to a wall that is visually dominated by themortar joints.





Using this three-step approach, it is possible to conduct a walkthrough and identify all those elements and features that helpdefine the visual character of the building. In most cases, thereare a number of aspects about the exterior and interior that areimportant to the character of an historic building. The visualemphasis of this brief will make it possible to ascertain thosethings that should be preserved because their loss or alterationwould diminish or destroy aspects of the historic character whetheron the outside, or on the inside of the building.




The ArchitecturalCharacter Checklist/Questionnaire

This checklist can be taken to the building and used to identifythose aspects that give the building and setting its essentialvisual qualities and character. This checklist consists of a seriesof questions that are designed to help in identifying those thingsthat contribute to a building's character. The use of this checklistinvolves the threestep process of looking for: 1) the overallvisual aspects, 2) the visual character at close range, and 3)the visual character of interior spaces, features and finishes.

Because this is a process to identify architectural character,it does not address those intangible qualities that give a propertyor building or its contents its historic significance, insteadthis checklist is organized on the assumption that historic significanceis embodied in those tangible aspects that include the building'ssetting, its form and fabric.


1. Shape

What is there about the form or shape of the building that givesthe building its identity? Is the shape distinctive in relationto the neighboring buildings? Is it simply a low, squat box, oris it a tall, narrow building with a corner tower? Is the shapehighly consistent with its neighbors? Is the shape so complicatedbecause of wings, or ells, or differences in height, that itscomplexity is important to its character? Conversely, is the shapeso simple or plain that adding a feature like a porch would changethat character? Does the shape convey its historic function asin smoke stacks or silos?

Notes on the Shape or Form of the Building:



2. Roof and Roof Features

Does the roof shape or its steep (or shallow) slope contributeto the building's character? Does the fact that the roof is highlyvisible (or not visible at all) contribute to the architecturalidentity of the building? Are certain roof features importantto the profile of the building against the sky or its background,such as cupolas, multiple chimneys, dormers, cresting, or weather vanes?Are the roofing materials or their colors or their patterns (suchas patterned slates) more noticeable than the shape or slope ofthe roof?

Notes on the Roof and Roof Features:



3. Openings

Is there a rhythm or pattern to the arrangement of windows orother openings in the walls; like the rhythm of windows in a factorybuilding, or a threepart window in the front bay of a house; oris there a noticeable relationship between the width of the windowopenings and the wall space between the window openings? Are theredistinctive openings, like a large arched entranceway, or decorativewindow lintels that accentuate the importance the window openings,or unusually shaped windows, or patterned window sash, like smallpanes of glass in the windows or doors, that are important tothe character? Is the plainness of the window openings such thatadding shutters or gingerbread trim would radically change itscharacter? Is there a hierarchy of facades that make the frontwindows more important than the side windows? What about thosewalls where the absence of windows establishes its own character?

Notes on the Openings:



4. Projections

Are there parts of the building that are characterdefining becausethey project from the walls of the building like porches, cornices,bay windows, or balconies? Are there turrets, or widely overhangingeaves, projecting pediments or chimneys?

Notes on the Projections:



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