Saturday, July 25, 2009

1930s Base Molding: Part 1

Today I start DETAILS, a new category of postings with two primary objectives, to record physical features of the architectural environment, and to discuss those details in some historical context. DETAILS will be different from other postings in that it will actually provide new data, as it were, from the street. I will try to complement the discussion with sketches or photographs. The drawings will be completely analog, quickly drawn by pen or pencil.

I start with the topic of a simple molding profile. Everyone involved with the study and maintenance of old houses confronts a disparity between original elements and available material. The former conform to the construction industry's standardization of a bygone age, the latter conform to the marketplace of Home Depot, Lowe's, and other more specialized vendors. My problem last week was to figure out how to replace parts of a base molding surrounding the exterior of a 1932 Tudor revival house.

Tudor houses are best known for their iconic elements inspired by medieval architectural forms, generally from the Tudor period in England (1485-1603): pitched roofs, half-timbering, picturesque volumes, dominant chimneys, rustic brickwork or plaster, arched openings. The style became especially popular in American suburban homes from the 1890s-1930s. Beyond their romantic historicism, Tudor houses often introduce subtle elements of modernism, such as the open plan and streamlined details.

Consider the left base molding below:
The profile is voluminous, the curves are sweeping, and there is exaggerated contrast between fat and thin components. The heavy concave protrusion is reminiscent of the torus cornice that emerged in medieval fortifications after the introduction of artillery (fortress walls were lowered and the masonry was thickened to sustain impact). In the Tudor revival house here, the torus molding transitions the plaster wall into the concrete base (more about this later).

The Tudor style had a slight revival in the 1950s, but it has eclipsed from the library of popular American styles. Other styles, like Colonial Revival, has endured. A glimpse through the molding offerings of today show a greater variety of ornate 18th/19th century options than anything from the 20th century. The molding on the right is the closest thing in size and shape to the Tudor profile. It's called "Colonial Colonial Accent" and can be found in most Lowe's (whose molding selection is much better than Home Depot's). One easily sees how the colonial molding is more ornate. Whereas the 1932 molding is one sweeping line, the colonial molding has three curve changes accentuated by junctures. The colonial molding has strong lines that create strong shadow lines. It's busy and overly-articulated.

So the question is not simply that history has stopped being relevant, but rather that certain phases of architectural history have been phased out. The colonial molding, I believe, has survived because it is ultra-ornamental and hence significantly different from modern details. Beyond its all-American associations, it has a stylistic premium. The more ornate something is, the more undeniably pre-modern, old, valuable, full of heritage and beauty.

Construction standards for interior and exterior moldings are driven by demand for new buildings. The molding section of any big lumber yard offers an interesting slice through America's contemporary aesthetics, which reflect the privileging of certain periods over others. I would love to see an architectural history PhD thesis that simply analyzes the molding stock of Lowe's and connects the present to the various pasts. Is it simply taste that drives the survival of the ornate past, or are there additional considerations?

At the end of the day, the two moldings shown above are barely distinguishable (especially since they're placed low enough on the house exterior). What I find interesting is that 21st-century choices have forces a Tudor house to get a new retrogressive make-over. Interestingly enough, however, the 1932 Tudor house is surrounded by 1930s Colonial. Most colonial-looking buildings in New England, belong to the Colonial Revival of the 1920s. Looking at a 1930s residential development in the East Coast, we see a potpourri of contemporary revival styles: Tudor, Colonial, Italianate, Neoclassicall, Gothic. The Tudor and the Colonial moldings were once contemporary.

I should finally add a few comments on the personal search for the profile. My search for this molding profile was not limited to the big department stores (Lowe's, Home Depot, Ace) but has taken me to some wonderful independently owned lumber yards, such as Shagbark in East Haddam, Conn. and Tague in Philadelphia, Penn. The latter has also published a molding catalog also available on-line. In my persistent lumber yard searches, I found a base cap form similar to my 1930s molding, but much smaller. Professionally milling the molding fresh was always an option but prohibitively expensive. Nevertheless, it is good to know that the craftsmanhship is still avaialbe. Who knows for how much longer? I considered milling the piece myself with a router. That idea did not go very far because I could not find a router bit large enough to create the gracious concave curve.


Stucco Trim said...

I'm stunned by your knowledge of historical architecture... I've never seen anyone discuss the details so in depth.

While our company uses extremely modern manufacturing materials and methods, we have the capability of manufacturing custom shapes. While it's prohibitive on small projects like you mentioned, the set of fee over a large project is negligible.

Are there any books you would recommend on classical architecture and how to associate a certain shape/style to an era or style of architecture?

Anonymous said...

I was hoping to find the molding on the left for a job we are currently working on. Your post just ruined my day. ;) I guess we'll have to figure something else out.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States