Walkabout with Montrose: A Progression of Cornices

The armory story will continue next week. Our intrepid photographer couldn’t get out much last week. Please enjoy this story highlighting another element of architectural ornament.Andrew Jackson Dowling, one of the giants of mid 19th century architecture in the US, wrote that a projecting roofline was “one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective modes of giving force and spirit to any building.” Large and often elaborate cornices are a hallmark of much of Western architecture. European builders carried these classical forms to America, and most of our building practices have retained this functional and stylistic form. From our first Federal townhouses in the early 1800’s to well into the 20th century, most of the architectural styles that now line our streets feature broad cornices, with the size and complexity of those cornices, brackets and forms of ornamentation changing with the fashion of the times.

On a practical level, the cornice has important functions. It holds and hides the gutters and drainpipes that allow water to flow from a flat roof, directing that water away from the façade of the house. The larger the overhang, the more shade the cornice provides. In the centuries before air conditioning, the importance of this can’t be ignored. Aesthetically, the cornice casts pleasing shadows on the façade, drawing attention to the other details of the building. As the row house became the dominant residential building style in New York, the cornice was used as a stylistic element of the individual house, as well as the entire row. By the Italianate period, in the mid 1900’s, cornices were made of wood, pressed metal, or stone, traditions that lasted for more than half a century. Only in the last decade of the 19th century, when the eclectic building styles that we lump together as “Queen Anne” became the fashion of the day, did architects sometimes abandon the flat roof and rectangular façade. Peaked and shaped rooflines suggesting a Dutch, Flemish or Tudor cottage design precluded the need for the standard cornice, but these buildings do not make up the majority of residential and commercial buildings in Brownstone Brooklyn. The cornice still rules.

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