Preservation Briefs: 17 Architectural Character: Identifying The Visual Aspects Of Historic Buildings As An Aid To Preserving Their Character

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The link immediately below connects to the latest version of National Park Service Preservation Brief 17:

Lee H. Nelson, FAIA

This standard includes the bulk of information contained in the
original Preservation Brief developed by the National Park Service.
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Character-defining elements 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 architect
identify those features or elements that give the building its
visual character and that should be taken into account in order to
preserve them to the maximum extent possible.

There are different ways of understanding old buildings.  They can
be seen as examples of specific building types, which are usually
related to a building's function, such as schools, courthouses or
churches.  Buildings can be studied as examples of using specific
materials such as concrete, wood, steel, or limestone.  They can
also be considered as examples of an historical period, which is
often related to a specific architectural style, such as Gothic
Revival farmhouses, one-story bungalows, or Art Deco apartment

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

Therefore, the approach taken in this Brief is limited to
identifying those visual and tangible aspects of the historic
building.  While this may aid in the planning process for carrying
out any ongoing or new use or restoration of the building, this
approach is not a substitute for developing an understanding about
the significance of an historic building and the district in which
it is located.

If the various materials, features and spaces that give a building
its visual character are not recognized and preserved, then
essential aspects of its character may be damaged in the process of

A building's character can be irreversibly damaged or changed in
many ways, i.e., by inappropriate repointing of the brickwork,
removal of a distinctive side porch, changes to the window sash,
changes to the setting around the building, changes to the major
room arrangements, the introduction of an atrium, painting
previously unpainted woodwork, etc.


This Brief outlines a three-step approach that can be used by
anyone to identify those materials, features and spaces that
contribute to the visual character of a building.  This approach
involves first examining the building from afar to understand its
overall setting and architectural context; then moving up very
close to appreciate its materials and the craftsmanship and surface
finishes evident in these materials; and then going into and
through the building to perceive those spaces, rooms and details
that comprise its interior visual character.


Identifying the overall visual character of a building is nothing
more than looking at its distinguishing physical aspects without
focusing on its details.  The major contributors to a building's
overall character are embodied in the general aspects of its
setting; the shape of the building; its roof and roof features,
such as chimneys 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 openings for windows and doorways; and finally the various
exterior materials that contribute to the building's character.
Step one involves looking at the building from a distance to
understand the character of its site and setting, and it involves
walking around the building where that is possible. Some buildings
will have one or more sides that are more important than the others
because they are more highly visible.  This does not mean that the
rear of the building is of no value whatever, but it simply means
that it is less important to the overall character.  On the other
hand, the rear may have an interesting back porch or offer a
private garden space or some other aspect that may contribute to
the visual character.  Such a general approach to looking at the
building and site will provide a better understanding of its
overall character without having to resort to an infinitely long
checklist of its possible features and details.

Regardless of whether a building is complicated or relatively
plain, it is these broad categories that contribute to an
understanding of the overall character rather than the specifics of
architectural features such as moldings and their profiles.


Step two involves looking at the building at close range or arm's
length, where it is possible to see all the surface qualities of
the materials such as their color and texture, surface evidence of
craftsmanship, or age.  In some instances, the visual character is
the result of the juxtaposition of materials that are contrastingly
different in their color and texture.  The surface qualities of the
materials may be important because they impart the very sense of
craftsmanship and age that distinguishes historic buildings from
other buildings.  Furthermore, many of these close-up qualities can
be easily damaged or obscured by work that affects those surfaces.
Examples of this could include painting previously unpainted
masonry, rotary disk sanding of smooth wood siding to remove paint,
abrasive cleaning of tooled stonework, or repointing reddish mortar
joints with gray portland cement.

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


Perceiving the character of interior spaces can be somewhat more
difficult than dealing with the exterior.  In part, this is because
so much of the exterior can be seen at one time and it is possible
to grasp its essential character rather quickly.  To understand the
interior character, it is necessary to move through the spaces one
at a time.  While it is not difficult to perceive the character of
one individual room, it becomes more difficult to deal with spaces
that are interconnected and interrelated.  Sometimes, as in office
buildings, it is the vestibules, lobbies, or corridors that are
important to the interior character of the building.  With other
groups of buildings the visual qualities of the interior are
related to the plan of the building, as in a church with its axial
plan creating a narrow tunnel-like space which obviously has 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 a visual linkage in a sequence of spaces, as in a hotel,
from the lobby to the grand staircase, to the ballroom.  Closing
off the openings between those spaces would change the character
from visually linked spaces to a series of closed spaces.  For
example, in a house that has a front and back parlor linked with an
open archway, the two rooms are perceived together, and this visual
relationship is part of the character of the building.  To  close
off the open archway would change the character of such a

The importance of interior features and finishes to the character
of the building should not be overlooked.  In relatively simple
rooms, the primary visual aspects may be in features such as
fireplace mantels, lighting fixtures or wooden floors.  In some
rooms, the absolute 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 activities that occurred in those rooms.  Such secondary
spaces, while perhaps historically significant, are not usually
perceived as important to the visual character of the building.
Thus we do not take them into account in the visual understanding
of the building.


Using this three-step approach, it is possible to conduct a walk
through and identify all those elements and features that help
define the visual character of the  building.  In most cases, there
are a number of aspects about the exterior and interior that are
important to the character of an historic building.  The visual
emphasis of this brief will make it possible to ascertain those
things that should be preserved because their loss or alteration
would diminish or destroy aspects of the historic character whether
on the outside, or on the inside of the building.


This checklist can be taken to the building and used to identify
those aspects that give the building and setting its essential
visual qualities and character.  This checklist consists of a
series of questions that are designed to help in identifying those
things that contribute to a building's character.  The use of this
checklist involves the three-step process of looking for: 1) the
overall visual 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 property or
building or its contents its historic significance, instead this
checklist is organized on the assumption that historic significance
is embodied in those tangible aspects that include the building's
setting, its form and fabric.


-    SHAPE:

    1.   What is there about the form or shape of the building
         that gives the building its identity?

    2.   Is the shape distinctive in relation to the neighboring
         buildings? Is it simply a low, squat box, or is it a
         tall, narrow building with a corner tower?

    3.   Is the shape highly consistent with its neighbors? Is the
         shape so complicated because of wings, or ells, or
         differences in height, that its complexity is important
         to its character?

    4.   Conversely, is the shape so simple or plain that adding
         a feature like a porch would change that character?

    5.   Does the shape convey its historic function as in smoke
         stacks or silos?


    1.   Does the roof shape or its steep (or shallow) slope
         contribute to the building's character?

    2.   Does the fact that the roof is highly visible (or not
         visible at all) contribute to the architectural identity
         of the building?

    3.   Are certain roof features important to the profile of the
         building against the sky or its background, such as
         cupolas, multiple chimneys, dormers, cresting, or

    4.   Are the roofing materials, their colors, or their
         patterns (such as patterned slates) more noticeable than
         the shape or slope of the roof?


    1.   Is there a rhythm or pattern to the arrangement of
         windows or other openings in the walls; like the rhythm
         of windows in a factory building, or a three-part window
         in the front bay of a house; or is there a noticeable
         relationship between the width of the window openings and
         the wall space between the window openings?

    2.   Are there distinctive openings, like a large arched
         entranceway, or decorative window lintels that accentuate
         the importance of the window openings, or unusually
         shaped windows, or patterned window sash, like small
         panes of glass in the windows or doors, that are
         important to the character?

    3.   Is the plainness of the window openings such that adding
         shutters or gingerbread trim would radically change its

    4.   Is there a hierarchy of facades that make the front
         windows more important than the side windows?

    5.   What about those walls where the absence of windows
         establishes its own character?


    1.   Are there parts of the building that are character
         defining because they project from the walls of the
         building like porches, cornices, bay windows, or

    2.   Are there turrets, widely overhanging eaves, projecting
         pediments, or chimneys?


    1.   Does the trim around the windows or doors contribute to
         the character of the building?

    2.   Is there other trim on the walls or around the
         projections that, because of its decoration or color or
         patterning, contributes to the character of the building?

    3.   Are there secondary features such as shutters, decorative
         gables, railings, or exterior wall panels?


    1.   Do the materials or combination of materials contribute
         to the overall character of the building as seen from a
         distance, because of their color or patterning, such as
         broken faced stone, scalloped wall shingling, rounded
         rock foundation walls, boards and battens, or textured


    1.   What are the aspects of the setting that are important to
         the visual character?  For example, is the alignment of
         buildings along a city street and their relationship to
         the sidewalk the essential aspect of its setting? Or,
         conversely, is the essential character dependent upon the
         tree plantings and out buildings which surround the

    2.   Is the front yard important to the setting of the modest
         house? Is the specific site important to the setting such
         as being on a hilltop, along a river, or, is the building
         placed on the site in such a way to enhance its setting?

    3.   Is there a special relationship to the adjoining streets
         and other buildings?

    4.   Is there a view?

    5.   Is there fencing, planting, terracing, walkways or any
         other landscape aspects that contribute to the setting?



    1.   Are there one or more materials that have an inherent
         texture that contributes to the close-range character,
         such as stucco, exposed aggregate concrete, or brick
         textured with vertical grooves?  Or, are there materials
         with inherent colors such as smooth orange-colored brick
         with dark spots of iron pyrites, or prominently veined
         stone, or green serpentine stone?

    2.   Are there combinations of materials, used in
         juxtaposition, such as several different kinds of stone,
         combinations of stone and brick, dressed stones for
         window lintels used in conjunction with rough stones for
         the wall?

    3.   Has the choice of materials or the combinations of
         materials contributed to the character?


    1.   Is there high-quality brickwork with narrow mortar
         joints? Is there hand-tooled or patterned stonework? Do
         the walls exhibit carefully struck vertical mortar joints
         and recessed horizontal joints?

    2.   Is the wall shinglework laid up in patterns or does it
         retain evidence of the circular saw marks or can the
         grain of the wood be seen through the semitransparent

    3.   Are there hand split or hand-dressed clapboards, or
         machine smooth beveled siding, or wood rusticated to look
         like stone, or Art Deco zigzag designs executed in

         NOTE:  Almost any evidence of craft details, whether
         handmade or machinemade, will contribute to the character
         of a building; because it is a manifestation of the
         materials, of the times in which the work was done, and
         of the tools and processes that were used.  It further
         reflects the effects of time, and maintenance (and/or
         neglect) that the building has received over the years.
         All of these aspects are a part of the surface qualities
         that are seen only at close range.



    1.   Are there individual rooms or spaces that are important
         to this building because of their size, height,
         proportion, configuration, or function, like the center
         hallway in a house, or the bank lobby, or the school
         auditorium, or the ballroom in a hotel, or a courtroom in
         a county courthouse?


    1.   Are there adjoining rooms that are visually and
         physically related with large doorways or open archways
         so that they are perceived as related rooms as opposed to
         separate rooms?

    2.   Is there an important sequence of spaces that are related
         to each other, such as the sequence from the entry way to
         the lobby to the stairway and to the upper balcony as in
         a theatre; or the sequence in a residence from the entry
         vestibule to the hallway to the front parlor, and on
         through the sliding doors to the back parlor; or the
         sequence in an office building from the entry vestibule
         to the lobby to the bank of elevators?


    1.   Are there interior features that help define the
         character of the building, such as fireplace mantels,
         stairways and balustrades, arched openings, interior
         shutters, inglenooks, cornices, ceiling medallions, light
         fixtures, balconies, doors, windows, hardware,
         wainscotting, paneling, trim, church pews, courtroom
         bars, teller cages, or waiting room benches?


    1.   Are there surface finishes and materials that can affect
         the design, the color or the texture of the interior?

    2.   Are there materials and finishes or craft practices that
         contribute to the interior character, such as wooden
         parquet floors, checkerboard marble floors, pressed metal
         ceilings, fine hardwoods, grained doors or marbleized
         surfaces, polychrome painted surfaces, stenciling, or
         wallpaper that is important to the historic character?

    3.   Are there surface finishes and materials that, because of
         their plainness, are imparting the essential character of
         the interior such as hard or bright, shiny wall surfaces
         of plaster, glass, or metal?


    1.   Are there spaces where the exposed structural elements
         define the interior character such as the exposed posts,
         beams, and trusses in a church or train shed or factory?

    2.   Are there rooms with decorative ceiling beams
         (nonstructural) in bungalows, or exposed vigas in adobe

This concludes the three-step process of identifying the visual
aspects of historic buildings and is intended as an aid in
preserving their character and other distinguishing qualities.  It
is not intended as a means of understanding the significance of
historical properties or districts, nor of the events or people
associated with them.  That can only be done through other kinds of
research and investigation.

This Preservation Brief was originally developed as a slide
talk/methodology in 1982 to discuss the use of the Secretary of the
Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation in relation to preserving
historic character; and it was amplified and modified in succeeding
years to help guide preservation decision making, initially for
maintenance personnel in the National Park Service.  

                         END OF SECTION

Last Reviewed 2012-09-10