Of all the eye-catching features that have adorned American houses, columns are the most arresting. Aside from their timeless beauty and structural utility, columns make a statement—strong or subtle, but almost always flattering—about the good taste and social standing of the people whose houses have them.
That could explain why the column is also the most enduring ornament in American architecture. It’s been with us practically since the beginning, and it shows no signs of fading away now. From Georgian to Federal to Greek Revival to Italianate to Romanesque to Classical Revival to Beaux Arts to post-modern, you’ll find a column (or several) to fit most styles and nearly every era.
Columns come in various sizes and types, and they may be placed almost anywhere in, on, or around a house. They can be purely decorative, or they can be essential components of a building’s structure. They hold up our porch roofs, mark our entrances, decorate our dormers, and march around our perimeters. They can provide privacy and a sense of enclosure or, conversely, create an ambiance of openness. Beyond their practical virtues, columns have a way of imposing order on unruly facades. They confer dignity and distinction on buildings that would otherwise be humble or humdrum.
Think that’s an exaggeration? Okay, then, take a close look at a typical 18th-century Virginia planter’s home—one that started out fairly large and nice enough in its way, but also a bit plain, rambling, and, on the whole, not much different from the houses of many other prosperous farmers. Next, add a couple of stories to the top and a piazza with eight towering columns across one facade. Now what do you have? Mount Vernon, that’s what, an all-American manor house stately enough for the Father of Our Country. (Okay, it also has a dynamite view of the Potomac River from the piazza, but you get the point.)
Not surprisingly, Mount Vernon is far and away the most frequently replicated building in America, and those columns are what give its imitators their historical cachet, no matter how far from Virginia they may appear. For instance, crooner Bing Crosby chose the Mount Vernon model for one of his Hollywood residences (though whether anybody on a tourist bus ever spotted him sitting on his piazza is not known to us).
Like George Washington and Bing Crosby, homeowners across history have had an urge to impress their neighbors. They could do this in one of two ways: either by building a knockout house from scratch—one with columns, say—or, like George himself, by adding columns to a less-than-exciting existing structure. After the colonial period, the latter practice gained new popularity from about the 1890s into the 1940s. Given their power, what exactly are these architectural magic wands that can so easily transform a house into a palace?
In essence, a column is a long, upright member, usually cylindrical, consisting of a shaft (the main portion), a base, and a capital (the top section). It usually supports something—an entablature, a roof, an arch, or a pediment, for instance. The vocabulary of classical columns is too large and too complex to cover in detail in this article. However, it’s handy to know that columns are named for the type of ornament they feature, generally one of several classical orders or systems of ornamentation used in ancient Greek or Roman design. Ranging from the simplest to the most ornate, these include the Greek Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite. The simplest of all is the Roman Tuscan. Gothic or Romanesque columns are less frequently found and have their own specific forms.
A column may stand clear of the building’s wall surface, or it may be attached to the wall, in which case it becomes an engaged column or a pilaster. Engaged columns often are only half the diameter of a whole column, sometimes less. The shape may be cylindrical or square; if it is square, it is sometimes referred to as a pillar. In either case, the shaft may be fluted (with concave vertical grooves), reeded (with convex or rounded vertical decoration), or plain. Square columns are often paneled.
Small columns used in multiples are called colonettes. During the Victorian era, the fashion for short or squat columns supporting broad arches was common in Romanesque Revival buildings, while the columns in Gothic Revival buildings were most often slender and clustered, or gathered in bunches of three or more.
Besides Mount Vernon, there is another column application that reached its apogee in the Federal period, from the 1790s through the 1830s. The Federal-style entry porch with its slender, attenuated columns and delicately scaled ornament has been uncommonly helpful through the centuries for dressing up American houses of all sizes, from narrow, big-city townhouses to country mansions to modest 20th-century suburban dwellings. A little later, Greek Revival columns (which were often more massive than highly decorated) became popular because their stout contours lent weight and importance to any building.
Probably the most impressive columns of all, if only in terms of sheer numbers found in a single place, are those fronting (or even entirely surrounding) Greek Revival buildings, such as the fabled antebellum mansions of the Old South. There was a potent symbolism behind such ostentatious architecture. On a large plantation, there might be dozens of dwellings, from slave cabins to overseers’ houses to garonnires, but there was only one columned Big House, and that was where the master lived.
The porches, porticos, and piazzas that give these houses their unique character are varied enough to warrant several articles on that subject alone. There are triangular pediments supported by colossal two-story columns; some of these extend across the entire front of the house, while others are confined to the central section of the facade. There are the two-story columns supporting not one but two separate porches, one above the other. There are two-story porches with a separate set of columns at each level. There are porches with colossal columns and a second-story balcony tucked within the main porch. Some porticos may extend around two or more sides of the house (called peripteral porticos, if you want to get technical). In other words, the antebellum householder could hardly get too much of a good thing when it came to columns.
Column materials vary widely. Wood is the most common, often faux-finished to imitate stone. Brick covered with plaster or stucco and similarly painted is a sturdy runner-up. In the grandest instances, such as the great Beaux-Arts mansions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the columns may be real stone—granite, limestone, or marble. Cast iron makes up the strong, slender columns found on many Gothic Revival houses, and ornate capitals and other decorations placed high up on late 19th and early 20th century buildings are often made of sheet metal, a lightweight fool-the-eye way to avoid getting hit on the head by chunks of stone. Even on masonry or wood columns, the capital might be pressed tin. In the modern era, fiberglass or cast aluminum columns often adorn even very pricey McMansions.
At some point, of course, a column-like member is too unimposing to be called a column at all, at which point it is simply a post. Almost always useful, a post may also be quite decorative, like many Victorian-era lathe-turned or chamfered porch posts and spindles. However, a post lacks the essential qualities of the column—the base, shaft, and capital—and it is more functional than impressive.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the ascendancy of the modern style, with its strong anti-decoration bias, sent the column into a decline—but not for long. Look around any growing area and you’ll notice that the column is with us again, both in post-modern houses (many of which sport only a lone column) and in neo-traditional styles. Rather than fading away, it’s clear the column was just enjoying a brief timeout, a few decades of rest before getting back into stride in time for the 21st century.Published in: Old-House Journal November/December 2007