Building a fence for an old house is seldom an inexpensive proposition. Nonetheless, first investing a little thought into the best fence design can pay big dividends in an attractive feature that unites the building and landscape while enhancing privacy, establishing property boundaries, and protecting children and pets. Old-house fences do not have to be historical re-creations, but they do look best when their scale, design, and materials harmonize with the size, style, and period of the house, as well as suit its practical purpose.
Because traditionally wood has been the most common fencing material, understanding how fences evolved from logs to pickets and then changed with the ebb and flow of architectural styles can help you choose a successful design.
The harsh conditions of the colonial and post-revolutionary eras called for sturdy, utilitarian fences of simple design. The earliest wood fences were generally owner-built of local materials—stockades of logs planted vertically in the earth or, later, logs split and laid horizontally to make the zigzag, split-rail or worm fences of the frontier. Spit rail fences were largely agricultural, but may have precedents for the oldest houses and even for simple or rural houses up to the late 19th century. The medieval paling, a flat strip or round stake of wood brought to North America by European settlers, evolved into the picket fence—the all-purpose choice for residential fencing since the late 18th century. Picket fences can be dressed down by remaining unpainted and built from materials at hand. The pickets can be flat on top and narrow, wide, or both to suit the house and situation.
Classically inspired houses built in the Georgian (1714-1810), Federal (1790-1830) and Greek Revival (1830- 1850) styles call for fences that mirror their balanced proportions and architectural motifs. The finest of these fences have a top rail covering the pickets and carved finials on the gate posts. Look to the house for details to incorporate into the fence design and for classical symbols to grace the post tops. Popular motifs were flames, urns, fruit, and, in the Federal period, eagles. The fence of a classical house would most likely have been painted to coordinate with the house, often white and ochre.
Romantic and Rustic
Like the mid-19th century’s romantic movements in music and literature, houses in romantic styles evoke impressions of the past or an idealized setting. Fencing for a Gothic Revival house (1830-1860) can reflect medieval influences with pointed-arch pickets and posts, or with palings and rails carved to resemble open tracery. For a more elaborate touch, finials might be carved like spires, and the gate could mimic a pointed arch with quatrefoil and trefoil patterns carved into its posts. Finishing with a dark-color paint or stain and ornate ironwork would also be appropriate.
The Italianate style (1840-1890) was aligned with the picturesque landscape movement that considered fences a necessary evil, so ideally they were as inconspicuous as possible. Writing in 1850, Andrew Jackson Downing suggested that “a slight paling fence, rendered inconspicuous by painting it dark green” was the least offensive option. In 1870, Frank Scott proclaimed in The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds that while “fences must harmonize with the architecture and more elegant finish of the street,” they should be virtually transparent: “That kind of fence is best which is least seen, and best seen through.”
Italianate fences may borrow details from the corbels, cornices, or brackets on the house and should be painted a neutral earth color, not the bright white that Andrew Jackson Downing detested. The picturesque landscape movement also favored rustic designs such as fences partially or wholly made from logs that took advantage of natural shapes and surfaces.
Builders of the Victorian era (1840-1910) ornamented their houses and porches with carved brackets, corbels, fretwork, and turned wood painted in multiple, contrasting colors, but often wood fences were sedate and understated. Period photos of Victorian houses often show smoothly carved, pointed, stone, or wood posts holding panels of square pickets painted in a neutral tone, so as not to upstage the house and grounds.
Even in 1870, Frank Scott recognized that cast-iron fencing was beyond most pocketbooks and that wood would continue to be the main fence material. He found only one old form of picket fence acceptable for enclosing the grounds: three horizontal rails equally spaced, with short, pointed pickets that rise just above the middle rail, alternating with longer pickets that rise above the top rail. This double-paled design produces a fence that is more open on its upper half, and works nicely for side gardens.
Fencing tastes changed for early 20th-century houses of the new suburbs. With less need to fence out the neighbor’s livestock and more interest in integrating house and site, designers and homeowners gave up physical barriers to favor houses in open view of the public. Though shrubs became popular for privacy screening, traditional wood fences or stone walls still protected flower gardens. In the 1930s, designer Fletcher Steele noted in Design in the Little Garden that “in the old days every American home was set within a white fence—a sensible custom.” He recommended that “a low paling, over which one can see unobstructed, secludes and marks off an area to a [surprising] extent.”
During the first flush of the Colonial Revival movement in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, fences returned to neoclassical details and once again became elegant, white-painted, and symmetrical, reflecting Georgian and Federal styles. While plain picket fences might serve for the backyard, a more elaborate fence, perhaps with an arch over the gate, should grace the front and roadside.
Almost as popular during the same time were revival styles drawing on diverse sources, including French regency, Tudor, and Spanish or Mediterranean influences. The essence of these revivals can be captured in fences in much the same way as for other styles. A fence for a Tudor Revival house can reference Gothic features and details from that period, such as heavy construction and carved diamonds; Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean can recall the Old World with dark timbers.
Picket Fence Guidelines
A basic picket fence is a series of posts connected by horizontal rails and then filled with vertical slats along the rails. Typically, the slats or pickets are 2 1/4″ to 3″ wide and square-cut at the top. Although height is customarily 3′ to 3 1/2′, the fence should be proportional to the structure it accompanies and the area it encloses. While a small cottage might look best with a fence only 2 1/2′ high, a large house could require a 4′-high fence. Because the original functions of fences were protection and containment, they still look best when they either form (or appear to form) enclosures, or at least have logical terminals.
Avoid overbuilding by planning for the minimum fence that will do the job. Even when your goal is privacy screening, a height of 5′—the average eye level—is usually enough. Pickets are generally spaced one picket width apart, but closer spacing increases screening; wider spacing, on the other hand, allows greater visibility while still providing a physical barrier. Whenever possible, leave a space between picket bottoms and the ground so that you can mow grass without damaging the fence. Keeping the fence off the ground will add years to its useful life by reducing the conditions for wood rot.
There are many ways to dress up a picket fence for a more ornamental or architectural effect. The simplest approach is to cut the picket tops into points (acute angles or arches), semicircles, or historical decorative designs such as diamonds or spears. Narrow pickets, about 2″ square, and spaced widely apart appear more elegant and are especially appropriate for late-Victorian homes. There are no hard rules that connect a particular decorative motif to a house period or style, but good taste and restraint is key. Mixing styles increases interest. It is quite acceptable to use a more decorative (and expensive) fence for the front of the house and only utilitarian fencing for the sides and back.
As well as being structurally essential, posts can mark gateways and contribute visual interest by making those entrances larger or by having distinctive finials. While stone is the ideal post material because of its beauty and permanence, 4″ x 4″ wood posts are more affordable and versatile. If the post tops extend above the bulk of the fence, they look best and last longest when finished with bevels, caps, or finials that also shed water. Gateposts do not need to be identical in size. Only the post that supports the gate and hinges needs to have maximum strength, so consider economizing by making one post heavier than the other. As Scott warned, “children will swing on gates in spite of all warnings, and the gates must be hung so that they will bear the strain.”
If you want visitors to use your gate, make it visible at a glance. Conversely, if you want the gate to be practically invisible, make it identical to the fence. The latter may be desirable for a private or infrequently used access, but it will frustrate guests if the gate spans the front walk. Gates should open and close easily and, except when you are expecting a snowstorm, rest in the closed position. This calls for either a latch and a properly balanced gate or a closing mechanism, such as a chain and weight strung between the gate and a small post inside the enclosure. Choose latches and hinges that are appropriate to your property’s style and period and make them rugged enough to keep the gate from sagging, but not oversized and out of scale.
Although designing and building a fence is usually more than a weekend project, when done properly it will protect and contain your treasures with minimal care for 20 or 30 years. Besides the practical benefits like deflecting noise, the right fence for an old house also becomes an architectural asset, an extension of the building’s style or ethos into the site that creates a sympathetic space for gardens and relaxation, and a vantage point to view the world beyond the palings.
Susan E. Schnare is principal of Mountain Brook Consulting, a landscape and preservation design firm.Published in: Old-House Journal July/August 2007