Good Fences By Design

Unlike the “de-fences” of old, domestic fencing often acts as a discreet property marker or just ornament. Functionally, fences protect flowers and keep dogs at bay.

Because their historical architectural vocabulary is vast, fences are best designed starting with function. Then consider the material, the period and style, and installation.

For picket fences alone, the history is immensely varied. Design changed with the era and from region to region. In the 18th century, New England fences were architectural statements with classical details and carvings. Victorian fences were as fanciful as the era’s wooden gingerbread. You can find documentation in old builders’ catalogs, or perhaps at a museum house, but most historic fences are long gone. Today, consider the site and your goals: Is the fence meant as a subtle boundary marker, as an ornament, or to block an unfortunate view? 

It looks like New England, but this house near Minneapolis was built in a holdover Greek Revival style ca. 1900. The handsome new fence
 is modeled on one visible in an archival photo that shows the road and front yard. 
Photo: Andrea Rugg for Trehus Architects

Fences of Wood

Today’s suburban wood fences generally fall into one of three types: picket, trellis or lattice, and privacy.

• Ranging from 2′ to 5′ tall, picket fences can be plain or fancy. Pickets may be sawn for different profiles at the top.  A standard pyramidal post cap often suffices, but other caps are urns or Gothic spires. Picket fences mark the boundary of a small yard, and are often used in front of a house, near the sidewalk.

• Used with climbing vines, lattice fences only partially obscure the view while allowing wind to pass through. These work well as garden and patio fences.

• Taller privacy fences obscure views of the road or a neighbor and are used for protection against intruders, wind, and noise. A privacy fence with lattice in the top section is an attractive compromise.


A trellis top section trains wisteria and breaks up the mass of a privacy fence in Rockport, Mass. A dining area is hidden just behind the old kitchen addition. Photo: Greg Premru

 Wood fences of the purely functional type are still in use: stockade fencing, split-rail, post-and-rail, zigzag, and so on. Most of these, built inexpensively, simply marked a property line or corralled livestock. Picket fences are what most of us think of when we imagine a wood fence. These evolved from the stockade fence but generally are considered ornamental. A picket fence can mark a property line, act as a backdrop for garden beds, and provide winter interest. A simple picket fence with an integrated, fancier gate or entry arbor is often the best bet, both aesthetically and budget-wise.

A tall privacy fence by Garden Structure includes vertical trellis panels. With or without vines, the graphic style is appropriate for 20th- century homes from Tudor Revival to Mid-century Modern. Photo: courtesy gardenstructure.com

What we call a privacy fence was considered a good choice for inhibiting a bad view or ensuring privacy. Period writing advises that tall fences be of “subdued color” and “partly concealed” by plantings. Any lattice panels had lath or slats set not on the diagonal, but rather perpendicular with square openings, small or large. “When you design a large fence, over 6′ high and exposed to the wind, every aspect has to be overbuilt,” cautions Lawrence Winterburn of Garden Structure in Toronto—who is at work on a “fence bible” that will include plans.

Somewhat austere iron fencing and railings were typical for mid-19th-century row houses in Boston and other Eastern cities.

The Metal Fence

With the exception of iron entry gates on large estates and plantations, iron fencing was primarily urban, and often took the form of railings along stairs and around a tiny front yard. Some cities are known for their iron fences: Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans come to mind, as do the monumental cast-iron newels and balustrades of brownstone Brooklyn, which emulated stone at far less cost. Most iron fences date to the Victorian era; they were deemed “too formidable” for bungalow lots.

Earlier metal fences were made of wrought iron, malleable enough to form into scrolls and even ornaments. Cast iron came a bit later. It is brittle but good in compression, and rusts more slowly than wrought iron; even so it needs to be kept painted. Steel began to displace iron fencing at the end of the 19th century, when composite fencing made up of steel and malleable iron—the precursor of chain-link fencing—was widely marketed for use on farms and household yards. Many iron fences were sacrificed during World War II, when they were melted down in scrap drives.

For landmark homes, cast iron is available (this is Wiemann’s Heritage line). Photo: courtesy wiemann metalcraft

For the companies today offering metal fences, much of the business is for railings, driveway gates, and pool enclosures. “Ours can be made in aluminum, steel, bronze, cast iron, or stainless steel, depending on the design,” says William Mogavero of Bill’s Custom Metal in Woodbury, N.Y.

Before you put up a tall fence, check local zoning laws and building codes. Fences over five or six feet may require a permit, as might fences in designated conservation areas. If you want a new fence to last more than a decade, be
sure to follow best standards for construction in your climate zone: for wood species, wind load, posts buried in
cement below the frost line, rails and post caps that shed water, joinery,
fasteners, and finish.

The formal, classical fence at the King Caesar House in Duxbury, Mass., is an architectural embellishment that echoes the style and symmetry of the 1809 Federal-period house. The inward curve is welcoming and softens the rectilinear facade. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

Matching the Fence to the House

The highly ornamental iron fences in New Orleans’ Vieux Carré would look ridiculous around a saltbox or ranch. Note regional standards and  such details as porch trim and stair railings. • For fences near the house, proportion is as important as style. Consider height, the mass or apparent “weight” of the fence, and symmetry. A front-yard fence should be subservient to the façade and not fight the architecture, as by appearing taller than the porch or first-floor windows. • A wood fence may be left to weather or painted or stained in naturalistic colors or dark green. White and off-white fences are Colonial Revival classics. 

Quite plain but with varied heights, this fence echoes the bungalow’s style and color. Photo: Doug Keister

Before you put up a tall fence, check local zoning laws and building codes. Fences over five or six feet may require a permit, as might fences in designated conservation areas. If you want a new fence to last more than a decade, be
sure to follow best standards for construction in your climate zone: for wood species, wind load, posts buried in
cement below the frost line, rails and post caps that shed water, joinery, fasteners, and finish.

Modern PVC fences with hollow posts and snap-together components are disallowed in many historic districts. With a plastic sheen, they tend to come only in a harsh white. As they become brittle and crack, they look unkempt—unlike weathered wood, which has a more romantic patina. A better bet is a fence with structural components and
those that touch the ground made of painted PVC lumber, with pickets or boards in wood.

For supplier information, see our Fences & Gates Resources


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