As a bull’s eye that draws your attention upward, nothing quite compares to the artistry of a plaster medallion. First introduced into American houses in the 1700s, these ceiling centerpieces, whose designs often included leaves radiating from a central rosette, reached a pinnacle of popularity in the 1800s, when they added panache to the formal rooms of town and country houses alike, before petering out of favor in the 1930s.
But medallions weren’t just about ornamentation; they were a kind of status symbol for the upper and middle classes, making a statement about the homeowner’s wealth and aesthetic sensibilities. Not all homeowners wanted or could afford medallions, of course, but their widespread use is a good indication that many people aspired to having them. For that reason, ceiling medallions are a justifiable way of adorning rooms in an old house today even if it never had such plaster ornamentation before, provided that the same advice that guided homeowners more than a century ago is observed.
Style and Substance
Because plaster is what homeowners used then, it’s the appropriate material to use for an old house today. Then as now, plaster medallions were sold either ready-made (as one piece or in several parts) or were custom-made by an ornamental plasterer. Today’s ready-made medallions often replicate original designs or evoke them by using similar motifs.
Those designs deliberately mimicked the changing architectural fashions of American houses. Thanks to critics such as A.J. Downing, the importance of harmonizing dŽcor with the house style had been drummed into the heads of the American public so that it was widely understood that a ceiling medallion, like the furniture, should match (or at least not clash with) the architecture. In the early 1800s, that typically meant classical emblems to suit Federal or Greek Revival houses.
Like the veneered furniture of the period, medallions in Federal houses contained bellflowers, ribbons, and rosettes with radiating palmettes or other leaves. The motifs became noticeably more Greek in Greek Revival houses, with the flower often an anthemion surrounded by a border in a Greek key or acanthus leaf design. In any period, the border often matched the cornice, and it’s not uncommon for a medallion to be ringed with beadwork or an egg-and-dart motif, for instance.
Compared with the rimmed discs of earlier periods, however, medallions in the Victorian era looked like they were on steroids. The series of romantic architectural styles that came into vogue mid-century, along with the Victorian mania for unfettered nature, transformed medallions into robust mounds of plasterwork depicting a tangle of vines, leaves, and flowers. Rims were abandoned to mimic nature more convincingly. Without a border,Rococo medallions looked like they were growing out of the ceiling, says John Ferguson, a former architectural historian in New Orleans. Although the rims came and went in the Victorian era, they returned for good toward the end of the century, when interest in Colonial architecture revived, lasting into the 20th century.
Whatever their architectural style, medallions weren’t placed in every room, and even when they appeared in different parts of the house, a hierarchy was generally observed. The most elaborate medallions decorated public rooms, such as the foyer, parlor, and dining room, in order to dazzle and impress the guests. Wealthy city dwellers may have dressed up a bedroom ceiling with smaller and less ornate centerpieces, in part because few people outside the family would be likely to see them.
Some homeowners went so far as to institute a hierarchy for decorative ceilings even upstairs. The front master bedroom in the Merchant House in New York City, for example, has a more elaborate medallion than the rear bedroom, says David Flaharty, a sculptor and ornamental plasterer, but generally, the higher up you go in the house, the less ornate a medallion is.
Size and Shape
The same room hierarchy that dictated the extent of the medallion’s ornamentation also played a role in its size, with larger medallions appearing downstairs in the public rooms. Those rooms tended to be larger anyway and demanded a bigger bull’s eye. Certainly, 19th-century tastemakers consciously proportioned medallions with the surrounding space. Writing in The Practice of Architecture in 1833, Asher Benjamin devised this rule of thumb for a medallion’s size: In a room of about 18 by 20 feet, the diameter should be about three feet, or one sixth of the width of the room, exclusive of the architrave which encircles it.
Although Asher Benjamin doesn’t mention it, the height of the ceiling was a factor, too. A large medallion in a room with a low ceiling would loom over the occupants and dominate the space overwhelmingly. As a result, medallions tended to shrink in size as the ceiling height decreased. Jim Garvin, an architectural historian with the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources, speculates that finely incised, delicate designs may have been reserved for rooms with low ceilings, while the plasterwork in, say, a two-story foyer needed to be coarser and more robust to compensate for the distance between the medallion and the human eye.
Because medallions often had a practical purpose, other concerns also dictated size. Medallions often disguised chandelier hooks or connections for gas lighting and sometimes doubled as a register for an air duct. They may also have functioned as a soot catcher, says ornamental plasterer Ken Wildes. The medallion would be placed above an oil or gas chandelier so that when the soot rose up it would dirty the medallion and not the ceiling. That tactic presumably spared the homeowner from having to repaint the entire ceiling each year when only the medallion needed to be refreshed instead. If so, the medallion had to be at least as large, if not slightly bigger, than the chandelier to absorb the sooty fumes rising from an oil or gas lamp.
As for shape, most medallions were round, although by the second half of the century, catalogs featured hexagonal, octagonal, and even star-shaped medallions. Round medallions worked best in square rooms, while a rectangular room called for an elongated shape in the form of an oval. You want contrast with the geometry of the room, says Garvin.
Less of a concern was the condition of the ceilings, but those same houses today may have mechanical issues that need attention before any ornamental plaster is added. A solid 36″ plaster medallion can easily weigh 40 pounds, which may be more than an old ceiling can handle. (Some medallions have hollow centers making them much lighter, but you should still assess the ceiling’s condition.) To find out if the ceiling is sound, gently push up on it. A strong ceiling doesn’t budge, but if there’s any give at all, get professional advice.
Even a sound ceiling, though, may have problematic lath. Houses in the 19th century secured a plaster ceiling to wood lath, which was nailed to the joists, the worst system for applying plaster, says Flaharty. In the early 20th century, they switched to stronger metal lath. Replacing the wood lath with metal is certainly one option. Another is to cut out of the ceiling a hole half an inch smaller in diameter than the medallion and fill the space with a round piece of plywood that matches the hole’s size and the ceiling’s depth.
When screwed to the joist, the plywood should be flush with the ceiling, creating a large, strong surface where the medallion can be anchored in many places, instead of just to the lath’s narrow strips. The overlapping medallion hides the plywood, and any gaps can be sealed with plaster. Wildes uses a pastry bag for the job before smoothing over the seam with a putty knife. The effect when viewed from below is the same one that has captivated the human eye for more than two centuries: the drama of artistry in plaster.