From the Forum – Architectural embellishments for a ho-hum row house?

Photo by PoPville flickr user John Cochran

Architectural embellishments for a ho-hum row house?

“I live in a decidedly plain looking row house without any of the fancy brickwork or architectural flourishes that I really love about some of the older row houses in DC.

I’ve been wanting to figure out what kinds of things I could add to make it look just a little more fancy. Stuff like adding onlays above the dormer windows or those “teeth” that some houses have just under the roofline. Does Popville know of any people who do this kind of work? Or a resources where I could actually learn the names of all these little accents?”

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27 Comment

  • If your home was built without such dormers and dentil moldings (what the “teeth” are called), it probably is a perfect example of a different, plainer style of architecture, probably from an earlier era, and the addition of these features from different architectural styles would probably look odd. I’d suggest instead that you look at what others have done with similar houses to yours to make them shine on the exterior – paint jobs, porches and porch railings, landscaping, window boxes, sharp accessories like mailboxes and exterior lighting and house numbers, etc. Don’t wreck the integrity of your house’s style by trying to make it into a style it is not.

    • Seriously, study up on architectural styles, with particular attention to row houses. You may start to appreciate your home more. I’m betting that if your home is old, it has quite a charming style all of its own that just needs to be polished, not changed.

    • +1. Also, it’s exceedingly likely that any contractor you hire to add more details will botch the job and make your place look like a mcmansion.

    • The problem is that a lot of houses that have been redone over the years have lost some of the original detailing. Unless keeping the original look was a priority it’s just extra cost to many people and is ignored. Probably half of the houses on my block are missing the dentils from their porch roofs because when they needed to be completely rebuilt the owners didn’t think it was worth the added cost and just replaced it with whatever trim option was the cheapest.

      Definitely take a look at the other houses on your block and see what was probably removed over time from yours. Once you’ve done that think about what can be replaced easily. Dentils are literally small blocks of wood nailed to the trim that would then just need to be repainted. Things like recreating original window trim or dormers (much of those exact profiles aren’t even manufactured any more) can get $$$$. Some things that can be done *relatively* cheaply with big impact:
      – Paint trim something non-white/beige
      – Replace or re-install transom glass (don’t even worry about matching the original if it’s gone, get something cool in stained glass)
      – Replace small pieces of iron work (stair rails, etc)

      • OP here. My home was built in 1936 so it’s not *that* old and there’s only 1 other home on the block that’s the same style. (4621 4th st NW) StreetView isn’t that helpful since it still shows the screened in porch and awnings which I’ve removed.

        My current plan is to add shutters (the house had them at one point) and eventually replace my windows with ones having the colonial style grid pattern. Maybe add some extra molding around the dormers since there’s nothing really going on there now.

        The thing that bugs me the most is above the second story windows there’s no “header.” For the first floor windows there are vertical bricks above the window, which at least gives some interest.

        • I’d worry less about architectural elements. They’d end up looking out of place on a block like this. The house you have is the house you have. Get some nice landscaping in the front though. Add some flowers and bushes. Put some nice furniture on the porch, and install good looking windows. Add a nice transom as well.
          If you really want to change something, consult a good architect. There’s a high probability of installing trendy expensive flourishes that quickly go out of style when you make this kind of request to a contractor (e.g. I bet the answer at one point in time was “install formstone”).

        • If your home is located in a historic neighborhood you may not be able to change the facade without permission from the HPRB (Historic Preservation Review Board). Just as a warning that means you have to deal with DCRA.
          Technically your home is considered historic by the 50 year rule, but may not be deemed an important example of that specific style of architecture. So if you want to add the ornamentation I suggest checking out the DC Preservation League. They have a list of contractors who do all sorts of historic remodeling and conservation work.

        • Don’t worry about specific terms. Contractors don’t know them anymore either. Use pictures and point. Amazingly I’ve never found an online architectural glossary that isn’t organized alphabetically. Kind of useless if you don’t know the word at all.

          You’re part of a row. The architect considered the row as a whole composition. The two houses in the center get, well, center stage, and you’re the sidekick. Modesty and a bit of blush is your goal. You have hanging gutters (also called K-gutters), they’re a product of the 20th century and perfectly normal for your house. It collects water (job #1) and modestly replicates the molding profile of a cornice (job #2). Earlier houses would have had a fuller cornice profile that would be taller, have more combinations of moldings, sometimes including dentils or modillions. This would have collected water by having a built-in gutter behind the cornice profile. It would have been made out of sheet metal bent and stamped into the profiles and decorations to look like a cornice and then it would have been mounted to roof rafters or lookouts (rafter extensions that project through a wall in order to carry a decorative element or change in roof angle).

          Today, most decorative cornices are solid (not sheets) and made out of PVC, composites or glass reinforced fiberglass. Because they’re solid, you’d still have to hang a gutter on the front; which is kind of like putting a cornice on a cornice. You might be able to find a GC who could buy a combo of molding profiles that could create and cornice for you and build in a channel gutter behind it, but finding one will be the hardest part. There are some sheet metal shops who can still fabricate a metal cornice out of sheet (Wagner Roofing) but ka-ching ka-ching.

          Take off the awnings. Install windows with muntins (the thin pieces of wood that divide a window into several smaller panes of glass). Make sure to get muntins that are on the outside of the glass (they disappear otherwise). 6 rectangles in the top sash and 6 in the bottom. Get a window that has some molding around the sides and top of the window frame. This molding is called a brickmold. Trimline has the best selection of brickmolds in their windows.

          You could replace the soldier course brick headers (bricks that stand up instead of lie down) with a piece of stone. The soldier bricks are not structural; they sit on a steel channel. The stone could rest on that same steel channel so it doesn’t have to be structural and so can be very thin. The stone should be a single piece and be wider than the window opening so it looks like a real structural header carrying the load of the opening.

          Fix your missing slates in the roof. A slate roof can last indefinitely if it’s maintained and slates are replaced as needed.

          Unscreen your porch and install a wood picket railing using 2×2 pickets spaced 50% (1-1/2 inch of solid, 1-1/2 inch of space, 1-1/2 solid, 1-1/2 space, so on). Tall bottom rail. Profiles top rail. All parts from Smoot, or other. Again, most GC’s nowadays can only buy pre-assembled parts or open boxes and install. Only a real carpenter will make this railing look nice and original, and it would have to be site-built out of individual stock.

  • Can you give us your block range (or a block range of similar house) so we might see an example of what your home and homes like it look like?

  • justinbc

    Gargoyles are a must!

  • Having just bought a relatively new construction home that’s fantastic inside but quite plain out front, I’m watching this post with interest.

    • Now, with a new house, if it truly has no coherent style, as so many new homes do, being built in a style I’d call cheap and cost-cutting – not saying yours is, but if it is, you are free to do sort of choose a style, in the absence of one, and do a lot more that can improve the look of your home. If it is plain because it is a coherent plain modern style, then I’d give the same advice I’d give above.

      • Your point is well taken. My new-ish place would definitely fall under “coherent plain modern style,” so your suggestions about focusing on things like window boxes, accessories, and landscaping make sense.

  • besides looking at other houses, look for pics of houses from the original period of your house. It sounds like your place could be newish construction/reconstruction or someplace whose decorative elements have been stripped. OTOH, houses from the 20s and 30s built in the craftsman or arts and crafts style are rather simple in their ornaments. I grew-up in a 20s Bungalow of a type very common through out the country–we had no shutters, no Victorian ginger bread. i used to own a c. 1930 craftsman in Atlanta, my house and others like it also were simple in terms of ornamentation. House from that era often focused on things like balancing privacy with light and using celestial windows, leaded glass and other very simple elements to achieve this. Contrasting trim and siding (or brick) are another way to do this. If your place is all brick, consider contrasts for the woodwork. Benjamin Moore and others have pain guides that break out colors by period.

    Small elements like house numbers, mailboxes, etc. can make a difference. If your house is closer to mid century, adding ornament will make it look ridiculous and you should focus on the inside. For a between the wars house, the ornament should be simple as well, but you can think about small decorative elements like those mentioned above or or period related things like tile–Rookwood, out of Cincinnati (which sadly has no DC retailer, check them out on line) has many tiles from that era. You also could look for cheap, but durable mission style furniture for any front porch. that also will dress up the appearance but maintain the simplicity. A porch swing would be another inexpensive way to add character and still be within that period.

  • You might want to push the planeness even further: a solid dark color (love a dark gray home) and bold color door. Eliminate the variations in color as much as possible. But I’m a minimalist when it comes to design of buildings and appreciate those traditions that have few embellishments. That being said, houses were always built to evolve with taste. No architect or builder ever thought their home would exist the same for all eternity. That just doesn’t reflect the history of architecture. Choose something that works for you.

  • You guys are harsh, here’s a guy (or gal?) just trying to make their house a little nicer and you go all historical on them!
    Does anyone actually have suggestions for this? The dentil trim (is that right?) on my house is all messed up and I don’t even know who to call to fix it.

  • Some of these old row houses are (especially federalist) are beautiful. Just please do not try to make a plain or Federalist house into a 2 story Victorian. Every time I walk by one of those (there’s an overly done one with matching yard on 10th or 11th St in Shaw that is awful) I think how it just looks odd.

  • I’m planning to add window boxes (copper, most likely) to the front of my rowhouse, but I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t show you how it turned out.

  • The photographs at the Washingtoniana collection at the DCPL could be a good resource for those looking for earlier photos of their home or ones like it. Info here:

  • Smoot Lumber is great place to get historical trim, mouldings, etc.

  • We bought gold leaf house numbers for our transom online and love them

  • When all else fails a new paint job speaks volumes…just sayin’ (Major kudos to the neighbor or resident that posted this at least it show intentions and heart are in the right place).

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