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the secret life of buildings

The Secret Life of Buildings: Rowhouse Cornices

If you have a rowhouse in Philadelphia, you probably have a cornice, a decorative molding that crowns your house, door, or windows. Over time, your cornice may rust or deteriorate. In this article, we’ll cover the history behind the architectural feature known as a cornice, what materials were used throughout the years, and introduce you to conservators who have the knowledge and skills to restore and preserve your decorative cornices.

History

The idea of a cornice has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. In Classical Greek architecture, the cornice was the top element of the entablature, the horizontal section of a building exterior immediately above a series of columns and below the roof.

Cornices were not merely decorative. They had a basic utilitarian purpose, to direct rainwater away from the sides of a building, but they quickly became a decorative element as well. Greek architecture had three types of cornices: Doric with simple, geometric lines; Ionic with scroll elements; and Corinthian, the most elaborate. 

Cornices were prevalent in Philly rowhouses as far back as Elfreth’s Alley. 19th and 20th Century Philadelphia rowhouses display a wide variety of cornice designs, including bracketed cornices which originally developed during the Italian Renaissance but reemerged during the Victorian period. An example of a bracketed cornice can be found on a rowhouse at 519 Bainbridge Street with a contemporary mosaic façade by Isaiah Zagar

Bracketed cornice

Up until the mid 19th century, cornices were sculpted in wood, stone, or plaster by skilled craftsmen. When the Philadelphia rowhouse boom was at its peak in the early 20th century, old-world techniques were replaced by mass-produced sheet metal cornices that mimicked wood and stone. Made of zinc-coated steel or tin-coated iron (galvanized steel) and, in rare instances copper, these mass-market cornices deteriorated over time. The paint peeled, leaving behind unsightly rust.

Restoration

Because every cornice has its own unique and often intricate design, restoration begins by making a mold of a small section that is still in good repair. If the original cornice was stamped metal, the mold is sent to a metal shop where a life-size reproduction of the entire cornice is stamped out in copper, zinc, steel, or aluminum. The final step is painting the cornice to replicate its original appearance.  If, however, your cornice was originally carved out of wood, the mold will be reproduced in a woodworking shop.

Sheet Metal 

Black Sheep Contracting in Fishtown is a family affair. For four generations, the Brooks family has passed down their craft of restoring roofs and cornices in keeping with historical certification.

“We do historical sheet metal fabrication and installation to match an existing cornice or totally new design, from complex to standard with old-world craftsmanship,” said Black Sheep owner David Brooks. “Cornice design is drawn with dimensions and then transferred to flat sheet stock to be bent and formed. This work is done in the traditional way by hand. Materials are duplicated if existing. If not, it can be formed out of copper, steel, or tin. Painting can be matched if historical or, if not, it would be owner’s choice.”

Image courtesy of Black Sheep Contracting

“Part or ornamental pieces can be duplicated or repaired depending on condition. All cornices and accessories are different and patterns need to be taken on-site to allow for duplication unless we have pattern in our inventory,” said Brooks.

Wood

If your cornice is wood, speak with John P. Hovanec Construction in Pennsburg. But don’t try to Google him. “I am so busy though word-of-mouth, I have not bothered with advertising or websites,” said Hovanec. (At least, he’s got an email address.) For thirty-five years, Hovanec has been a contractor and, for last eleven years, he has specialized in historic restoration. He recently did cornice restoration for one of Solo Realty’s clients.

“The property was built in the late 1800s and the cornice had deteriorated from a roof leak,” said Hovanec. “We took a sample back to our shop and, working in mahogany, we started over from scratch.” Hovanec works in partnership with his sons who launched Old Capital Custom Millwork in Schwenksville.

Stone & Masonry

For forty-five years, Dan Lepore & Sons have provided stone and masonry restoration for Philadelphia row houses. Working with architects, engineers and preservation professionals, they are uniquely skilled in repairing terra cotta and stone cornices. 

“All members of our masonry restoration team are graduates of the RESTORE Training masonry conservation course,” said owner Dan Lepore. And, yes, they do stone carving. Their clients have included the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall –  gargoyles and all. 

Restoring a cornice can be costly but there are some grants available to help homeowners cover the costs. For information on these, contact the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes, star bolts, and residential courts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!

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