On Architectural Details: A Few Truths About Faux
Editor Scott Omelianuk on architectural details
"Crikey, look at that, mate."
That was the first contractor on our remodel. He was Australian, hence the choice of words, and had a penchant for tall tales far exceeding that of any other contractor I've worked with before or since.
His crew had just gutted the late-1970s bathroom redo at the top of the stairs, exposing the back side of the staircase's curved wall, including the back of the niche, which some call a coffin corner, that is set into it.
Here's what his "crikey" alerted me to: The shelf part of the niche was actually a piece of marble, though you'd never have known it given what was likely a century of paint that covered its outward-facing edges. But even more interesting were the crosspieces that formed the niche's half curve—thin birch branches, most with the papery bark still attached, each fastened to an upright with a small brad. It was to these branches that the plaster that formed the contour of the niche was keyed. "Crikey," I said.
It's details like the marble and birch, both what's seen and what's hidden beneath the surface, that attract me to old houses. And it's why I also say "crikey" about two stories in this issue: Detail Work, the tale of the remarkable restoration of an 1850s Italianate that shares some—just some—of the details found in my own, far more modest house, and 20 Easy Ways to Get Old-House Charm, a collection of modern products that make achieving vintage character a snap.
We tend to think of plaster medallions, Venetian plaster covering a fireplace surround, and the turned balusters of a curving walnut staircase as examples of a special kind of craftsmanship. And given many of today's construction methods and details, they are. But the truth is each of those products, like many featured in "Old-House Charm," was its own era's shortcut or faux product, meant to make things faster, easier, cheaper. The stair parts were a product of machining, thanks to the newly burgeoning Industrial Revolution. The Venetian plaster, a less expensive, lightweight way of creating the illusion of marble. The ceiling medallions and other ornamentation, mold-made rather than carved from wood or stone, as they had been for centuries prior. Likewise my stairway niche.
Seems like there's always been a bit of fiction in home construction, and you know what? That's okay. As long as it doesn't say "crikey" in an Australian accent.