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The Uses and History of Interior Wood Columns

Copyright (c) 2010-2023

The history of interior columns follows that of exterior architectural columns, as each was initially a structural necessity. Beginning in ancient times, the use of both exterior and interior columns was pervasive as the large interior spaces required for public functions related to government and religion were restricted by the load that a beam could safely span between two supports. In order to expand interior dimensions and maintain a sense of openness, interior columns or pillars provided the best solution.

Present day Western architecture is the culmination of an evolution that traces its roots to classical Greece and beyond Greece to the Middle East. The limited amount of wood available in these areas compared with the abundance of stone led to the use of stone as the primary material for columns from this period. The intense labor required for quarrying the stone and hewing it into support shafts or columns was accommodated by the presence of large numbers of slaves in these societies. It is interesting to note, however, that one organic material was abundant: reeds. Reeds were oftentimes bound into round columns. The composition of hundreds of reeds bound into a column provided an excellent distribution of weight that could carry loads equal to stone columns under many circumstances. The early use of reed columns remains with us today as it is generally thought that the fluting of columns is an artistic reflection of the shadowing originally observed on reed columns.

It is to the Greeks that we owe what is now considered the concept of classical orders. These include the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. The orders are hierarchical and begin with the simplest - the Doric - and conclude with the most elaborate: the Corinthian. A column, which is essentially a rounded shaft or pier, is composed of three parts: a plinth or pedestal at the base on which rests the shaft that is surmounted by a capital. It is the capital that provides the clearest indication as to which of the orders is presented. In classical architecture, the entire remainder of the architectural ornamentation is tied to the specific capital. This is to say: an ionic capital will have its own set of proscribed motifs for the cornices and pediments as compared to the cornices and pediments designed to compliment a Corinthian capital. Further, within traditional design, a method for combining the orders is available through a vertical observation of the hierarchy. A structure, for example, may use the lowest order - the Doric - on the first level and surmount each of the following levels with the elements from the next highest order.

During the height of the Roman Empire, the architecture of the ancient Greeks was revered for its refinement. Therefore, the architecture of imperial Rome is a somewhat robust reinterpretation of the more delicate Greek style. Following the fall of the empire, however, the vogue for Greek architecture faded into mists of the middle ages. The use of columns continued of course as a practical structural necessity tending to be heavy shafts of stone without any of the delicate ornamentation associated with Greece. But a new trend began to develop: unlike Greece and the Middle East, continental Europe had an abundance of wood, and wood began to be used in place of stone where practical. Although not serviceable in large cathedrals and stone castles, wood provided a better alternative for columns supporting interior galleries in residences and monasteries. Designs that featured wood columns also figured frequently in the construction of rood screens used in sanctuaries to separate the chancel from the nave in churches from the late medieval period.

The end of the Middle Ages - roughly the end of the fifteenth century - saw a gradual revival of interest in all things classical. Included in this was an interest in Roman antiquities as an abundance of ruins was available for firsthand viewing. By extension, the Greek influence on Roman society was recognized and a further search for a return to the pure Greek origins became fashionable in the period now known as the Renaissance. There was no immediate desire to precisely replicate the architecture initially, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century a high regard for the republican ideals of Greece paved the way for the complimentary architecture of Greece as well. Beginning in Italy with the rediscovery of the writings of Vitruvius, a Roman architect from the first century B.C., Renaissance architects such as Andrea Palladio strongly promoted the influence of classical architecture to an eager and receptive public in sixteenth century Italy. The trend spread across the continent becoming fashionable in England through the efforts of influential architects such as Inigo Jones whose work with classical architecture during the first half of the seventeenth century was continued and expanded upon by Christopher Wren into the eighteenth century. This set the stage for a period of devotion to classical architecture that continued without interruption into the middle of the nineteenth century.

Around the beginning of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the emphasis on classicism in the arts gave way to a new focus on the natural world that was reflected in art, music, writing and architecture. In architecture, this new focus resulted in the dominance of such styles as Gothic revival and Queen Anne, each of which made use of interior wood columns in a variety of ways. Columns appeared as visual keys to the separate functions of large rooms or as ornamental features to draw attention to the opening between rooms. They were occasionally seen in place of the upper termination of a balustrade on a staircase where the handrail would finish into a column that itself would begin a procession of columns across the mezzanine overlooking the staircase and entry hall. Columns were also worked into the built-in features of rooms such as on bookcases and mantelpieces. Although columns had frequently been used during the preceding classical Georgian and Regency periods on mantelpieces, mantel design from that period had strictly adhered to the classical rules of order, viewing the mantelpiece designs as pure architecture. During the mid-to-latter nineteenth century, inventiveness overtook classical adherence resulting in interesting new ways of incorporating wood columns. A primary example is the double-ledged mantelpiece on which the first ledge is supported by columns and then surmounted by a second pair of columns that terminate with a second ledge.

Classical architecture and an emphasis on the use of traditional features such as columns enjoyed another revival toward the end of the nineteenth century, this time driven by the influential French √Čcole des Beaux-Arts. The liberal use of columns was now used in an ornamental fashion having been liberated from use as structural necessities due the development of structural steel substructures that began to absorb the actual loads. This style of architecture was considered the unchallenged standard for fine public and residential architecture up to the time of World War I. Following the war, it began to evolve into a neo-classicism or stylized version of true classicism now strongly represented in this country by the Federal buildings constructed after World War I through the late 1940s. In residential architecture - although often challenged by modernist or minimalist experiments - the preference for classical styles in residential architecture dominated national tastes. From simple middle-class suburban homes to the more elaborate residences of the wealthy, the use of interior wood columns for ornamental purposes are frequently observed. Perhaps by design - perhaps inadvertently - the use of interior wood columns reflected one of the ancient precepts of hierarchy in that they were more frequently used in the finer rooms but not so often in the less public areas.

The post-World War II era is now mostly associated in commercial architecture for the full adoption of the glass-encased cube of the International style while residential architecture is now remembered for the emergence of the ranch house. The ranch house, with its practical emphasis on lower ceilings and functional room arrangements, offered little opportunity for the use of interior wood columns. By the late 1980's, however, residential styles began to reflect a shift in taste away from the clean lines and horizontal emphasis of the ranch with a return to a vertical mass including architectural features that had been familiar in the past. Most popular were reinterpretations of the Craftsman, Tudor-revival, and Queen Anne styles along with other two-story structures that offered an amalgamation of various styles with no particular adherence to any particular one. These new styles of residences also incorporated a return to higher ceilings, a greater amount of interior square footage and - more often than not - open interior floor plans. The high ceilings and open floor plans offered perfect opportunities for the use of interior wood columns as a way of breaking up the interior spaces into separate areas without impeding the overall openness that was so appealing to contemporary homeowners.

This trend in conventional architectural appearance - as opposed to a modernistic feeling - along with the preference for an open floor plan and higher ceilings has continued into the twenty-first century. The most important new component to be added to the mix when compared to trends in the late twentieth century is the emphasis on "green" or "sustainability" in construction materials and processes.

The use of interior wood columns for both new construction as well as for remodeling projects offers myriad applications at this point in time. The house designer, homeowner or architect may choose either to adhere to the time honored classical guidelines that were popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries or to follow the more inventive approach of later periods.

Where full architectural ornamentation is to be used, it is perhaps best to follow the templates worked out centuries ago as the end results will be more harmonious. Although fewer homeowners have the interest and financial resources to construct residences with full interior architectural ornamentation, there are enough to warrant a review of the appropriate options. To decide whether or not to consider a full treatment, the first question becomes one of layout rather than of size. If you can answer "yes" to two questions, then the opportunity exists to consider a full architectural treatment for a residence. First: is the structure balanced and symmetrical? Second: do rooms exist as opposed to an open floor plan? If the answer is affirmative to both of these, the one may well consider following the classical approach.

This begins with recognizing the concept of hierarchy. Those rooms - usually three - that are nearest the main entrance to the house will receive the finest and most complete treatment while the treatments become progressively simpler for the rooms farther away from the entrance. The typical arrangement for the three rooms is an entrance hall flanked left and right by a living room and dining room. The typical entrance hall in new homes also includes the staircase. If the hall is rectangular front to back, it provides a perfect opportunity to introduce a pair of columns that imply a difference between the entrance hall proper and the staircase hall without visually reducing the dimensions of either area.

In this situation, the columns may rise from either of two points. Modern trim features reflect the classical elements of ornamented structural necessities. The baseboard corresponds with the plinth; the wainscoting reflects the pedestal. The column may rise from either although absolute perfection requires that it rise from the wainscot or pedestal height. In either case - baseboard/plinth or wainscot/pedestal - one merely turns the baseboard or wainscot into the room in order to create the base from which the wood column will rise. The primary trick of the trade is to ensure that the baseboard or wainscot remain in scale to the room with the remainder proportioned accordingly. A too-skimpy height of baseboard will demean the effect. An example of a well proportioned arrangement for a room with ceilings ten feet tall would be: ten inches for the baseboard; thirty-two inches for the wainscot; fifty-eight inches for the base and shaft of the column; eight inches for the capital; and twelve inches for the architrave, frieze and cornice molding. Rooms of varying height may be apportioned accordingly beginning with about a third of the height given to the wainscot of which approximately a third is used for the baseboard height. The area above the wainscot is then proportioned with about an eighth used for the architrave and cornice with the remainder given to the column and capital.

The diameter of the wood column is taken from the choice of base. If the column is rising from a plinth created by turning the baseboard out, the column should be slightly thicker in order to keep the additional height in proportion: approximately twelve inches for the room we have just described. If it is rising traditionally from a pedestal at wainscot height, something slightly smaller would be appealing - ten inches would be a good choice.

Having proportioned the arrangement, one may then turn attention to selecting the particular order. Following the rules of hierarchy, the natural selection would be the highest - the Corinthian order - for the entrance hall. This will not only indicate the capital - the most apparent feature for the order - but will indicate the embellishments as well. The choice of frieze and cornice as well as the door and window trim for the room is keyed to the capital. It is important to note that it is best to follow the full treatment of molding if one is taking this route. This includes embellished over-doors with features such as broken pediments and the inclusion of regularly spaced pilasters that repeat the capital from the columns thereby providing a pleasing rhythm to the space. Half-columns may be used for this purpose as an alternative to the more typical flat-faced pilasters.

An alternative use of columns in a highly articulated entrance hall is their incorporation into the door moldings. One method for achieving this is to provide a ledge over the door with protrusions or "ears" that turn outward at either corner. The baseboards turn out with the same dimensions and columns that flank the doors may rise between the two. These columns are scaled down accordingly and are typically five to six inches in diameter when used this way.

Wood columns and other moldings are seldom finished in their natural state in entrance halls but are instead more often painted. Most common at present is trim finished in white that offsets the general color scheme on the wall below the architrave and above the wainscot. This mass of pure white, however, can be blinding if a full architectural treatment is used and it is often more pleasant to use something less robust such as an ecru or biscuit tint. In any case, semi-gloss finish is the best choice for painting wood architectural features as the slight gloss shows the flutings and shadows to their best advantage. At various points in time, the molding features have been painted into colors; the entrance hall at Drayton Hall in South Carolina is an excellent example of this treatment. Marbleizing the shafts of the columns themselves may create another pleasing effect.

As previously mentioned, the rooms that typically adjoin an entrance hall consist of the dining room and living room. To perfectly follow form, it would be appropriate to step the molding down to the Ionic order if the Corinthian has been used in the entrance hall. In either of the two adjoining rooms, the primary option for the use of wood columns is as an element of the mantelpiece. This works best as a variation of the use of columns previously described as door casing embellishment. The baseboard is turned into the room beneath the mantel ledge and turns back to terminate against the marble or stone surround of the fireplace opening. Columns are placed between the ledge and the pedestal created by the turnout. As elsewhere, the capital chosen for the columns will dictate the molding scheme for the remainder of the room.

The desire to avoid the creation of unused spaces in contemporary residences has led to a trend away from the formal living room that is exclusively reserved for entertainment. As the remainder of the typical new house is arranged in an open-plan style, the area that once served as the formal living room is more frequently designated as a home office or media room that affords a level of privacy otherwise missing in the open plan. These office spaces frequently include bookcases that offer an excellent opportunity for embellishment with columns. Although the current trend tends toward bookcase shelving that runs to the floor, the best designed cases have enclosed cabinets that roughly correspond in height to the wainscot level even when wainscoting is not used. The good sense of enclosed cabinets is that furniture may be arranged against a cabinet wall without impeding access to the bookshelves. Shelf spans on bookcases begin to fail or droop when they are wider than forty-two inches. It is best, therefore, when designing a wall of built in cases to take the entire length and divide it into equal widths of forty-two inches or less. Having done this - and having chosen to construct the actual shelving above cabinet bases - one then steps the bases out about six inches further than the shelving, which is typically ten to twelve inches deep. The stepped-out base creates a natural ledge from which wood columns may be arranged in front of each point where two shelving spaces meet. A repetition of appropriately proportioned columns arranged in this manner creates a very pleasing rhythm. This same effect may be achieved where the base cabinets are the same depth as the shelves by turning the cabinet base out in the same manner the baseboard is turned out for the use of columns that flank door openings or for support of mantel ledges.

A home office or media room will lend itself to natural finishes, as the overall setup is reminiscent of a paneled library. The use of beautiful finishes such as walnut or dark oak can be extremely pleasing in this setting. An option that may be used to offset the surfeit of wood in such a room would be to ebonize the column shafts on the bookcases or mantelpiece creating an architectural reference to English Regency or French Empire design.

Although the formalized setting continues to be used in very fine homes at present, the open floor plan remains the standard for most residences. The open floor plan offers all of the spaces traditionally contained within a residential structure but without any of the walls to separate functions such as dining areas or living areas. While the open flow is pleasant, the effect of an uninterrupted space can sometimes be similar to stepping into a gym that has furniture arranged in it - not so pleasant. This is a place where the use of wood interior columns can really solve a problem. The judicious placement of columns in an open plan space can define areas without interrupting the overall openness that many people find appealing. In an open plan, for example, where the dining area is set in a corner near the kitchen area, one can reinforce the dining space by placing an arrangement of columns at the point where the interior corner would occur if walls were in place. It is important to emphasize the word "arrangement" as a single column will not quite do the job well. A single column will appear incidental, lonely, or curiously odd. But if a column is placed at the exact corner and then followed with columns that sit at the points where the walls would turn, the effect is sturdy and deliberate. The terminating points of the imaginary walls may be reinforced with half-columns thereby completing the effect without having interrupted the flow or visual expanse of the open floor plan.

As with the traditional arrangements, rooms with open floor plans also lend themselves to the use of columns as ways of giving much needed visual weight to mantelpieces and bookshelves. From the perspective of scale, these may be "beefed up" in order to create a substantial appearance in the larger open spaces they occupy.

The uses for wood columns in contemporary open rooms have not been fully exploited and are limited only by the imagination. A few guidelines will help achieve a pleasing use. Always use columns in a manner that is structurally logical. Even though wood columns rarely need to actually support any loads, using them arbitrarily and in places where they clearly do not support anything can create a jarring effect. The use of columns previously described to create a corner in a dining area is perfectly logical. You can create the appearance of necessary support by utilizing an architrave between columns to further define a space. The use of an architrave with an elliptical arch between columns is another excellent way of investing a sense of necessity to the columns. Use care when deciding how to finish columns. They create a great deal of visual interest on their own simply by their presence. Over-finishing them can be too much of a good thing. Remember that columns can be useful in reinforcing height: as a vertical presence, they will guide the eye upward. Finally, although a strict adherence to the corresponding elements of a given order is not required, acknowledgment of the keynote indicated by the capital will result in a quiet harmony that is both pleasant and tasteful.

About The Author: Shop Amazon - Top Gift Ideas
This article was written by Timothy Revis of Osborne Wood Products, Inc., which offers a variety of wood architectural products and interior wood columns for Cabinet Companies and Architectural Millwork Companies. They offer 10 different wood types and their products are in stock and ready to ship. Their customer service and design team can also work with you to create a custom column to fit your needs.

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