Walkabout: Ornamental Elements

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In this holiday season, let’s look at some ornaments – architectural ornament, that is. Over the last couple of years, I’ve featured all kinds of carved stone and terra-cotta ornament that grace our row houses and apartment buildings, all from buildings built in the late 1800’s. Today, I’d like to feature some items not covered before. As you may know, ornament can be very symbolic. For example, animal representations such as lions and eagles represent strength. Their appearance on banks and commercial buildings convey to the viewer the prosperity and fiscal fortitude that one wants in such institutions. The many examples of cherubs and children on homes across brownstone Brooklyn remind the passersby and homeowner alike of family, love and home.

Of course, sometimes ornament is just pretty, and often flowers, twining vines and twisting patterns have no deeper meaning than to highlight the architecture and decorate a building. Yet foliage can have its own symbolism. Cornucopias or horns of plenty have been used for centuries to illustrate bounty and plenty. Other rich carvings of fruits and flowers have similar meaning. Lush carved elements, copied from Italian Renaissance art also appear, often with ribbons, cartouches and fat, sensual curves that appealed to the often staid Victorian senses. Musical instruments and classical themes can also be found. These appear often in the Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne and especially the Renaissance Revival homes of Park Slope, Crown Heights North, Bed Stuy, and Prospect Heights. CPH Gilbert, Magnus Dahlander , George Chappell, the Parfitt Brothers and Axel Hedman are among the many architects who chose these elements to complement their designs. Most of this ornament came from catalogues, and shows the talent of anonymous carvers and designers, some of whom were well versed in the sculpture and artistic traditions of Europe, especially Renaissance Europe. Fortunately, much of this ornament has survived the last one hundred plus years, and is right here in our neighborhoods to enjoy. Take a look at my Flickr page, and see if you recognize elements you may pass every day.

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