Monday, November 14, 2022

Virginia Folk Housing, an update

The house recorded by Henry Glassie in Folk Housing in Middle Virginia * were basic shelter for people with few resources. They may have been the first house for someone homesteading, built by a sharecropper or by someone enslaved.   

This is Fig. 35, The Parrish House, a "small mid-eighteenth-century house of sawed logs", p. 84 in Glassie's book.*


The geometric diagrams I drew in May 2014,** were accurate but much too complex for these houses. More importantly they didn't begin as a carpenter would: with the size of the foundation and the floor plan.


 A carpenter's first question is, " Why?" Then he asks, "How big? How long? How wide?" 

The red line across the bottom of the floor plan is 'how long', about 21 ft. That distance can be the beginning of the layout, the first Line that determines all the others.


That Line can be the radius for a circle:

The arcs of the Line A-B cross at C. That's the center of the circle for the layout of this house.

In the diagrams below: 1) B-C is the radius of the circle. 2) Beginning with B on the circumference  the arcs of the daisy wheel are added. The 6 even spaced points around the circle A, B, D, E, F, G  are located.





Connect the Lines. A-F and B-E are perpendicular to A-B. G-D is the diameter. They mark the width and length of the rectangle for the house plan.  If there is a question about accuracy, diagonals can be used to true the shape.



Here is the plan within its circle, the circle that begins with the carpenter's choice of width, his 'module'.



The masonry block for the 2 chimneys is square, centered, and 1/3 of the width the house. Glassie's photograph shows a shed sheltering that fireplace.


*Henry Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, U Tennessee Press, 1975. The book includes more information, drawings, and a photograph of the house. It no longer exists.

** The original post is here: Its companion, here:

I considered deleting the 2 posts, but their existence brought a comment and question which prompted this update.


As I read them I realize how much I have learned about geometry since 2014. I saw it and tried to explain it, just as Henry Glassie did in his Rules, Chapter IV, The Architectural Competence.

When I began to study Practical Geometry there were no books, no one for discussions or critiques. I was teaching myself, reading early pattern books line by line. Laurie Smith was the only person I knew who saw geometry as I did, and he was in the UK. Later that year he came to the States; I took a workshop with him. I was able to work with him until his death last year.  

I don't want this information to be lost again. I want others to find it, question it, reject and/or improve upon my analysis, their own analysis, expand our understanding.



Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Serlio's Lines


That's the word they used.   Lines.  An important word, often capitalized.         

Sebastiano Serlio writes, ".... if the architect wants to build a temple door which is proportional to the place, he should take the width of the central body of the temple, that is the floor space - or between the walls if it is small, and between the pillars if it has transepts. From this width he should draw the same height which will make a perfect square. 

... He should draw two diagonal lines and then the two other lines from the bottom corners to the top [center.] The "lines will form the opening of the door, and they will also enable the ornaments to be carved, as is shown... If 3 doors... were to be built in the face of a temple, the same proportions could be used in the smaller sides." *

We use this word: "line".  Usually we add helpful adjectives. 

 Metaphoric lines: "toe the line", "step over the line", life line; or bus and subway lines. 

Demarcation lines: fence line, property line, finish line, white line, sight line.

Rope that becomes a line: tow line, clothes line, fishing line, electric line.   

And in construction: chalk line, plumb line.  

The line shown here can be either. a chalk line that can be rewound into the case, or a plumb line by hanging the line on a peg and using the case as the plumb bob.

 We check that a foundation, a frame is true with matching diagonal lines.

There is also 'straight line', an oxymoron in geometry. 


Serlio's definition is geometric; a line is "a straight and continuous representation from one point to another, having length without width."  Here is his diagram shown above, rotated and then all 4 diagrams overlaid to make one 'star'.

He ends Book I: On Geometry, " However, honest reader, although the things resulting from the various intersections of lines is infinite, to avoid being long-winded I shall come to an end." 

 Do we, in 2022, know what these words, the various intersections of lines mean? What results from them?

The easiest answer is the lines can divide a rectangle or trapezoid in half, vertically or horizontally, or in 3, 4, 5, 6 (etc.) equal parts.

Any 2 points can establish a line, so lines can create simple or complex patterns.

Here is one of Serlio's designs that begins with a square and its diagonals. Every dimension on the plan comes from that initial diagram.

This villa comes from Serlio's Book  VI: On Geometry, titled: Treatise: On Domestic Architecture, written c. 1545-9, Plate XXXVIII, Project 28, of 73 plates.

Serlio drew in the lines for his readers.They were not laid out first. The lines come from the geometry. The placement of columns, walls, openings come from the "various intersections of lines".

He also gives dimensions: those little hatch marks in the center. 


Here's the geometry:

The plan is a square. It is divided into 4 parts horizontally and vertically - 16 equal squares. the top row is: 1 square, 2 squares, 1 square. The  bottom row matches it.  The vertical rows also repeat the pattern: square, double square, square. The center space is 'left over' - 2 squares x 2 squares.  That space is divided into 9 equal squares. The columns mark the intersections.


All of this can be easily laid out with Lines. The diagonals neatly cross the corners of the structure and the 4 columns in the central room.
The Lines Serlio used (shown above) to locate the door can also be laid out here. They cross at the center of the walls.

Serlio drew the lines that show the widths of walls, openings, and columns. How did he knows where those lines should be?  I followed his lead.

His design is a square: I drew squares. I located the center of each side of the plan and added the Lines from center point to center point. This divided the plan into 4 smaller squares. Now there were 4 points of intersection, plus the one in the center.



These points allowed more Lines to be added.

The Lines laid out the wall locations. They are at the back of the niches and the fireplaces. They told the mason where to begin his work. He could add the decorative niches, pilasters and mantles in front of the structure. The fireplace flues would line up.   


Don't miss the wonderful details: the circular stair - lower left - is at an intersection. The main stair fits neatly into the lower left square, the octagon room in the lower right.

So, the columns?

 The Lines  - the diagonals that Serlio used in his drawing for locating the door  - locate the columns. They are on the 'third points'  in the space: dividing the center hall into 9 squares.

This is  a simplified version of the star I drew above. It is the 'Rule of Thirds' that we use when we compose images on our cell phones, that artists consider when they compose a painting.



 Here is a detail showing how the Lines of the column locations are extended into the loggia 'G'. The Lines determine the placement of the outer side of the square columns. The center space - where G is on the center of 5 Lines - is divided into 4 spaces, easily done using the star. 2 of the spaces equal the opening between the columns, 1 is the width of the columns.  Note that the width of the columns is also the width of the walls.  

Each dimension comes directly from the first geometry, the square and its diagonals.


The Front Elevation! 


That simple layout creates the structure of the villa. Visually the walls became a backdrop for columns, arches, niches, friezes, lintels, dormers, balconies. However it is the geometry which holds all those pieces together.

Note that those square columns, here on the front of the house, have round pilasters added to their front sides, with doubled pilasters on the corners. And don't miss the chimneys!

* Sebastiano Serlio, Book I: On Geometry, See my bibliography:

                                Book  VI: On Geometry, On Domestic Architecture,  A Dover Publication edition, 1996, of work originally published by The Architectural History Foundation, NY, and the MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The Geometry of Ionic volutes, as drawn by those who used them


Ionic volutes, those curly ends of Ionic capitals, with these wonderful curves!
How were they drawn? 

This post began as an exploration of the use of practical geometry vs. the use of the golden section in construction.  In all my research I found no references to the golden section as a construction tool.

So, what to do with the images and descriptions I found? Write about them!

Here are the instructions, written by the designers, master builders, architects, and those who used these volutes. 

First, of course, is Vitruvius. He writes, in the 1st c. BCE,  "As for the drawings of volutes so they are properly coiled with the use of a compass, and the way they are drawn, the form and the principal of these will be set down at the end of the book.' * 

Unfortunately, those drawings at the end of his book are lost. 

Beginning about 1540, many architects, builders, historians, professional and amateur, measured the Ionic volutes still extant, those created during the Greek and Roman empires.

Giacomo Barozzi de la Vignola published his engravings in 1562. The illustration  is from the English translation of Vignola by John Leeke in 1669. Vignola begins by noting the reference lines and then the small square in the circle in the upper right corner of the page, 'A'. "Having drawn the Cathetus (the vertical guideline) of this first voluta and the other line S square to it, the said eye is divided in the manner expressed above in the figure A..." 17 lines, total, all quite easy to follow.


Andrea Palladio and Sebastiano Serlio worked at the same time as Vignola and probably knew him. 

 Here is Palladio's drawing in his 4 Books of Architecture, First Book, Plate IXX, 1570. 

Serlio's On Architecture, was written before 1550.  Serlio takes 32 lines to explain how to draw the volute.  He includes, "This matter (as I said) consists more in the practice than in the art because making it diminish both to a greater or lesser extent is dependent on the architect's judgement in placing the point of the compass a little higher or a little lower. The size of the band should not always be all the same."

If you look carefully at Vignola, Palladio and Serlio's drawings, you will see that they do not quite agree about the location of those 2 first lines, the cathetus and its perpendicular. They probably had measured different volutes. Later writers mention which volutes they think to be most perfect.

Serlio's treatise was translated from Italian to Dutch to English in 1611. A complete English translation of Palladio wasn't available until after 1715.


Batty Langely's The Builder's Director or Bench-Mate, was published in 1745, London, a compilation of "all that is useful to Workmen,... and at so easy a Rate, as to be purchased by any common Labourer." He includes variations for Ionic capitals: 'modern' and 'ancient' all of which are explained by 'Minutes and Parts'. This is his first drawing of 6.

Batty Langley's books continued to be published after his death in 1751, and were available in the Colonies.


William Pain published similar 'practical builder' pattern books at about the same time. Here is his Plate XVI from The Practical House Carpenter, or Youth's Instruction, London, 1794, for volutes with parts. He writes that he has included " ... all the measures figured for practice: to draw it, set the compasses at the angle a in the profile..." He rewrites the earlier instructions given by others and reminds the reader again that he has included "the measures all figured for practice."




 Owen Biddle's pattern book, The Young Carpenter's Assistant, 1805, Philadelphia, includes these less flowerly drawings and instructions.




 Asher Benjamin's  American Builder's Companion, originally published in 1804,  includes similar diagrams.




However, his revised 1827 edition includes the drawing above and also this diagram. "Plate F, From the Inside of the Portico  of the Temple of Minerva, at Athens." 

"Fig. 1. Volute of the capital, with the measurements in feet, inches, tenths, hundredths, & etc."

A footnote explains how to read Feet, Inches "and the decimal parts". 


The Architect, or Complete Builder's Guide, written in 1839,  has  this drawing, Plate X.  Asher Benjamin notes, "The  carver will find it to his advantage to imitate these drawings faithfully, and thus escape the censure deservedly cast upon the many clumsy, awkward productions of this capital, which may be seen in both town and country." 

 Benjamin's books were published through the 1850's.


Then there's a break - I've found no English language 'how-to' pattern
book instructions on volutes during the height of the Industrial Revolution.
Ionic volutes were used: here on c.1896 porch columns. Probably these were created by craftsmen for a company which specialized in plaster and wood composites. They are probably available today.



In 1903, in The American Vignola, William Ware describes how to construct a volute, "The vertical line a b, Fig 91, through the center of the eye of the Volute, and the horizontal line c d, will mark in the circumference of the eye the four corners of the square within which a fret whose angles may serves as centers..."* 

6 sentences;  22 lines of instructions. This is a small drawing at the bottom corner of a page.

Architectural Graphic Standards' first edition was published in 1932.  This page in every edition  I own:  2nd -1936, 3rd -1941, 4th -1953,  5th - 1966,  but not the 8th - 1988. 

The pages are quite yellow - I've toned them down here to make them more legible.



The 8th edition of  Architectural Graphic Standards, 1988, no longer dedicated a page to Ionic details. 

The last 2 pages of the book, titled  Classical Orders at the top and CLASSIC ORDERS at the bottom, are a crowded introduction to centuries of architecture. 

Here's about 2/3 of the second sheet. The architects who complied the page are credited not their sources. 

Do I have a conclusion? Not really. 

I looked for the Golden Section and didn't find it. I read convoluted and simple language as people who knew construction explained with words how to draw something complex.  Many descriptions expected experience using compasses. I appreciated the authors who said, "Practice!" Words help; they are not a substitute for drawing.

Books not listed here are in my bibliography:

Asher Benjamin, Practice of Architecture and The Builder's Guide, new introduction by Thomas Gordon Smith, De Capo Press, New York, 1994.

Batty Langley, The Builder's Director or Bench-Mate, published first in 1754, London, reprint, publisher unlisted.

William Pain,  The Practical House Carpenter, or Youth's Instruction, London, 1794. reprint by Dover Publications.

Ramsey/Sleeper, Architectural Graphic Standards, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York

Giacomo Barozzi daVignola, Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture, John Leeke, translator, published by William Sherwin, London, 1669.

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, edited by Ingrid D. Rowland, Thomas Noble Howe, Cambridge University Press, 1999

*Wm. R. Ware, The American Vignola, 1903, Dover Publications, 1994, p. 30. 

*Book 3, Chapter 5, paragraph 8,  translation by Ingrid D. Rowland; Viruvius, 10 Books on Architecture, Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Nobel Howe, Editors, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Baptist Church of Streetsboro, Ohio, Part 1

This is the Old Baptist Church at Streetsboro, Ohio, built about 1820.

Here are the HABS drawings.

 I wondered about its geometry. What framing traditions had the master builder brought with him to Ohio?
It looked linear, simple, obvious. Was it?

I explored the plan and elevation. While many forms of the Lines created by circles and squares worked pretty well, nothing quite fit.  
I went back to the basics, the construction: What did the carpenter do? In what order?

He was asked to build a church about 'so big'  - here about 36' x 50'. He laid out a rectangle using the 3/4/5 Triangle.  The HABS drawings are blurry and tiny. The dimensions appear to be 38'-4.5" wide by 51' long,  3 units wide by 4 units long. (The length is about an inch too short.)

The triangles are ABC and ADC. They could also be ABD and BCD. The 2 layouts cross in the center.
The carpenter could check his diagonals, just as workers do today. When the diagonals were the same length the floor frame was square.

 The bents for the frame were naturally the same width as the floor. It seemed possible that the framer used the floor of the church for his layout. I had seen this in an upstate NY barn. I wrote about it here:

The elevation of the front of the church appears to be 2 squares wide. But the pediment did not come easily from that form - slightly too big.

However when I laid out the frame based on Lines laid on the inside edge of the sill and posts, everything fit and the peak of the bent, the location of the ridge of the church was the center of the rectangle. So simple, so easy!

How was it to the framer's advantage to lay out the frame from within the frame, not outside?  
He needed at least 3 bents, probably 5 or more. He needed consistent marks for lengths and widths of all members and for each mortise and tenon. The Lines laid inside the frame would not be disturbed while the frame was laid out and marked. The timbers could be moved off the floor to cut the joints; another bent could be laid out.  Or the bents could be stacked on each other.
Modern framers using timber and dimensional lumber stand within their work, measure, mark, and check from inside. Then they cut the lumber someplace else. Why not this earlier framer too?

After the bents and the roof trusses came the walls and the windows.
The spacing of the windows and their width comes from the rectangles that are within the original larger rectangle.
The green lines are 2 of those rectangles, the dashed lines with arrows on the left show the window frame locations.  The green dashed line with an arrow on the right ( top left) is the width. 


The geometry of the bents determined the shape of the facade, the height of the pediment. The front elements of the church - the  pilasters and a grand door -  were designed after the frame. The front windows were in place, therefore the pilasters needed to be equidistant on each side.
The door went in the middle, that's custom. Then there was the left over space in between. (See more about this below.)

The framers also had to provide support for the steeple. I have only photographs to show where the steeple sits. Was it directly over the front wall? a few feet back?  I would assume a bent supported the front and back walls of the steeple. The diagrams do show how the width of the tower and the size of the clipped corners were determined: the plan is a square with its corners cut off. 

Carpenter squares began to be manufactured in the States - not imported from Britain - around 1820. They had true 90* corners and consistent dimensions. 3/4/5 triangles and rectangles were easy to lay out accurately. An inexperienced carpenter could erect a  simple frame without much worry. A master carpenter working with church members as a volunteer crew could expect his crew to build a reasonably accurate frame.

Part 2,  the design of the exterior of the church is here:


7/27/22: I wrote this post in 2018. When I reviewed it recently, I saw how much needed to be revised, simplified; how much I'd learned about using geometry in construction during the last 4 years.  Understanding Practical Geometry (the name Asher Benjamin and Peter Nicholson used) is an on-going exploration.


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Baptist Church of Streetsboro, Ohio, Part 2

The Streetsboro Baptist Church, built c. 1820: the second phase of its construction - its decoration - the front facade and the steeple.



The first post* discussed how the framer used the geometry of the 3/4/5 Triangle to layout the floor, the bents, the walls and  windows, the roof and steeple. After the framers made the building 'tight to the weather',  joiners would often be responsible for the finish work: window sash, doors, molding.  Different trades had different skills and tools.

I think this division of labor happened here.


The church front on a cloudy day in October. It is a handsome building. It is also a box decorated with boards and moldings. That's what I am looking at in this post.

The HABS drawing is below.



The windows had been set by the framer when he laid out the floor plan, the walls, and the roof frame. The black lines show what the front wall would have looked like when the joiner began his work. Holes for windows, a space - perhaps a larger framed opening - for a door, a triangular gable. 

The congregation expected that this box with a roof would become a modern Greek Revival church. 

Of course the joiner was considering the pediment, the frieze, the architrave. the water table. He also needed to lay out a facade which has grace and rhythm as well as symmetry.


Here is the geometry of the facade as the framer knew it: 3 bays with their height from the floor to the roof trusses, their width between the corner posts, and a door, centered but of undetermined dimensions. The windows are centered within the  3/4/5 rectangles of  the frame's rhythm. Their shape is 2- 3/4/5 rectangles.


I think, the joiner chooses to balance the windows first, to set them as supporting wings to the central door. The corner boards grew to become paired columns balanced by 2 more columns on the other side of the windows. Note that the columns are not on the lines of the bays, therefore the center bay is slightly wider than the side bays. The window bays became back drop to the central bay with its  double door and paneled transom.The joiner 'adjusted' the geometry; but the window bays' symmetry is so strong it is hard to catch. The tall, broad main door, recessed  in the main bay, then surrounded by the columns and the frieze, becomes the focus. 

The joiner 'fooled the eye' and created a dynamic facade, much better than 3 equal rectangles would have been.


The framer built the base which supported the steeple. Its dimensions at the roof are based on the 3/4/5 Triangle.


The steeple uses neither the geometry of the frame nor that of the front facade. It is a series of blocks, decreasing in size, with their corners clipped. The design uses the square and the circles that fit within and without it. Was it the work of the same joiner? **

The HABS drawing shows the steeple sections.

Here I have added the circles  - In 'A' the red circle is outside, the green inside. In 'B' that green circle is now outside, a new smaller red circle inside. 'C' continues the progression with the red circle from 'B' now the outside. The green circle of  'C'  is the base of the spire.

 The steeple layout follows the  drawings of James Gibbs in his book "On Architecture", published in England in 1728. Copies were in the Colonies, available to builders.  I have written about Gibbs' steeples here:  

 These  HABS measurements are too simple for an in depth study of the steeple geometry.

The shapes that make up the tower are a series of blocks with related faces all derived from the simple manipulation of the square: a complete square, 2 squares, one square, half a square (the base for the spire).
The spire's height uses the width of the steeple's base as its unit of measure: it is 1.5 times as tall as the base is wide.

The paneling, edge moldings,  and the series of roofs as the tower extends create the steeple.

The  door itself is approximately square, the transom: half a square. They are the same size as the section of the steeple which holds the bell.

The wall of that bay acts as a setting,  a frame for the door.  The columns and architrave are a second frame.


Look again at the photographs.

The church's grace and presence come from simple proportions in the design and the understanding of how light and shadow give life to the parts themselves and thus to the whole building. 

Here is what Asher Benjamin wanted the joiner - and by extension, we who see the church - to understand about moldings :  

"...the bending, or turning inward, of the upper edge of the Grecian, or quirk ovolo, when the sun shines on the surface [and] causes a beautiful variety of light and shade, which greatly relieves it from plane surfaces, and if it is entirely in shadow, but receives a reflected light, the bending or turning inward, at the top, will cause it to contain a greater quality of shade in that place, but softened downward around the moulding to the upper edge."   ***


* Part 1:

** The Sandown, NH, Meeting House and Gunston Hall in Virginia are good examples of this separation of craft. At Sandown a skilled joiner built the main door and the pulpit, perhaps the wainscotting and box pews. George Mason of Gunston Hall brought William Buckland from England to create the porches and interiors for his new brick house.

**Asher Benjamin, The American Builder's Companion, 6th edition, 1827, R.P. & C. Williams, Dover Publications reprint, Plate IX, Names of Mouldings.