“Period Classical Moldings: A Primer on These Touchstones of Neo-Classical Architecture”

Author: Norman L. Vandal
Published in Fine Homebuilding Magazine April/May 1984 No. 20

A detailed glossary of Neo-Classical moldings.

When I first studied historic architecture back in the mid-nineties, I was confused about overlap between architectural styles in some historic homes and public buildings. I had the notion that a building was either pure Colonial, pure Federal or pure Greek Revival.

When I found this article by Norman Vandal in an old copy of Fine Homebuilding magazine, I learned that period styles often overlap. This gave me the freedom to mix and match moldings from the three Neo-Classical periods in the same home without the fear of being historically inaccurate.  It allowed me to group the Pattern Book’s Neo-Classical styles under “Traditional,” making it much easier for those unfamiliar with the subtle differences between period styles to choose molding patterns.

The American Neo-Classical period lasted 150 years. This period can be further subdivided into three design trends, the earliest being the Georgian Period (also known as Colonial), the Federal Period and the latest, the Greek Revival Period. 

Here is what Vandal, a master craftsman of the Neo-Classical styles, tells us to look for in homes of each period:

Greek Revival c. 1820 – 1840
  • A return to pure Greek rather than Roman forms
  • Moldings are based on segments of the ellipse
  • All parts in the order are larger than Roman, giving the moldings a more solid, simple look
  • Fewer ornaments overall than in Roman designs
  • Larger, more ornate entablature
  • Interior cornice (crown molding) and chair rail deleted
Federal Period c. 1790 – 1825
  • Inspired by designs of The Brothers Adam
  • Wood became the primary material used, allowing finer edges and flatter projections than stone; lightness and delicacy became design guidelines
  • Fireplaces with carved friezes were the focus of formal rooms
  • Wainscot became less popular but chair rails remained
Colonial/Georgian c. 1720 – 1790
  • Molding profiles based on segments of a circle
  • Very ornate
  • Paneled walls and wainscot became popular
  • Fireplace walls were completely paneled in formal rooms
I found my current copy of this old Fine Homebuilding issue at Jennifer and my favorite used book store here in Tucson. It cost me a grand total of $.50. Or you can order an overpriced copy from Amazon for about $8.00. Or you could buy a one month or annual subscription to Finehomebuilding.com, where this article is a part of their online archive.

[This post is part of our How to Install Moldings series,]