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Glossary of Architectural Terms

One of life’s joys is looking at the wonderful world around us. In New York City, buildings are around us—old and new, big and small, plain and ornate. After the old Penn Station building was destroyed, a Landmarks Preservation Commission was established. The commission provides reports for each designated building that explain historical significance of the building and note important architectural details.

To understand the reports one must learn some architectural terminology. Why bother, one may ask, learning these unusual words? While one can enjoy looking at the buildings without them, they help me notice and talk about the details. I notice quoining now that I know the term.

balustrade

A railing supported by balusters, especially an ornamental parapet on a balcony, bridge, or terrace.

baluster

A short pillar or column, typically decorative in design, in a series supporting a rail or coping.

parapet

A low protective wall along the edge of a roof, bridge, or balcony.

quoining

The stone or brick used to form the external angle of a wall or building.

finial

A distinctive ornament at the apex of a roof, pinnacle, canopy, or similar structure in a building. From latin finis “end”.

cupola

A small dome, especially a small dome on a drum on top of a larger dome, adorning a roof or ceiling.

cresting

An ornamental decoration at the ridge of a roof or top of a wall or screen.

dormer

A window that projects vertically from a sloping roof. From Old French dormeor “dormitory”, from dormir “to sleep”.

pilaster

A rectangular column, especially one projecting from a wall.

mullion

A vertical bar between the panes of glass in a window.

transom

A strengthening crossbar, in particular one set above a window or door.

cartouches

A carved tablet representing a scroll with rolled-up ends, used ornamentally. From Latin carta.

spandrel

The almost triangular space between one side of the outer curve of an arch, a wall, and the ceiling or framework.

putti

A representation of a naked child. Singular putto. From Italian “boy”, from Latin putus.

clerestory

A high section of wall that contains windows above eye level to admit light or fresh air. Historically, it denoted an upper level of a Roman basilica or the nave of a Romanesque or Gothic church.

rusticated

Fashioned into large blocks with sunk joints and a roughened surface.

volute

A spiral scroll characteristic of Ionic capitals and also used in Corinthian and composite capitals. From Latin volvere “to roll.”

console

An ornamented bracket with scrolls or corbel supporting a cornice, shelf, or tabletop.