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Architectural Details: Sheet Metal Ornament

As architects and designers, we frequently learn of materials and products that can bring individuality and personal touches to a home’s design. If there’s a particular style, feature or detail you love, there is most likely a way to incorporate it into the design of your remodeling project. A home should be well-designed, but it should also be personal and uniquely yours!

As an architect and builder, I am personally fascinated by architectural details such as sheet metal ornament. Victorian era sheet metal ornament (made of copper or zinc), still fabricated today, was first stamped, embossed, folded or shaped to make intricate exterior building details primarily between the 1880s and 1930s. Intended to resemble wood or stone when painted, the sheet metal ornament was a cost-saving material, and its success and beauty led to its use in the occasional art deco-style buildings during the 1920s – 1940s. Even today many retail spaces make use of the Victorian-era product we know as a “pressed-tin ceiling.”

unique architectural details

Unique Architectural
Details Will Add Visual
Interest to Your Home

Zinc & Copper Sheet Metal Ornament

Of the two metals (zinc and copper), my preferred material for sheet metal ornament is copper because it will not rust like zinc, and when copper is left exposed it patinas to a handsome shade of green – and it takes paint well. Also, as every homeowner knows, copper requires minimal maintenance and is extremely durable.

In Washington, DC, there are many examples of Victorian buildings embellished with zinc or copper ornament. Typically the ornament is applied at the roof cornice, but many residences with bay or oriel windows have fully clad bays trimmed with the metal appliqué.

When it comes time to source architectural sheet metal ornament, I always turn first to the W.F. Norman Corporation of Nevada, Missouri. W.F Norman Corporation purchased the original molds and dies in 1978. Their current catalog is a reproduction of the 1894 catalog first published by the Miller & Doing Corporation of Brooklyn, New York. Their products represent accuracy, beauty and history, and show that even when it comes to the smaller features of your home, you shouldn’t skimp on the details. Their ornament also look great just hanging on the wall. Architectural details like this can truly enhance your home’s design!

My interest in sheet metal ornament came into play when I had the good fortune to work on the restoration of a copper clad oriel window for a historic Capitol Hill residence (Richardsonian Romanesque style). The original zinc metal ornament had deteriorated during the past century, much of it removed, and poor quality wood cladding was substituted in its place. To remedy the problem, we specified new windows, wall sheathing at the oriel and ready-made applied copper ornament to restore the window to resemble its original design.

custom ziggurat plinth drawing

Drawing of the Custom
Ziggurat Plinth

Sheet Metal Ornament as Unique Architectural Details

Several years ago, when I decided to build a porch overlooking my urban garden, I wanted its design to have a bit of whimsy and felt it was time to indulge in some of the copper architectural details I love. After all, the almost-flat porch roof was to be copper, so ornament architectural details seemed appropriate.

ziggurat plinth

Ziggurat Plinth with
Finial Brings Character
to Copper Porch Roof

When it comes to architectural details, I have a fondness for finials in the shape of urns which use the various S-shaped curves, sometimes referred to as an “ogee.” The urns available from the usual sources (W.F. Norman) were only a stamped half of an urn since they were meant to be applied on a wall surface. I wanted a pair of freestanding urns to use as finials at the roof of my new classical porch. And this required an expert who was capable of fabricating spun-copper finials (copper, spun on a lathe and fabricated without visible joints). To place the new finials at an appropriate height for viewing from the garden, I designed a base (plinth) shaped like a ziggurat, which lifts the urn-shaped finials 4″ above the roof. Best of all, the copper finials can be viewed from the master bedroom every morning. The small pleasures of life, articulated in copper.

bruce wentworth

Bruce Wentworth recommends adding
whimsy to your home with custom details.
His personal favorite is architectural sheet
metal ornament, such as the custom copper
ziggurat plinth with finial, shown here.

About Architect Bruce Wentworth

Wentworth, Inc. was founded by Bruce Wentworth, AIA, a noted remodeling architect who has worked in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area for over twenty years. He has built hundreds of his own designs, ranging from modest bungalows to large-scale luxury residences.

Read the rest of Bruce’s bio.

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