Standards > Architectural
This Checklist/Questionnaire is included in Nelson, Lee H., FAIA.
Briefs 17: Architectural Character Identifying the Visual Aspects
of Historic Buildings as an Aid to Preserving Their Character,
Washington, D.C.: Technical Preservation Services (TPS), National
Park Service, September, 1988 (Web: Last Modified: Thursday, April
25 2002 08:30:08 am EDT, KDW) [Layout for this version has been
changed: section questions have been separated and numbered; images
have been added.]
This checklist can be taken to the building and used to identify
those aspects that give the building and setting its essential
visual qualities and character. This checklist consists of a
series of questions that are designed to help in identifying
those things that contribute to a building's character. The
use of this checklist involves the three-step process of looking
- the overall visual aspects,
- the visual character at close range, and
- the visual character of interior spaces, features and finishes.
Because this is a process to identify architectural character,
it does not address those intangible qualities that give a
property or building or its contents its historic significance,
instead this checklist is organized on the assumption that
historic significance is embodied in those tangible aspects
that include the building's setting, its form and fabric.
Step One: The overall visual aspects
- What is there about the form or shape of the building that
gives the building its identity?
- Is the shape distinctive in relation to the neighboring
- Is it simply a low, squat box, or is it a tall, narrow
building with a corner tower?
- Is the shape highly consistent with its neighbors?
- Is the shape so complicated because of wings, or ells, or
differences in height, that its complexity is important to
- Conversely, is the shape so simple or plain that adding
a feature like a porch would change that character?
- Does the shape convey its historic function as in smoke
stacks or silos?
2. Roof and Roof Features
- Does the roof shape or its steep (or shallow) slope contribute
to the building's character?
- Does the fact that the roof is highly visible (or not visible
at all) contribute to the architectural identity of the building?
- Are certain roof features important to the profile of the
building against the sky or its background, such as cupolas,
multiple chimneys, dormers, cresting, or weather vanes?
- Are the roofing materials or their colors or their patterns
(such as patterned slates) more noticeable than the shape
or slope of the roof?
- Is there a rhythm or pattern to the arrangement of windows
or other openings in the walls; like the rhythm of windows
in a factory building, or a three-part window in the front
bay of a house; or is there a noticeable relationship between
the width of the window openings and the wall space between
the window openings?
- Are there distinctive openings, like a large arched entranceway,
or decorative window lintels that accentuate the importance
the window openings, or unusually shaped windows, or patterned
window sash, like small panes of glass in the windows or doors,
that are important to the character?
- Is the plainness of the window openings such that adding
shutters or gingerbread trim would radically change its character?
- Is there a hierarchy of facades that make the front windows
more important than the side windows?
- What about those walls where the absence of windows establishes
its own character?
- Are there parts of the building that are character defining
because they project from the walls of the building like porches,
cornices, bay windows, or balconies?
- Are there turrets, or widely overhanging eaves, projecting
pediments or chimneys?
5. Trim and Secondary Features
- Does the trim around the windows or doors contribute to
the character of the building?
- Is there other trim on the walls or around the projections
that, because of its decoration or color or patterning contributes
to the character of the building?
- Are there secondary features such as shutters, decorative
gables, railings, or exterior wall panels?
- Do the materials or combination of materials contribute
to the overall character of the building as seen from a distance
because of their color or patterning, such as broken faced
stone, scalloped wall shingling, rounded rock foundation walls,
boards and battens, or textured stucco?
- What are the aspects of the setting that are important to
the visual character?
- For example, is the alignment of buildings along a city
street and their relationship to the sidewalk the essential
aspect of its setting?
- Or, conversely, is the essential character dependent upon
the tree plantings and out buildings which surround the farmhouse?
- Is the front yard important to the setting of the modest
- Is the specific site important to the setting such as being
on a hilltop, along a river, or, is the building placed on
the site in such a way to enhance its setting?
- Is there a special relationship to the adjoining streets
and other buildings?
- Is there a view?
- Is there fencing, planting, terracing, walkways or any other
landscape aspects that contribute to the setting?
Step Two: The visual character at close range
8. Materials at Close Range
- Are there one or more materials that have an inherent texture
that contributes to the close range character, such as stucco,
exposed aggregate concrete, or brick textured with vertical
- Or materials with inherent colors such as smooth orange
colored brick with dark spots of iron pyrites, or prominently
veined stone, or green serpentine stone?
- Are there combinations of materials, used in juxtaposition,
such as several different kinds of stone, combinations of
stone and brick, dressed stones for window lintels used in
conjunction with rough stones for the wall?
- Has the choice of materials or the combinations of materials
contributed to the character?
9. Craft Details
- Is there high quality brickwork with narrow mortar joints?
- Is there hand tooled or patterned stonework?
- Do the walls exhibit carefully struck vertical mortar joints
and recessed horizontal joints?
- Is the wall shingle work laid up in patterns or does it
retain evidence of the circular saw marks or can the grain
of the wood be seen through the semitransparent stain?
- Are there hand split or hand dressed clapboards, or machine
smooth beveled siding, or wood rusticated to look like stone,
or Art Deco zigzag designs executed in stucco?
- Almost any evidence of craft details, whether handmade or
machine made, will contribute to the character of a building
because it is a manifestation of the materials, of the times
in which the work was done, and of the tools and processes
that were used. It further reflects the effects of time, of
maintenance (and/or neglect) that the building has received
over the years.
- All of these aspects are a part of the surface qualities
that are seen only at close range.
Step Three: The visual character of interior spaces, features
10. Individual Spaces
- Are there individual rooms or spaces that are important
to this building because of their size, height, proportion,
configuration, or function, like the center hallway in a house,
or the bank lobby, or the school auditorium, or the ballroom
in a hotel, or a courtroom in a county courthouse?
11. Related Spaces and Sequences of Spaces
- Are there adjoining rooms that are visually and physically
related with large doorways or open archways so that they
are perceived as related rooms as opposed to separate rooms?
- Is there an important sequence of spaces that are related
to each other, such as the sequence from the entry way to
the lobby to the stairway and to the upper balcony as in a
theatre; or the sequence in a residence from the entry vestibule
to the hallway to the front parlor, and on through the sliding
doors to the back parlor; or the sequence in an office building
from the entry vestibule to the lobby to the bank of elevators?
12. Interior Features
- Are there interior features that help define the character
of the building, such as fireplace mantels, stairways and
balustrades, arched openings, interior shutters, inglenooks,
cornices, ceiling medallions, light fixtures, balconies, doors,
windows, hardware, wainscoting, paneling, trim, church pews,
courtroom bars, teller cages, waiting room benches?
13. Surface Finishes and Materials
- Are there surface finishes and materials that can affect
the design, the color or the texture of the interior?
- Are there materials and finishes or craft practices that
contribute to the interior character, such as wooden parquet
floors, checkerboard marble floors, pressed metal ceilings,
fine hardwoods, grained doors or marbleized surfaces, or polychrome
painted surfaces, or stenciling, or wallpaper that is important
to the historic character?
- Are there surface finishes and materials that, because of
their plainness, are imparting the essential character of
the interior such as hard or bright, shiny wall surfaces of
plaster or glass or metal?
14. Exposed Structure
- Are there spaces where the exposed structural elements define
the interior character such as the exposed posts, beams, and
trusses in a church or train shed or factory?
- Are there rooms with decorative ceiling beams (nonstructural)
in bungalows, or exposed vigas in adobe buildings?
This concludes the three-step process of identifying the visual
aspects of historic buildings and is intended as an aid in preserving
their character and other distinguishing qualities. It is not
intended as a means of understanding the significance of historical
properties or districts, nor of the events or people associated
with them. That can only be done through other kinds of research