HP 206 Historic Structures and Sites

Prof. Thomas Visser
University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program

Building Description Tips

For formal building descriptions, the following information should be included (although not necessarily in this order):

building current name
building historic name
date constructed (approximate if necessary)
architect or builder if known
street address
roof type
entrance locations and features
windows and sash
decorative features
wings or ells
alterations (with approximate dates)
known missing features or alterations

Example 1. (From a district National Register nomination)

This large, hip-roofed, vernacular duplex dwelling is the southern-most of a pair of houses located on the west side of Main Street, south of its intersection with Duck Pond Road in Barton, Vermont. South of these houses, Main Street widens into a highway, U. S. Route 5. This two-story, rectangular house is set substantially above the level of Main Street about fifty feet from the edge of the road. Its massing and shape, with the steeply-pitched hipped roof, suggest the American four-square architectural style. The building is, however, a duplex. Fenestration generally is of one-over-one windows, six bays wide by two bays deep.

The roof is covered with composition shingles. Two concrete block chimneys protrude from the north and south ends of the ridge of the roof. Although the house has recently been covered with vinyl siding, no significant exterior detail has been lost and the original clapboards appear to be intact beneath.

The front facade of the building faces east toward Main Street and Crystal Lake. A three-bay, Queen Anne style front porch extends across the building. It features a central gabled pediment, turned wooden porch columns, and a turned wooden valance. The porch has a railing and balusters constructed from plain boards. It is skirted with wooden latticework. The first story front wall has paired central doors. Flanking these paired doors are three-sided bay windows. On the second story of the facade are six windows. The center two are set closely together. A hipped-roof dormer with a pair of one-over-one windows projects from the center of the roof.

The south facade of the house has two windows on both the first and second stories. In the center of the first story wall is a pair of sliding glass doors. These modern doors lead to a pressure-treated wooden porch.

On the north facade of the house, a single one-over-one window is located at the east end of the first story. Close to the center of the wall are two windows. At the right end of the wall is a pair of recently installed, single-pane, rectangular windows with metal frames. An original one-over-one sash window is located on the second floor above the center window and another similar window is located near the west end of the second story.

The rear of the house has a central, wooden, hipped-roof porch flanked by paired one-over-one windows. Three pairs of one-over-one windows are located above the first floor openings.

Example 2. (From an individual National Register nomination)

Located atop a low knoll approximately 120 feet west of the St. Albans-Highgate Road (Vermont Route 207) in Swanton, Vermont, the Jennison House stands as the centerpiece of Rockledge Farm. The east-facing building was originally a two story, 5-by-4 bay, Federal style, wood frame house with a one-story kitchen ell. Between 1918 and 1922, Clark Saxe Jennison transformed the early 19th century farmhouse into the Colonial Revival style summer estate house which stands today. The house is now composed of a clapboarded main block with symmetrical wings, and a partially enclosed shed-roofed porch at the rear which spans the width of the main block and north wing.

At the time of the summer estate remodeling, the grounds were landscaped. Rows of sugar maple trees were planted in front of the house, continuing a line of maples planted much earlier. A stone wall was built parallel to the road in front of the house. This wide, dry-laid stone wall is punctuated by stone piers flanking a walkway to the front door of the house and flanking both entrances of the driveway. This U-shaped, gravel driveway runs behind the house. Several smaller outbuildings, including a caretaker's cottage, a pump house, and agricultural outbuildings, were added to complete the estate.

Directly opposite the house on the east side the St. Albans-Highgate Road, Clarke Saxe Jennison added to a complex of agricultural buildings for dairying and training horses. He moved an early 19th century horse barn from behind the Jennison House. The hay barn was originally the Swanton Center meeting house which was sold at auction by the Congregational Church and moved and converted into a barn in 1868. The entire complex of barns burned to the ground in 1988.

The central portion of the Jennison House sits atop a foundation of exposed local redstone, while the wings are built on poured concrete foundations. The foundations are partially masked by a wide wooden splash-board. The 5-bay wide front facade is symmetrical. The central front entrance is composed of the original doorway with fluted tapered pilasters carrying a full entablature, all flanked by 6/6 sidelights. The entrance sits within a circa 1918 porch sheltered by a pedimented gable roof on a full entablature, which is carried by two pairs of square, fluted, tapered columns and matching pilasters. The windows on the main block have 12/12 sash. The tops of the second story windows engage a molded cornice, which is carried by corner pilasters with molded capitals. The roof of the main block is painted, corrugated steel. From the ridge rise two interior brick chimneys.

The north and south facades of the main block have pedimented gables with semicircular attic windows. Inspection from the interior suggests these fanlights were added during the circa 1918 renovations. Two bays of 12/12 windows fill the front halves of the north and south facades, while 4-by-3 bay, Colonial Revival style wings extend to the north and to the south. From the center of the western roof plane of the south wing rises a brick chimney.

The front, east-facing facades of the north and south wings are identical in their fenestration and ornamentation. The four bays on these facades are delineated by pilasters which stand in pairs at both ends and as singly between the bays. The pilasters carry a full entablature at the first story ceiling level. The first and fourth bays have 14-light paired casement windows. Above these windows are coffered, solid-panel transoms which engage the entablature. The second and third bays have French doors. Above these doors are small transoms bearing a semi-circular, rayed motif. Above the entablature, the wall is clapboarded and trimmed with a corner pilaster that mimics the pattern of those on the main-block. Twelve-over-twelve windows engage the roofline entablature in the first and forth bays of the second story.

The ornamentation of the pedimented gable ends of the two wings is similar to that on the front facades with paired pilasters at the corners and single pilasters between each of the bays. Each of the three bays contains a casement window on the first story, with the exception of the center bay of the north wing which has no window but is clapboarded instead. Above each bay are coffered, solid-panel transoms, except for the center bays that have the same semi-circular rayed design as used on the front. The first story entablature of the north and south ends of the wings is an extension of the entablature found on the front facades of the wings. There are two 12/12 windows on the second story of the north and south facades of the wings.
The rear facade of the south wing is similar to the front facade, except that the second and third bays have been clapboarded, instead of containing French doors. The second story wall is clapboarded, with a 12/12 window engaging the cornice in the first and fourth bays.

A single-story, shed-roofed, clapboarded, addition extends along the rear facade of the north wing and the main block. Three irregularly spaced 12/12 windows line the north third of the west wall of this rear addition. A small clapboarded enclosure extends from near the center of the north third of the addition. This gable-roofed enclosure shelters stairs leading down to the basement of the house. Near the center of the rear addition is an enclosed screened porch with a door just left of center. A 12/12 window is located on the rear facade south side of the porch opening. The addition has an 8/8 window centered in the south-facing wall.
The interior of the Jennison House reflects the Colonial Revival styling evident on the exterior. On entering the house from the front entrance, one is greeted by a formal entry hall that extends through the building to a broad, two-stage stairway. This grand stairway pauses at a wide landing before reversing and continuing to the second floor. The first two steps of the staircase have a gentle curve. The skirt boards of the staircase are decorated with an ornate fanning feather motif. The newel-post is turned in a spiral pattern, and square balusters support a polished walnut hand-rail. The dominant feature of the center hallway is the circa 1918 Palladian window above the landing on the west wall of the house. The walls are decorated with molding fields laid out to give the effect of panels.
To the south of the central hallway is a formal parlor that extends the full depth of the main block. Centered on the north wall of the room is a fireplace, decorated with ornate Colonial Revival style moldings and pilasters and a firebox surround made of glazed encaustic tiles. The walls in the parlor have the same faux-panel treatment as the entrance hall. The window trim appears to be circa 1918, but the muntins and sash bars of the windows may be original. The Colonial Revival style doors have six panels with circa 1918 trim that matches the windows. Most of the hardware in the house also probably dates from the early 20th century. A cornice molding encircles the entire ceiling.

From the parlor, bi-fold French doors lead to the south wing, which is a single large, tile-floored, garden room. A large fireplace similar in styling to the parlor fireplace is centered on the west wall. Large casement windows and French doors leading to the slate patios on the east side.

Through an archway at the rear of the parlor, is a small study situated in the shed roofed addition on the west facade of the main block. This room was reportedly used as the farm office. A door in the north wall of the study leads to a small mud room, with a door in its north wall leading to the rear porch. A door in the west wall of the main block, leads back into the house, into a back hall connected to the main entry hall.

To the north of the central hallway, through a door opposite that which leads to the parlor, is the formal dining room. Its decoration is similar to the parlor, although the molded fields stop at a chair-rail that caps a wainscoting of raised panels. There is a large fireplace on the west wall, also with a tiled firebox surround. Like the parlor, a cornice molding encircles the dining room at the ceiling.

To the west of the dining room, through a door to the right of the fireplace is a butler's pantry with a circa 1918 sink, and built-in, glass-fronted, cupboards. The chimney from the fireplace in the dining room is exposed on the east wall of the pantry. A window at the west end of the butler's pantry looks out over the area of the back porch enclosed with louvers. A passage to the south of this pantry leads to the main entry hall. A closet opens off the east side of this passage, while a bathroom opens off the west side.
A passage door on the right side of the north wall of the pantry leads to a sunroom extending along the east side of the north wing. The walls of this room have the molded fields common throughout the first floor. The east wall is comprised predominantly of casement windows and French doors that lead to a slate patio.

A door located in the center of the north wall of the butler's pantry leads to the kitchen that has been recently renovated with glass-fronted cupboards, new counters and modern appliances. On the east wall of this room is a circa 1918 call box for summoning servants. To the right of a plastered chimney that presumably once vented the cook stove, a door leads to two rooms that originally served as quarters for servants.

The main staircase leads to a central landing on the second floor from which an axial hallway runs north and south through the length of the main block of the house. A small hallway off the east side of the main hall leads to a small bedroom room. A door in the south side of this hall leads a bedroom that occupies the southeast corner of the second floor.

Two bedrooms flank the upstairs hall in the main block. The east room has a fireplace on the west wall, and a door in the south wall leads to the small bedroom room in the central bay that was mentioned above. The upstairs hallway extends into the north wing where it is flanked by a linen closet on the east side and a full bath on the west. This hall continues to a bedroom at the north end of the house. This bedroom has built-in stained wooden bench seats in the northwest corner and a small bathroom off its southwest corner.

The south section of the upstairs hall has one door on the west side which leads to a full bath and dressing room. The hall terminates at a doorway leading to the master bedroom that occupies the entire top floor of the south wing. A fireplace with tile surround dominates the west wall, and a door on the north wall leads to the dressing/bathroom. A retractable staircase leads from the upstairs hall to an unfinished attic.