The Column - A History of Style

Columns, Posts, and Pillars -- Where Do They Come From?

Need help deciding what type of column your house needs? Browse this illustrated guide to find column types, column styles, and column designs through the centuries.

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Why columns?

Square columns on a grey house with a red door and white shutters
Square columns on a grey house with a red door and white shutters. Photo by BOYI CHEN/Moment Mobile Collection/Getty Images

The columns that hold up your porch roof may look simple, but their history is long and complicated. Some columns trace their roots to the Classical Orders of Architecture, a type of "building code" from Ancient Greece and Rome. Others find inspiration in Moorish or Asian building traditions. Others have been modernized from round to square, like the ones shown here.

A column can be decorative, functional, or both. Like any architectural detail, however, the wrong column can be an architectural distraction. Aesthetically, your column should be the right shape, in proper scale, and ideally constructed from historically appropriate materials. What follows is a simplified look, comparing the capital (top part), the shaft (long, slender part), and the base of various types of columns.

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Doric Columns of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC
Doric Columns of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Hisham Ibrahim / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

With a plain capital and a fluted shaft, Doric is the earliest and most simple of the Classical column styles developed in ancient Greece. They are found on many Neoclassical public school and library buildings. The Lincoln Memorial, part of the public architecture of Washington, DC, is a good example of how Doric columns can create a symbolic memorial to a fallen leader.

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The Doric Look on a Home Porch

Doric columns on a round porch in upstate New York
Doric columns on a round porch in upstate New York. Photo © Jackie Craven

Although Doric columns are the most simple of the Greek Order, homeowners are hesitant to choose this fluted shaft column. The even more stark Tuscan column of the Roman Order is more popular. Doric columns add an especially regal quality, however, as in this rounded porch.

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Ionic Column capitals
Ionic Column capitals. Photo by ilbusca/E+ Collection/Getty Images

More slender and more ornate than the earlier Doric style, an Ionic column is another of the Greek Order. The volute or scroll-shaped ornaments on the ionic capital, atop the shaft, is a defining characteristic. If you've been to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, you've seen how Ionic columns can create a grand and Classical entrance to a domed structure.

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Orlando Brown House, 1835, in Frankfort, Kentucky
Orlando Brown House, 1835, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo by Stephen Saks/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Many 19th century homes of the Neoclassical or Greek Revival style used Ionic columns at entry points. This type of column is more grand than the Doric but not quite as flashy as the Corinthian column, which flourished in larger public buildings. The architect of the Orlando Brown house in Kentucky chose columns to match the stature and dignity of the owner.

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Glass curtain wall facade of New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), designed by George B. Post
A wall of windows behind the colonnade provides ample natural light to the NYSE trading floor. Photo by and © George Rex on flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Corinthian style is the most lavish of the the Greek Order. It is more complex and elaborate than the earlier Doric and Ionic styles. The capital, or top, of a Corinthian column has opulent ornamentation carved to resemble leaves and flowers. You'll find Corinthian columns on many important public and government buildings, like courthouses. The columns on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Building in New York City create a mighty Corinthian Colonnade.

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Mercer Williams House, 1868, Savannah, Georgia
Mercer Williams House, 1868, Savannah, Georgia. Photo by Marje Cannon/E+ Collection/Getty Images

Because of their expensive lavishness and scale of grandeur, Corinthian columns were rarely used on Greek Revival houses of the 19th century. When they were used, as on this house in Savannah, Georgia, the columns were scaled down in size and opulence compared with large public buildings. The scroll-like flourishes on the capitals bring these columns closer to a Composite style, a less well-known type of column.

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Corinthian-Like Composite Columns and Arches
Corinthian-Like Composite Columns and Arches. Photo by Michael Interisano/Design Pics Collection/Getty Images

In about the first century BC, the Romans combined the Ionic and the Corinthian orders of architecture to create a composite style. Composite columns are considered "Classical" because they are from ancient Rome, but they were "invented" after the Greeks' Corinthian column. If homeowners were to use Corinthian columns, they may end up being some type of hybrid, or composite.

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Tuscan Columns in Vatican City, with security camera
Tuscan Columns in Vatican City, with security camera. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Another Classical Roman order is the Tuscan. Developed in ancient Italy, a Tuscan column resembles a Greek Doric column, but it has a smooth shaft. Many of the great plantation homes, such as Long Branch Estate, and other Antebellum mansions were constructed with Tuscan columns. Because of their simplicity, Tuscan columns can be found most everywhere, including on 20th and 21st century homes.

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Tuscan Columns - A Popular Choice

Tuscan Columns on New Construction in New Jersey suburb
Tuscan Columns on New Construction in New Jersey suburb. Photo by Robert Barnes/Moment Mobile Collection/Getty Images

Because of their elegant austerity, Tuscan columns are often the homeowner's first choice for new or replacement porch columns. For this reason, you can buy them in a variety of materials—solid wood, hollow wood, composite wood, vinyl, wrap-around, and original old wood versions from an architectural salvage dealer.

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Bungalow Columns, Square, Tapered at Top
Bungalow Columns, Square, Tapered at Top. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

The bungalow became a phenomenon of 20th century American architecture. The growth of the middle class and the expansion of the railroads meant that houses could be economically constructed from mail-order kits. The columns associated with this style house did not come from the Classical Order of Architecture—there is little about Greece and Rome from this tapered design. Not all bungalows have this type of column, but houses built in the 20th and 21st centuries often deliberately avoid Classical styles in favor of more "exotic" designs.

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Curvy Solomonic Columns at Cloister of St. Paul, Rome
Solomonic Columns at Cloister of St. Paul, Rome. Photo by Pilecka via Wikimedia commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (cropped)

Solomonic columns with twisted, spiraling shafts have ornamented buildings since ancient times. Over the centuries, many cultures have adopted the Solomonic column style. Today, entire skyscrapers are designed to appear as twisted as a Solomonic column.

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Ruins from the Egyptian Temple of Kom Ombo, 150 BC
Ruins from the Egyptian Temple of Kom Ombo, 150 BC. Photo by Culture Club/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Brightly painted and elaborately carved, columns in ancient Egypt often mimicked palms, papyrus plants, lotus, and other plant forms. Nearly 2,000 years later, architects in Europe and the United States borrowed Egyptian motifs and Egyptian column styles.

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Two-Headed Bull Capital on Persian column at Persepolis
Two-Headed Bull Capital on Persian column at Persepolis. Photo by Frank van den Bergh / E+ / Getty Images

During the fifth century BC, builders in the land that is now Iran carved elaborate columns with images of bulls and horses. The unique Persian column style was imitated and adapted in many parts of the world.

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Celebration Town Hall - Columns of Postmodernism

Postmodern columns in front of Town Hall, designed by Philip Johnson, in Celebration, Florida
Postmodern columns in front of Town Hall, designed by Philip Johnson, in Celebration, Florida. Photo © Jackie Craven

Pritzker Laureate Philip Johnson liked to have fun. Noting that government buildings were often designed in the Neoclassical style, with stately columns, Johnson deliberately overdid the columns in 1996 when he designed the Town Hall in Celebration, Florida for the Walt Disney Company. Over 50 columns hide the building itself. They are the thin, tall, square style similar to the first photo in this article.