The Column - Types and Styles

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

illustration of the tops of three column types, the second more ornate than the first and the third is the most ornate
Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian Column Capitals. Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images (cropped)

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.

A column can be decorative, functional, or both. Like any architectural detail, however, the wrong column can be an architectural distraction. Aesthetically, the columns you choose for your home 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. Browse this illustrated guide to find column types, column styles, and column designs through the centuries, beginning with the Greek types — Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian — and their use in American homes.

Doric Column

looking up at the doric colonnade of the Lincoln Memorial, 6 fluted stone columns
The Block Atop the Doric Column Capital is the Abacus. Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images (cropped)

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 schools, libraries, and government buildings. The Lincoln Memorial, part of the public architecture of Washington, D.C., is a good example of how Doric columns can create a symbolic memorial to a fallen leader.

The Doric Look on a Home Porch

Doric columns on a round porch attached to the front of a yellow house
Residential Doric Columns in Upstate New York. 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.

Ionic Column

Ionic Column capitals are characterized by swirling volutes that look like ram horns
Ionic Column Capitals. ilbusca/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. The 1940s-era Jefferson Memorial and other Neoclassical architecture in Washington, D.C. was designed with Ionic columns to create a grand and Classical entrance to this domed structure.

Ionic Columns on the Orlando Brown House, 1835

brick, two-story house with third floor pediment-gable with a fan window, symmetircal window pattern on the facade with a square front entry, flat roof on columned portico
Orlando Brown House, 1835, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Stephen Saks/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.

Corinthian Column

A wall of windows behind the colonnade provides ample natural light to the NYSE trading floor
Facade of New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Designed by George B. Post. George Rex via flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Corinthian style is the most lavish of the the Greek Orders. 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.

Corinthian-Like American Capitals

capital with feathery-like leaves vertically patterned
American Variation on the Corinthian Order. Greg Blomberg/EyeEm/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, the columns were scaled down in size and opulence compared with large public buildings.

Corinthian column capitals in Greece and Rome are classically designed with acanthus, a plant found in Mediterranean environs. In the New World, architects like Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed Corinthian-like capitals with native vegetation like thistles, corn cobs, and especially American tobacco plants.

Composite Column

partial view of a collonade of nine capitals on shafts supporting imposts and arches of stone
Imposts Atop Corinthian-Like Composite Columns Rising to Arches. Michael Interisano/Getty Images

In about the first century B.C. 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 what might be called Corinthian columns, they may really be a type of hybrid, or composite that is more sturdy and less delicate.

Tuscan Column

detailed view of the top of Tuscan columns with security cameras attached
Tuscan Columns by Bernini in Vatican City. Oli Scarff/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.

Tuscan Columns - A Popular Choice

facade of house, two-car garage with jerkinhead roof, dormer over portico with two columns
Tuscan Columns on New Construction in New Jersey Suburb. Robert Barnes/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.

Craftsman Style or Bungalow Columns

The American Dream is pictured in this iconic image of a row of new, Bungalow-style home in the Eagle Park neighborhood development. Most American homes are now built on smaller lots with sidewalks and tree-lined streets in the suburbs of large cities. The architecture reflects old styles, however, the construction of the homes has used modern materials and finishes.
Bungalow Columns. bauhaus1000/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, square-shaped 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 Craftsman-like or even "exotic" designs from the Middle East.

Solomonic Column

Curvy spiral-like columns with a garden area beyond
Solomonic Columns at Cloister of St. Paul, Rome. Pilecka via Wikimedia commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (cropped)

One of the more "exotic" column types is the Solomonic column with its twisted, spiraling shafts.  Since ancient times, many cultures have adopted the Solomonic column style to ornament their buildings. Today, entire skyscrapers are designed to appear as twisted as a Solomonic column.

Egyptian Column

parts of large columns ornately carved with Egyptian figures and designs
Ruins from the Egyptian Temple of Kom Ombo, 150 B.C. Culture Club/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.

Persian Column

Column Capital with two horned bull figures
Capital on Persian Column. Frank van den Bergh/Getty Images

During the fifth century B.C. 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.

Postmodern Columns

over 50 tall, square columns obscures the facade of this Town Hall
Postmodern Columns, Town Hall Designed by Philip Johnson, Celebration, Florida. Jackie Craven

Columns as a design element seem to be here to stay in architecture. 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 that are often found in contemporary house design — whether or not they have the Classical values of symmetry and proportion.

Source

  • Inline image of contemporary house with postmodern columns courtesy BOYI CHEN/Getty Images