Building Language: Ornament

Written by on October 2, 2012 in Building Language - 1 Comment
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Inscription "Murat" on the Murat Theater (502 North New Jersey Street)

Ornament. I’ve realized I’ve thrown this architectural term around with some frequency without really analyzing what it means to the historic architecture of Indianapolis. Ornament is a broad term that applies to architectural detail that is primarily decorative in nature that can serve to emphasize or accessorize the architecture of the building. Ornament can help highlight important architectural features, while certain types of ornament can indicate architectural styles or even ownership, uses, and other important details of the building. Most architectural styles throughout history have some architectural ornament that is identifiable to that specific style, the exception being the International Style, which aimed to strip down the building to remove all ornamental features.

We’ve covered several ornamental features in past Building Language columns, including dentils, egg-and-dart, spindlework, bargeboard, finial, half-timbered, cornerstone, and cartouche.

There’s no way to completely cover all the wonderful ornamental features you might find in Indianapolis, but I thought I’d cover several which you might find in some frequency.

Center Bay of Shortridge High School (3401 North Meridian Street)


Painting and Sculpture inscription, Shortridge High School (3401 North Meridian Street)

Many buildings feature some type of written words as part of the architectural ornament on the structure. This may be practical text, such as the name of the building, or more philosophical in nature, highlighting the uses and function of the structure. The Murat Theater (502 North New Jersey Street) features several inscriptions along its elevations. This example features the simple text of “Murat,” identifying the title of the structure. However, the inscription is designed in a way to complement the rest of the ornament on the exterior. Shortridge High School (3401 North Meridian Street), a Classical Revival structure designed by Kopf and Deery, features a band of inscription along the center bay on its primary elevation (west). The inscription features the names of several classical academic courses with contemporary concepts, including painting, sculpture, music, poetry, drama, education, culture, commerce, industry, philosophy, and ethics. The practice of putting names of subjects was very common among historic school buildings.

Classically inspired relief on Shortridge High School (3401 North Meridian Street)


A relief is a design that projects from a flat background; the design is almost seamlessly formed out of the background material. Drawing upon Shortridge High School once again, you will find some excellent relief panels, including this one on the west elevation. The relief features classically designed figures holding items of the classical arts, such as drama, painting, music, and drawing.

Gable Ornament

The concept of gable ornament is very popular in Victorian homes, including the Queen Anne. As the Victorian styles heavily relief on wall ornament, the gable ornament only serves to strengthen the overall ornament scheme on a Victorian.  The historic home at 1413 North Delaware Street features a wonderful scroll feature within the gable over the entrance porch. The use of red paint as an accent only serves to highlight this unique feature. The Victorian residence at 1520 East 10th Street features gable ornament on its south and west gabled ends. This triangular ornament is included within the fishscale shingle pattern. However, a foliated (floral/follage) design is found within the gable as additional ornament.

Gable ornament on 1413 North Delaware Street

Gable ornament on 1520 E 10th Street

Add it to your vocabulary – how might one use today’s Building Language term in their everyday life?

Did you need to paint the ornament such a bright pink color?

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About the Author

Raina Regan is an architectural historian employed by the Indiana National Guard. Her work encompasses statewide cultural resources projects with National Register eligible or listed structures. Raina has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Visual Culture from Michigan State University and a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Ball State University. Raina is an Indiana import by way of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan and loves the culture and architecture of the Midwest.

One Comment on "Building Language: Ornament"

  1. Marilyn Jacobs October 4, 2012 at 12:45 pm · Reply

    I went to Shortridge and remember walking in the front door noticing many of the items you pointed out. I loved this place.

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