Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture (2000)

Longstreth uses a typological approach and proposes several types for commercial architecture.

Compositional Types
Two-Part Commercial Block
One-Part Commercial Block
Enframed Window Wall
Stacked Vertical Block
Two-Part Vertical Block
Three-Part Vertical Block
Temple Front
Enframed Block
Central Block with Wings
Arcaded Block
Combinations and Exceptions

Two-Part Commercial Block

The two-part commercial block is the most common type of composition used for small and moderate-sized commercial buildings throughout the country. Generally limited to structures of two to four stories, this type is characterized by a horizontal division into two distinct zones. These zones may be similar, while clearly separated from one another, they may be harmonious, but quite different in character; or they may have little visual relationship. The two-part division reflects differences in use inside. The single-story lower zone, at street level, indicates public spaces such as retail stores, a banking room, insurance office or hotel lobby. The upper zone suggests more private spaces, including offices, hotel rooms or a meeting hall. The type has been used to accommodate a wide range of functions and is readily found in almost all forms of commercial development, dominating the core of small cities and towns as well as many neighborhood commercial areas. Read more…

One-Part Commercial Block

The one-part commercial block has only a single story, which is treated in much the same variety of ways as the lower zone of the two-part commercial block. Essentially, it is a fragment of the larger type and should not be confused with the one-story shop, freestanding and capped by a pitched roof, which could be found in settlements during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Rather than appearing somewhat like a small house or service facility on a sizable farm or plantation, the one-part commercial block is a simple box with a decorated façade and thoroughly urban in its overtones. Read more…

Enframed Window Wall

The enframed window wall reflects an effort to give greater order to the facade composition of small and moderate-sized commercial buildings, a goal that became pronounced around the turn of the 20th century. Popular through the 1940s, the type is visually unified by enframing the large center section with a wide and often continuous border, which is treated as a single compositional unit. For surrounds that enframe a facade of one, two or three stories, the width of a front is usually at least twice as great as most individual bays of the one- and two-part commercial block. When the enframed window wall pattern is used on taller buildings, the overall width tends to be less. Examples can be found more frequently in urban business centers than in small towns. Read more…

Stacked Vertical Block

Soaring land values and the corresponding demand for ever-taller buildings in urban centers during the second half of the 19th century led to the development of three new compositional types, all vertical in configuration. In each case, the underlying aim was to create a means of expressing the special qualities of this new building form. One of these types is the stacked vertical block, which embodies the characteristically Victorian taste for picturesqueness and variety. Used for buildings with five or more stories, the type has at least three horizontal divisions. Each section is treated in a different manner, and none of them receives appreciably more emphasis than the others. Read more…

Two-Part Vertical Block

In its mature form, the two-part vertical block began to be used during the late 19th century as a means of simplifying the exterior composition of tall commercial buildings. Reflecting the academic movement’s concern for order and unity the facade is divided horizontally into two major zones that are different yet carefully related to one another. The lower zone rises one or two stories and serves as a visual base for the dominantshaft,” or upper zone. Many large two-part commercial blocks built during the early 20th century were treated in a somewhat similar manner (124). The essential difference between the two types is the size of the upper zone and the emphasis it receives. The two-part vertical block must be at least four stories high to possess a sufficient sense of verticality. It is further distinguished by a clearly prominent upper zone, rather than appearing merely to have several stories placed atop the lower zone; in addition, the upper zone is treated as a unified whole. The type is most commonly used for office buildings, department stores, hotels and, occasionally public and institutional buildings…

Three-Part Vertical Block

The three-part vertical block is identical to the two-part vertical block except that it has a distinct upper zone of generally one to three stories. Thus, the composition is analogous to the divisions of a classical column: base, shaft and capital. The type has much the same history of development, with experiments in vertical three-part composition beginning around the 1850s. Read more…

Temple Front

With facades derived from the temples of Greek and Roman antiquity and treated as one compositional unit, temple-front buildings are generally two or three stories high. Early examples of the temple front in the United States date mostly from the 1820s and 1830s, when the Greek Revival mode enjoyed widespread popularity. Unlike the types examined so far, the temple front was not developed primarily for commercial use; it was most often employed for public, institutional and religious buildings. Yet it was also a distinguishing feature of many buildings, which, until the mid-19th century, had little in common with the appearance of other commercial structures. Two versions of the type are common to banks during this first period. One version has a portico of four or more columns extending across the façade (prostyle). The other version has a recessed entrance fronted by twin columns set between sections of enframing wall that read like thick piers (distyle in paritis). Read more…


Generally two to three stories high, the vault has a facade penetrated by a large, tall and comparatively narrow center opening and sometimes by much smaller ones on either side. The distinguishing motif is somewhat similar to the enframed window wall, yet the visual effect is quite different. Massiveness and enclosure are emphasized over enframing open interior spaces. When side elevations are exposed, they are treated in a complementary and subordinate manner much like the temple front. On the other hand, the vault has no specific historical lineage. Rather, it is an abstraction based on the idea of an enormous opening in an otherwise solid wall— an idea associated with fortified complexes from ancient times through the 19th century with building elements such as the entry zone of some Italian Renaissance palaces and with monuments such as triumphal arches. Read more…

Enframed Block

The enframed block is generally two or three stories high with most of the facade punctuated by columns, pilasters, an arcade or a treatment suggestive of such classical elements. This main section is bracketed by much narrower end bays, more or less equal in height, to form a continuous wall plane. The end bays may contain windows and other openings. Precedents for the type date at least to 18th-century France. It became popular in the United States around 1900, again under the aegis of the academic movement, and enjoyed extensive use through the 1920s. The enframed block can be found most often on public and institutional buildings, but it also is a standard pattern for banks of the period. Read more…

Central Block with Wings

The central block with wings is characterized by a facade generally two to four stories high with a projecting center section and subordinate flanking units that are at least half as wide and are often much wider. All three parts may read as a single mass, with a projecting centerpiece in the form of a classical portico, or as three related masses with the central one extending both out from and above the wings.

The origins of the type can be traced to the villas of the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Since that time, this three-part composition has been used in a great variety of ways to accommodate diverse functions. In the United States it was employed as early as the 1730s for some large houses. Broader application became widespread at the turn of the 19th century with the emergence of neoclassicism. Over the next 150 years the type was used most extensively for public and institutional buildings. However, during the first three decades of the 20th century, it was also used for many banks. In such cases, the mid-section almost always takes the form of a classical portico and the wings tend to be slightly less wide. Historical references are mostly free interpretations of 17th- and 18th-century architecture in England and France. Read more…

Arcaded Block

Characterized by a series of tall, evenly spaced, round-arched openings extending across a wide facade with no separate bracketing elements at the ends, the arcaded block is generally two or three stories high. The type is ultimately derived from loggias — great arcaded porches — built in Italian cities during the Renaissance.

As with several of the preceding types, most arcaded blocks date from the first three decades of the 20th century. They were designed primarily for banks and large retail stores. Historical references are often to Italian, French or English classical buildings ; however, examples with Romanesque or Gothic details also can be found. Read more…

Combinations and Exceptions

While the types outlined on the preceding pages prevail in cities and towns across the country many commercial buildings do not belong in any one category and others resist them all. Most of these structures date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when departing from standard patterns of composition was not uncommon. A few examples are described here to illustrate the design flexibility that can be found in building composition.

In some cases, combined patterns are a basic characteristic of the type. The lowest section of many two- and three-part vertical blocks employs the same elements as the temple front, vault, enframed block, central block with wings or arcaded block, even though the details of composition may vary somewhat. Yet there are also numerous examples in which the patterns are fused, resulting in a hybrid composition.


ACADEMIC MOVEMENT The dominant influence in American architecture from the 1890s through tile 1920s, emphasizing order and unity in design, expression appropri­ate t0 size and use, 311d adapta­tion of precedents drawn from a wide range of historical examples.

ADDITIVE COMPOSITION Designing parts of a building in such a manner that each appears added to the next, pro­ducing an overall effect that emphasizes accumulation more than a unified hierarchy.

ARCADE   A series of arches supported by columns or piers.

ART STONE Compacted, formed artificial material im­itating stone used as a wall covering and composed of plas­ter and gypsum, plaster and concrete, gypsum and con­crete, or other combinations, sometimes including aggregate and/or pigment.

BALUSTER An upright, often vase-shaped, support for a rail.

BALUSTRADE  A series of balusters with a rail.

BAY  One unit of a building facade, defined either by col­umns or piers or single or grouped openings, such as windows.

CAPITAL  The top portion of a column or pilaster crowning the shaft.

CARRARA GLASS Together with Vitrolite, one of several trade names for pigmented structural glass, an opaque ve­neer produced in a variety of colors And sometimes marbleized or given a mirror finish; used extensively during tile 1930s and 1940s to cover both exterior and interior wall surfaces.

CAST IRON          Iron produced by casting molten ore into molds of a wide variety of shapes and sizes; used for structural members, freestand­ing ornament and components of building facades.

COLUMN   A vertical sup­port; in classical architecture, a usually cylindrical support, consisting of a base, shaft and capital.

COMPOSITION  In design, the arrangement of elements in relation to one another, gen­erally according to a predetermined set of standards or conventions.

CORNICE A decorated, proj­ecting linear element placed along the top of a building’s facade or atop a section of the facade to divide it visually from other sections.

DISTYLE IN ANTIS A re­cessed portico fronted by a pair of columns aligned with the exterior wall surface.

ELEVATION One face or side of a building, generally on the exterior.

ENGAGED COLUMN A column attached to a wall sur­face and generally forming only part of a cylinder.

FACADE   The front, or prin­cipal, exterior face of a build­ing; may refer to other prominent exterior faces as well.

FALSE FRONT A facade that extends well above the rest of tile building, generally to con­ceal a gabled roof and give the impression that a building is larger than its actual size,

FRAMING  The vertical and horizontal members of a build­ing that make up its structure and carry much of its weight; often refers to wooden mem­bers, but may apply to those of iron, steel or reinforced concrete.

FRIEZE   A decorative, hori­zontal band set just below the cornice.

GABLE   A triangular wall seg­ment at the end of a double­pitched or gabled roof.

GLAZING    Windows set in frames as part of a building.

HIGH VICTORIAN A period of design in Great Britain and the United States that emerged in the mid-19th century and lasted for several decades, em­phasizing picturesqueness, va­riety, ruggedness and vigorous modification of historic details.

MARQUEE A sheltering roof over an entry supported by the wall from which it projects rather than by piers or columns.

MASONRY Materials such as stone, brick and adobe used for facing or structural support.

MULLION   A vertical member separating windows, doors or panels set in a series.

NEOCLASSICAL  A phase of design spinning the late 18th and early 19th centuries in which references to ancient Greek and Roman architecture evoke association with those Cultures more than serve as components Of a “timeless” language.

ORIEL WINDOW An angular or curved projection containing one or more win­dows and set in the facade of an upper floor of a building.

ORTHOGONAL GRID A pattern composed of aligned rectangular blocks used for lay­ing out city streets; used worldwide since antiquity and in U.S. communities since the turn of the 19th century.

PARAPET A low, solid, pro­tective wall or railing along the edge of a roof or balcony often used to obscure a low-pitched roof.

PEDIMENT A wide, low­pitched gable on the facade of a classical building; any similar triangular crowning element used over doors, windows and niches.

PIER    A vertical structural support of a building, usually rectangular.

PILASTER    A rectangular ver­sion of a column affixed to a wall surface.

PORTICO A covered space used as an entry or centerpiece to a building and generally sup­ported by columns.

PROSTYLE  An area project­ing from the wall surface and defined by columns supporting a roof.
RUSTICATION Stone blocks separated by deep joints to form a textured wall surface.

SETBACK An architectural device in which the upper sto­ries of a tall building are stepped back from the lower stories.

SHAFT   The cylindrical sec­tion of a column between the base and the capital; also, a tall, continuous portion of a building facade.

SPANDREL A section of wall, often defined as an orna­mental panel, between two ver­tically aligned windows or arches.

STREAMLINING The mod­eling of an object with curved forms to suggest minimal wind resistance when in mo­tion; popular as a design con­vention during the 1930s and 1940s.

STRINGCOURSE A narrow horizontal band projecting from the wall surface.

STUCCO A substance generally made of cement, lime and sand, applied in a fluid state to form a hard exterior wall surface.

SURROUND An ornamental device used to enframe all or part of a window or other opening in a wall.

TERRA COTTA Enriched clay, cast into blocks of almost any form and usually glazed; used extensively in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for wall cladding and deco­rative elements.

TURRET    A small, slender tower usually at the corner of a building, often containing a circular stair.

VITROLITE           See Carrara Glass.


Longstreth, Richard. The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture. AltaMira Press. 2000.