vault commercial building

Isaac Kremer/ November 15, 2020/ / 0 comments

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.

Vault commercial building, Detroit, Michigan.

Beginning in the early 19th century this idea was sometimes used in a generalized way for a few banks, churches and other places of assembly. Treatment of the facade tends to be very simple, reflecting neoclassical taste at that time. Mid-19th-century examples remain the exception but now may be elaborately decorated.

The vault as a common type did not emerge until the turn of the 20th century as part of the academic movement. Widespread use continued for several decades, most often for banks but also for movie theaters and, on occasion, retail facilities. As is typical during these years, the expression given to such work is varied. With banks, specific or vague references to triumphal arches may be made, yielding results grand or simple. In other cases, the prevailing character is inspired by Renaissance Italy or 18th-century France. Louis Sullivan and Prairie School architects following his example devised a version devoid of classical motifs, with a bold, plain mass offset by clusters of exuberant decoration of their own making. By the 1920s, work done in a classical vein may be somewhat similar in spirit, contrasting abstract form with embellished details.

Early 20th-century theaters — first nickelodeons, then larger movie houses — sometimes use the same motif, but the facade is often wider to accommodate the movement of crowds. The vocabulary is classical, frequently interpreted in a freewheeling manner, without even generalized allusions to specific past periods. In character, these structures tend to emphasize fantasy rather than the dignified reserve befitting financial institutions. This vivaciousness continues in designs done in the 1920s. However, in large urban examples the facade also may have a monumental presence, making it a landmark, especially in major neighborhood shopping districts.

In buildings from the 1940s, when improvements in ventilating systems and the introduction of air conditioning limited the need for windows in the upper levels of large retail stores, the vault motif is sometimes employed to mitigate the effect of otherwise blank wall surfaces and to give the exterior an elegance appropriate to the building’s function.

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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac D. Kremer, MSARP, is an agile leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the U.S. The prior two downtowns he managed were named Great American Main Street Award Semifinalists. Isaac is a much sought after speaker, having presented at over 30 conferences. Through speaking and writing he has influenced hundreds of fellow practitioners.

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