Enframed Window Wall

Isaac Kremer/ November 15, 2020/ / 0 comments

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.

Most commonly used for retail stores, one-story enframed window walls from the early 20th century usually have a large glazed area for display and a simple surround. Decorative elements tend to be modest, in keeping with the facade’s size. Sometimes they incorporate specific historical motifs, sometimes not. Window treatment may vary when the type is used for other functions. With banks, for example, the sense of openness common to stores is neither necessary nor desirable.

Art Deco example of enframed window wall, Northern Manhattan, New York, 2005.

Art Deco examples often continue the spirit of simplicity found in buildings of earlier decades. In many cases the surround is more overtly treated as an abstract form and may give the facade a sense of massiveness, counterpointing the large, central window area. Elsewhere, the surround itself may be composed as a sign. Postwar designs often emphasize the surround as a planar surface. Again, the details may be modified according to use. Restaurants and night clubs, for instance, may have few if any windows, with different veneers providing the compositional pattern instead.

Multistory versions built in the early 20th century tend to demarcate each level with spandrels; however, the emphasis given to this enframed section makes it read as if it were an insert, remaining subordinate to the surround. Unlike the two-part commercial block, there is little or no separation between the retail floor at street level and the upper floors housing offices, storage rooms or other functions. These buildings are larger, and the decoration of their surrounds is often more elaborate. The type is also used for retail facilities of four or more stories ; in such cases, the ground floor is treated as a discrete compositional unit that frequently echoes the much taller surround above.

Art Deco examples of the multistory version tend to be similar except in their use of details; in some cases, however, the enframing pattern is repeated laterally to form several units. For post—World War II buildings, pronounced changes are visible in sizable retail facilities. Part or all of the central section is often deeply recessed to provide a dramatic display area sheltered from the elements. The position of interior floors sometimes is not indicated, sometimes only suggested. Enframing and enframed sections contrast sharply with one another, yet they are orchestrated to make the entire facade read as a conspicuous display unto itself. Modifications of the type were also made to suit the requirements of movie theaters built from the 1920s through the 1940s. With these examples, the center section contains the entrance at street level, a large ornamental wall and/or window surface above and a marquee treated as an integral part of the unit in between.

See all Architecture / Type / Commerce

Diagram of enframed window wall, 1 story.
Diagram of enframed window wall, multiple stories.
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About Isaac Kremer

Isaac Kremer is a transformational leader with a track record of success revitalizing downtowns in the United States. He has written and spoken extensively. He's always on the lookout for new and innovative ideas to unlock the potential of downtown areas.

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