This is the first of a series of posts titled IN DETAIL: , a series in which we will delve into detail on a specific architectural detail that we in our practice find intriguing and worthy of greater discussion. Visitors to Charleston, SC will often marvel at the grand residences and public buildings that date from the 17th to 19th centuries that populate our beautiful city. Many of these buildings are of masonry construction. Typically in those time periods the walls were constructed of solid masonry, consisting of multiple wythes (layers) of brick, sometimes left exposed and sometimes plastered over with stucco. Stuccoed brick is often scored in a subtle block pattern to replicate the look of larger stone blocks. Stone blocks construction was more expensive that brick construction at that time, so the buildings designer sought to emulate the look. A result of this construction technique are thick walls that often range from 12 to 18 inches in depth. When door and windows occur in these thick walls, a significant exposure is evident and addressed.
Below: a private historic residence in Charleston, SC
This deep opening was referred to as a window embrasure. They were often splayed towards the interior, but orthogonal embrasures were not uncommon. Architects took advantage of this depth to incorporate interior shutters within the wall thickness. These shutters would dock within a cavity in the wall while open, appearing as part of a paneled window threshold, thus being visually unobtrusive. These were then closed at night for privacy and protection from the elements.
Below: embrasured shutters at the North Carolina Historic Capital building
Depending on the size of the window, these would either be bifold or a single shutter on either side. The pocket where the shutter was stored often is paneled as well so that when the shutters are closed, the threshold still keeps its paneled appearance. Embrasured shutters are a detail typical to the colonial period but are almost unknown today. This is largely due to modern construction techniques in wall construction. That does not preclude us from incorporating this wonderful detail in our work. In our studio we have incorporated these into several of our projects when deemed appropriate. When budget does not allow for functional shutters, we still use a paneled embrasure on our windows when we can dress a deeper wall threshold condition.
An example of this is in one of our current projects under construction shown above. We incorporated bookcases into the walls, thus thickening the thresholds to allow shutters in some places and paneled thresholds in others. The next time you are in a historic masonry building, look at the windows and you might see what you originally missed.