Iron fronts were frequently put onto existing buildings as a way of giving them an up-to-date appearance.Except for expanding the display window area to the maximum extent possible and the increasing use of canvas awnings, few major technical innovations in storefront design can be detected from the 1850s through 1900.Photo: Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web Commercial establishments of the 18th and early 19th centuries were frequently located on the ground floor of buildings and, with their residentially scaled windows and doors, were often indistinguishable from surrounding houses.In some cases, however, large bay or oriel windows comprised of small panes of glass set the shops apart from their neighbors.Awnings of wood and canvas and signs over the sidewalk were other design features seen on some early commercial buildings.The ground floors of large commercial establishments, especially in the first decades of the 19th century, were distinguished by regularly spaced, heavy piers of stone or brick, in-filled with paneled doors or small paned window sash.The first decades of the 20th century saw the growing use of decorative transom lights (often using small prismatic glass panes) above display windows; in some cases, these transoms could be opened to permit air circulation into the store.
Once a decision is made to rehabilitate a historic commercial building, a series of complex decisions faces the owner, among them: This Preservation Brief is intended to assist owners, architects, and planning officials in answering such questions about how to evaluate and preserve the character of historic storefronts.
In so doing, it not only addresses the basic design issues associated with storefront rehabilitation, but recommends preservation treatments as well.
Finally, although the Brief focuses on storefront rehabilitation, it is important to review this specific work in the broader context of preserving and maintaining the overall structure.
Thin structural members of cast iron or wood, rather than masonry piers, usually framed the storefront.
The windows themselves were raised off the ground by wood, cast iron or pressed metal panels or bulkheads; frequently, a transom or series of transoms (consisting of single or multiple panes of glass) were placed above each window and door.