Got Beams? Exploring Ceiling Options in Bungalows

By on 4 February, 2013 in Architecture, Carole King, Historic Midtown with 0 Comments

Pressed metal ceiling adds lots of texture and depth to a ceiling. Photo by Carole King.

Many of us who live in historic districts in Midtown have the good fortune of living in a bungalow. Whenever someone excitedly announces they have purchased a bungalow, my first question is always, “Do you have beams?” If so, they belong to an elite club of old house lovers. I was eager to blog about one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated features of an early 20th century interior — ceilings. The ceiling was the largest and least obstructed plane in any room and it could define the look for the whole room. All ceilings from that time period were not plain plaster but a variety of other materials, textures and finishes.

The living room and dining room in bungalows were given the most attention as these were the public rooms visitors would see. Handsome wooden box beams, most of them merely decorative, were often laid across dining room and living room ceilings, adding coziness and depth to the high ceilings. These beams could be purchased pre-assembled from lumber companies or created by a clever carpenter. Some beams were installed running parallel to each other and others were laid out perpendicular in a kind of plaid pattern. I have one room of each in my 1912 bungalow. Often, the plan included ceiling lighting with a center chandelier and/or naked light bulbs in porcelain fixtures along the beams. Beams were sometimes inset with gilded burlap or linen, wallpaper or maybe even a simple stencil design of stylized roses or ginkgo leaves. Some of us are fortunate to have homes with original box beams intact, but for the rest, modern technology makes it easy and affordable to replace those missing elements. Vendors are available for reproductions which can be attached to the ceiling in a number of different ways. There are even faux grained high density polyurethane beams as well as the real thing purchased from salvage warehouses.

In many rooms without beams artistic painting or stenciling was a way to achieve more character. Designs painted on ceilings were usually popular Arts and Crafts stylized motifs based on nature such as iris, roses, oak leaves, and acorns or even butterflies and dragonflies. Colors were often outdoors hues—the blue-greys and browns of stone as well as yellows and greens of flowering plants. Dining rooms usually had the most elaborate stencils. The ceiling design was frequently based on an architectural element, such as a column capital or egg-and-dart molding, in the room and could possibly have been carried over from the frieze and wall patterns. The trompe l’oeil treatment of depicting with paint objects in realistic detail was also popular in the decorative panels between beams.

Although elaborately wallpapered ceilings had reached their peak during the Victorian era, many Arts and Crafts homes had papered friezes and ceilings well into the 20th century. Friezes were the wide vertical space between the top of the picture molding and the ceiling and could be found in many homes until the 1920s. Idyllic landscapes of meandering streams, stylized trees or even columns of Art Nouveau fruit could wrap the uppers walls above hanging pictures. Less detailed complementary ceiling wallpapers were common in light tones favoring natural hues such as limestone and sand colors accented with eggplant, earthy amber and olive green.

Metal ceilings were first made after the Civil War to cover decaying, cracked plaster and have never really gone out of style especially in commercial buildings. This remains an easy ceiling treatment getting a boost in popularity during the Victorian Revival of the 1980s. Most often found in service areas, metal ceilings were common in kitchens and pantries, downstairs halls and sometimes bathrooms. Reproduction metal ceilings are readily available and are straightforward to install, either nailed directly to a thin layer of plywood sheathing or applied to a grid of wood furring strips. You can also choose from brass, cooper and galvanized steel, all of which can be painted or finished for various effects or just clear-coated for a more industrial look

Repurposed beadboard ceiling with varnished finish. Photo by Carole King.

Beadboard ceilings were a cottage favorite originating as an inexpensive and easily installed finish for informal work areas. Beadboard, also known as tongue-and-groove, was made from scraps of lumber milled with a thin ridge or tongue on one edge and a corresponding groove on the opposite side so that adjoining panels could easily be fit together. Beadboard was very versatile in that it could be either varnished or painted. Beadboard was applied to walls as well as ceilings in kitchens, pantries, bathrooms, outside porches, garages and even under the eaves.

So, if you favor historically correct ceilings for your bungalow, check out www.oldhouseonline.com for a plethora of resources for your restoration work.

Carole King (not the singer, just the hummer) enjoys midtown living from South Capitol Parkway in Capitol Heights where she has lived for 25+years. Carole has been the historic properties curator for the Landmarks Foundation that manages Old Alabama Town for 28 years and is passionate about neighborhoods, their architectural character, their people, and their preservation!

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