It’s a sad fact that the artisans and craftspeople who created some of the most beautiful, distinctive interior and exterior architectural elements for residential buildings are an endangered species. The proliferation of sleek, glass-and-steel architecture, combined with the rising cost of materials and labor have made the ornate, heavily-ornamented facades and interiors of prewar buildings truly things of the past. Now, the stonemasons, sculptors, and other craftspeople are aging or gone; fewer and fewer are taking up their trades as demand for them has dwindled.
“Stonemasons that used to carve stone—that type of person is very hard to find nowadays,” says Joakim Aspegren, a principal with New York City-based Architecture Restoration Conservation. “There’s not as great a need as there used to be fifty or a hundred years ago.”
The Age of 3D
While the near-extinction of architectural artisans themselves is cause for concern, there is a silver lining here. The availability and affordability of old-fashioned architectural elements is changing, thanks to new technology and so-called '3D printing' that enables designers and architects to use digital imaging software and cutting-edge fabrication techniques to create not only exact replicas of ornate cornices, moldings, and other building elements, but to create them from scratch, custom-built for brand new construction projects. Indeed, in the future, the technology may be used to diversify and enrich residential architecture in ways that up to now have been cost-prohibitive.
The diversity of American architecture, from the ornateness of the early twentieth century, the celebration of modernism in Art Deco and contemporary styles in later decades gives urban centers their personalities. And preserving the older buildings has a great deal to do in maintaining that diversity. The artists who restore building elements, whether using 3D printing or more traditional methods, provide the elaboration that collectively makes cityscapes as interesting as they are today.
Jill Kenik, for example, the president of Rhode Island-based Acropolis Studios and a pioneer in computer-based fabrication technology, often works in miniature. “My role in recreation of historic building components is primarily in replication and reproduction of the smaller fine details, such as door knobs, discreet signage, door or drawer pulls, window latches—things along those lines,” she explains. “Most often I work in metal and am tasked with reproducing metal components. I sometimes refer to what I do as ‘jewelry for the buildings.’ It’s the attention to those little details that help to make the historical buildings so wonderful.”