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CIRCA School: Coffered Ceilings

by Jon Valalik (photo by Leo Schneggenburger)

Grab your No. 2 pencils, everyone! It’s time for CIRCA School, where we uncover the fascinating facts behind everyone’s favorite old house details.
This week in CIRCA School, we’ll be moving indoors to look at coffered ceilings. Coffered ceilings are another one of those ancient architectural elements that have been around for thousands of years, and will likely never go away due to their ability to turn an otherwise boring and often overlooked ceiling into something far more interesting!


The elaborately coffered ceiling of Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Photo by Richard Mortel.

Coffers are recessed panels, typically square or octagonal in shape, in ceiling vaults and domes. Both materials and decoration used in embellishing a coffered ceiling can differ from place to place. The level of decoration also varies, and can range from a simple sunken square in a ceiling to elaborately painted and plastered octagons.
These ceilings are ubiquitous in ancient public buildings throughout Europe, and the Pantheon in Rome is perhaps the most famous example. In the Pantheon, the purpose of the recessed panels was to reduce the amount of concrete used, thus reducing the weight of its massive dome significantly. In addition to weight-reduction, the coffers of the Pantheon also give a visually interesting appearance, rather than a simple, smooth face.

Coffers in the Pantheon dome. Photo by Richjheath.

Many homes in the United States have what would be considered a coffered ceiling, but the technique used to achieve the affect is much different than those found in the work of ancient Greeks and Romans. In American homes, coffers often appear where ceiling beams cross, as in the case of the cover photo in this post. To enhance the decorative value, ornate molding is usually added to these beams.
The Harper House in Hickory, North Carolina is a great example of an American home with these wooden coffers. Not all coffers in the United States are constructed in this way, however. Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, used concrete coffers in the great room and kitchen when he designed the Tonkens House in the 1950s.

The concrete coffered ceiling in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tonkens House. Photo by WorldArchitectureMap.org.

Coffers have spanned the globe and can be seen in a variety of styles of architecture. They add an appropriate level of interest and texture to what would otherwise be a flat, uninteresting part of a building. They’re so desirable, in fact, that many newer homes, and homes that don’t use heavy timber beams, are having faux coffers installed. So next time you’re visiting an old home, remember to look up, and you may be lucky enough to witness some yourself.


Jon grew up in South Carolina and studied Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. His time in Charleston sowed a deep appreciation for both classical and vernacular styles and the importance of their conservation. He is currently working in Charlotte, North Carolina and hopes to break into the field of architectural preservation soon.


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