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CIRCA School: Ionic Columns

by Jon Valalik (photo by New Jersey City University)

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.
The ionic column is one of the most popular among all types of buildings in American architecture. It’s part of the larger Ionic order, which includes several other elements and guidelines, but the column itself, specifically its unique capital, is the most recognizable part.


The large Ionic scrolls of the Charles Pierce House. Photo courtesy of CIRCA.

According to Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect and writer, the inspiration for the Ionic order were slender, feminine qualities. The volutes, or scroll-like ornament on either side of the column, along with carved festoons of fruit that sometimes appear between the scrolls, took the place of graceful, curling hair, while “the folds in the robes worn by matrons” inspired the flutes of the columns shaft.
The scrolls, “hanging down at the right and left like curly ringlets” as Vitruvius described them, are the defining feature of an Ionic column, and though there are guidelines regarding its parts and proportions, they are flexible. Builders and architects frequently modify and adjust certain aspects to fit into their designs, whether for artistic or budgetary reasons. One of the most well known alterations to the original Ionic capital was to shift the volutes at the corners of the capital to 45-degree angles. This slight modification appears in Rome at the Temple of Saturn, built in the 4th and 5th century BC, but was popularized by the Venetian architect Vincenzo Scamozzi during the Italian Renaissance. What appears between the scrolls can also differ from building to building, though most often it is some variation of an egg-and-dart pattern or festoon.
ionic capitals

Ionic capitals with scrolls turned 45-degrees at a home in the Washington-Willow historic district of Fayetteville, AR. Photo Credit Brandonrush.

Ionic columns in American homes, like anywhere else, vary widely in ornament and intricacy. Early Ionic columns in the United States were often made of wood, and typically less ornate because of the lack of affordable skilled craftsmen. State capitols, museums, courthouses, and other types of public buildings are often home to Ionic columns as well, though they are typically of the large, extravagant, stone variety.
Ionic columns are a classical architectural element and their versatility has made them an ideal choice for architects and builders for thousands of years. They can be applied to any number of building types and when executed correctly they add a significant sense of style and refinement to a home.



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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