All About Arches

Arches add interest to any façade and provide important hints to the architectural style of the home.

October 1, 2005

Arches are everywhere—over doors, porches, windows, and hallways. They were born to serve as a powerful structural tool, allowing rooms to extend without the interruption of any vertical supports or columns. But today they're more about style than structure.

Arches come in many shapes, from rounded to pointy and quite a few variations in between. The architectural styles that each arch represents also vary widely. But one thing is certain: an arch adds something special to the house where you find it.

By learning about the various types of arches, you can pinpoint the property's architectural style and highlight their contributions to the overall aesthetics of the home to potential buyers.

The Arch Over Time

Arches first appeared many centuries ago as a support tool for underground drains and vaults built by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Assyrians. Their core function: to distribute the weight of the wall outward instead of straight down.

With the help of Ancient Romans, arches emerged from the underground and were used for the first time in public buildings and residences. The spectacular religious and civic buildings that we so admire from the past couldn't exist without the clear-span capabilities afforded by the arch.

The introduction of sturdy steel-frame construction system during the 1800s largely replaced the arch as a structural tool and introduced it to the role it still holds today—decoration.

Many Shapes, Names

Arches can range from fairly functional to fantastic. By examining the shape, you can deduct what style the home is, although there are no cut-and-dry rules. Here are some examples of arches that are commonly associated with certain architecture styles.

  • Round or Roman. This arc forms a semi-circle. Often made of masonry, Roman arches still stand in the Coliseum. You can find this type of arch in a variety of styles, including Italianate and Italian Renaissance, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Spanish Eclectic or Spanish Colonial. It's important to note that unlike the Romans, ancient Greeks did not use arches; a Greek Revival house will feature straight lines and Classical columns but very few curves.
  • Segmental. A segmental arch has a partial curve, somewhat like an eyebrow. These arches are seen in Italianate and Colonial Revival styles. One of the earliest examples of a segmental arch in the West is the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, Italy, which was built in the 14th century.
  • Gothic or Pointed. Pointed Arches are almost always associated with the Gothic Revival style, which came to America from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and includes architectural elements from the original Gothic Period in Europe. You can often find these arches along with other Gothic details such as a steep gabled roof, foil details, gingerbread style lattice work, verandas, and bay and oriel windows.
  • Tudor. Tudor arches are often described as "flattened" Gothic arches. They feature a point at the crown, but the span is much wider than the Gothic style, and they are seen most in Tudor Revival and Gothic Revival styles.
  • Moorish or Horseshoe. A Moorish, or horseshoe arch, extends beyond a semi-circle. The top of the arch is rounded and then curves in slightly before descending. This type of arch is indicative of an exotic and Moorish Revival style seen in the early 20th century. This is not widely seen in the United States and this shape of arch was mostly used on commercial buildings.

Always Exciting

Whether featured in a door, window, or porch, an arch adds focus to an otherwise simple exterior. As part of an already elaborate façade, it adds to the visual excitement.

Rarely does the shape of an arch single-handedly define the architectural style of a home. But you'll identify the overall style with more certainty if you also grasp the basic characteristics of each style—including roof shape, primary exterior materials, window shapes and arrangement, door shapes, as well as any other key stylistic details.

Learn More

Architecture Guide: Arch Types
Read more about basic arch styles and see examples of each.

freelance writer

Linda Legner is a freelance writer in Burr Ridge, Ill., who covers design, engineering, construction, and real estate topics for newspapers, magazines, and businesses. She can be reached at LLwritebiz@aol.com.

Leslie Banker is co-author of The Pocket Decorator (2004) and The Pocket Renovator(2007),  published by Universe.

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