Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam


Cornices (a Concise History)

17th Century

Keizersgracht 177 (1625)
cornice in the style of Dutch Classicism

Cornices were built from about 1660 onwards. In the 1660s and 1670s, however, they were usually combined with pilasters. This type of facade was the proven solution for large double mansions. A splendid example in Dutch Classicist style is Keizersgracht 177 (1625), built for the Coymans Brothers by the architect Jacob van Campen. Van Campen built an attic with windows above the cornice. Unfortunately, 19th century builders tampered with Van Campen's building by raising the top floor. This supreme early example of the austere classicist style was way ahead of its time. Philips Vingboons preferred another solution for his double houses. He often built saddle roofs - the ridges running parallel with the facades - with dormer- like structures in the middle so that there was ample space for large triangular frontons. His approach is clearly illustrated by Kloveniersburgwal 95 (built for Joan Poppen in 1642) and 77 Kloveniersburgwal (1650, the so-called Bambeeck House). Adriaan Dortsman predominantly applied himself to the "flat style". The pilasters disappeared and plain flat facades became popular. The straight cornice is crowned by an attic in the shape of an open or closed balustrade. Some examples: Keizersgracht 604 (1670), Keizersgracht 672-674 (Van Raey Houses, 1671), Herengracht 462 (Sweedenrijk, 1672). Keizersgracht 604 has a closed brick balustrade which puts even more emphasis on the rigorous austerity of the facade.

Simple wooden cornices are a predominantly 19th century feature, but they occurred as early as the 17th century. The small weavers' houses (1670) built by Vingboons are good examples. Quite a few of them survive today: 16 and 19 Weteringstraat, 5-7 2nd Weteringdwarsstraat, 33 3rd Weteringdwarsstraat and 4-6 Vijzelgracht. The cornice has been reduced to a mere gutter board.

18th Century

Herengracht 554
Herengracht 539

Throughout the 18th century the prevailing gable top for double houses consisted of a straight cornice crowned by an attic, while the use of a raised middle section was optional. A splendid example of a Louis XIV cornice with an elegantly curved open balustrade and a prominent middle section is Herengracht 475 (De Neufville House, 1731/33). The middle section is flanked by recumbent figures. More examples: 164, 446, 476, 480, 495, 520, 543, 548 and 554 Herengracht, as well as Herengracht 433, 498 and 539. Most houses are characterised by partly open balustrades, but Herengracht 539 has a closed one.

Round 1770 the cornice with large triangular fronton made a come-back. The favourite decoration was XVI or late Louis XV. Examples: Herengracht 493 (1766/67), Herengracht 527 (1770), Keizersgracht 409 (±1771).

Not until the 18th century were ordinary single-plot houses provided with cornices. But these tall and narrow single houses required a top gable to hide the ridge of the roof from view. The steep roofs, placed at right angles to the canalsides, were not supposed to rise above the top gable. Therefore some kind elevation was often added. Three main types can be distinguished:

  • open balustrade with closed middle section
  • closed attic
  • attic resembling a top gable

Cornice with Open Balustrade and Closed Middle Section

OZ Voorburgwal 237 (1736) Singel 36 (1763)

Often the cornice is crowned by a balustrade (open or partly closed) with a closed middle section. Usually this middle part protruded beyond the upper edge of the balustrade: a so- called crest. (As was demonstrated above, this type was also a common solution for double houses.) Examples: Herengracht 342 (1720), Oudezijds Voorburgwal 237 (1736), Keizersgracht 756 (1738), Damrak water front (back elevation of Warmoesstraat 16. 1740); Herengracht 491 (2nd quarter 18th century); Keizersgracht 77 (±1755); Singel 24 (circa 1760); Singel 36 (1763); Oudezijds Voorburgwal 97 (3rd quarter 18th century).

Cornice with Closed Attic

Keizersgracht 317 (1712) OZ Voorburgwal 215 (2nd quarter 18th century)

The straight cornice with closed attic is a variation on the theme described above. Examples: Keizersgracht 248 (1710), Keizersgracht 317 (1712), Herengracht 284 (1728), Herengracht 252 (±1730), Singel 30 (±1730), Singel 292 (±1740), Oudezijds Voorburgwal 215-217 (2nd quarter 18th century).

Cornice with Attic Resembling a Top Gable

Singel 320 (1st quarter 18th century) Singel 318 (±1750)

Attics which closely resemble top gables are very frequent. Among the many examples are: Oudezijds Voorburgwal 185 (±1730), Singel 462-464 (±1735), Herengracht 592 (±1740), Herengracht 114 (±1750), Singel 318 (±1750), Rembrandtplein 20 (3rd quarter 18th century).

Yet another solution to the problem presented by the steep roof was to make the cornice itself curve upwards. This type, very popular throughout the 18th century, is called the raised cornice. A whole range of lavishly decorated cornices of this type developed in due course. Whereas Herengracht 434 (1735) appears a little naive, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 14 (1735) has a cornice which is almost a bell-shaped gable look-alike.

19th Century

Geldersekade 8 (±1775)
cornice and hipped roof

At the end of the 18th century, the straight cornice crowned by a large triangular fronton above the central bay became fashionable. The fronton seems to hover over the gable, seemingly uninterested in entering into a relationship with the lower part of the facade. Examples: 176 Singel (circa 1780/1800); 83 Damrak (circa 1800); Damrak water front (back elevation of 34 Warmoesstraat, circa 1800); 14 Zeedijk (circa 1800). Straight cornices in combination with hipped roofs are much more frequent. Examples: 8 Geldersekade (circa 1775); 146 Keizersgracht (1780); 202 Herengracht (circa 1780); 610 Keizersgracht (circa 1790); 124 Prinsengracht (circa 1790); 164 Singel (circa 1780/1800), 83 Damrak (circa 1800); 43 Keizersgracht (circa 1800); 206 Keizersgracht (circa 1800); 78 Singel (circa 1800); 14 Zeedijk (circa 1800). 40 Herengracht (1790) is a rare example of a double house built in this style.

An illustrative example of the way 19th century builders "updated" houses: the splendid neck-gable (left) is replaced by a straight wooden cornice (right).

The successor of the late 18th century cornice is the extremely simple 19th century wooden cornice. Usually no attempts were made to hide the roof from view so that the protrusive ridge is visible above the cornice. 19th Century builders frequently applied this solution to single houses. An extremely large number of older gable tops were modified and turned into cornices. At this time many neck-gables fell victim to rigorous updating procedures which often resulted in "decapitating" the original gable.

At times the ridge of the roof is "smoothed over" by an indifferent dormer window or a hipped gable (a small triangular shield). One example is 42 Singel. Yet another solution is a small wooden gable top rising above the straight cornice (2 Zandhoek).

Herengracht 241
cornice front "the fibber"

Sometimes the facade is elevated to the point where the cornice rises above the roof. Appearances are deceptive, for this trick makes the house look larger than it really is: a so-called fibber. Example: Herengracht 241.


Special thanks to the Amsterdam Bureau of Monuments and Archeology website,