When my wife and I bought our 1850s farmhouse, it had none of
the typical details I would expect to see on a home of the
Greek Revival period — wide corner boards, built-out
rakes, a heavy frieze, boxed cornice returns. So I set out to
learn how to re-create those trim elements, using my place as a
I started by studying my neighbors’ houses, then hit the
bookstores and libraries. Although 18th- and 19th-century
American builders borrowed many details from Greek and Roman
architecture, construction references from the period are hard
to come by. Probably the most helpful are the books by Asher
Benjamin, who in the early 1800s wrote and illustrated several
texts specifically for carpenters. His carefully drawn plates
surely inspired many New England buildings, and they helped me
better understand classical proportions and details.
Since practicing on my own house, my company has completed a
number of projects in the Greek Revival style, both new
construction and renovations (see photos, above). This article
focuses on how we lay out and build the tricky cornice returns,
using PVC trim instead of pine (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. On an authentic Greek Revival
cornice, the crown molding along the eaves turns up the rake,
which slightly elongates the rake profile. Also, the fillet
— the narrow strip at the base of the crown —
splits in two, running up the rake and along the top of the
cornice return. To avoid having to fabricate two crown profiles
— not to mention some tricky carpentry — most
builders of traditionally styled homes substitute the simpler
“poor man’s cornice.”
Our most recent project was an overhaul of the Captain Loring
House, circa 1850. Although the house’s original crown
molding had the traditional ogee profile (Figure 2), much of it
was in rough shape and some sections had been replaced with
newer moldings that didn’t quite match. This was
especially noticeable at outside corners, where various
handymen had tried to cover up botched miter cuts with lead
flashing and caulk.
Figure 2. Considering its age, this
mid-19th-century Greek Revival cornice (left) has held up well.
Note the split fillet where the rake crown molding resolves
into the profiled wood gutter along the eaves. At right, the
author’s modern interpretation.
The problem is that where a rake molding returns along a
plumb-cut eaves fascia, as on a true Greek Revival, the molding
gets narrower and the profile changes. Had we chosen to
replicate the original ogee molding, we would have needed to
order custom shaper knives to create the matching profiles. And
because the house had several roof pitches, we would have
needed a different set of cutters for every pitch.
I knew that this approach was too expensive; instead of a
profiled crown, we would use flat stock with a 55-degree spring
angle, as I had on previous jobs. The big advantage of a flat
crown — besides the fact that it can be made from
standard square-edged stock — is that there’s no
profile to match at the corners.
I began by drawing scale section views through the rake and
eaves, taking the building’s existing 8-inch soffit as
the starting dimension (Figure 3). The drawings gave me the
sizes of the various pieces of PVC stock we would need, and
helped us visualize how we would create the fillet — the
square-edged piece at the base of the rake crown, which splits
at the corner and runs horizontally along the eaves and back
the other direction along the top of the cornice return. This
is a key element of the true Greek Revival style — a
detail we’d have to get right to mimic the
Figure 3. Starting with the known
dimensions shown here, the author used scale section drawings
to figure out framing and trim dimensions along the eaves and
up the rake. Note the 3/4-inch fillet at the base of the crown
— a key element of the Greek Revival style.
Even with the section drawings, it was difficult to visualize
the corner where the rake meets the eaves. I’m no math
wizard, so I decided that we would work out the compound miters
and other unknowns before going up on the roof (Figure
Figure 4. Using a mockup of a 12-over-12
roof (top left), carpenter Dave Crosbie first tacks pieces of
the rake profile to the frame, letting the flat crown run long.
Then, using scraps of trim, he determines the point against the
fascia where the eaves crown intersects the rake crown (top
right). Accounting for trim thickness, he sets jet blocks for
the soffit (middle left), then carries this elevation around
the corner to set the return at the same height (middle right).
After capping the return and adding fascia and rake trim
(bottom left), he finds the crown miter angles by trial and
error and visually determines the width of the narrower eaves
crown (bottom right).
Using a mockup of a 12-pitch roof corner, lead carpenter Dave
Crosbie first tacked pieces of the rake trim in place along the
fly rafter, letting them run long at the bottom. Then, by
butting pieces of the eaves trim against the rake trim, he was
able to determine the exact point against the fascia where the
mitered eaves crown meets the mitered rake crown.
Working down from that point, he established the elevation of
the soffit, based on the dimensions on the drawing. He then
attached jet blocks to the bottom of the rafter tails and
projected this elevation back around the corner to establish
the placement of the cornice return framing. Finally, he was
able to easily establish the exact width of the narrower eaves
crown and to determine the exact compound miter angles that
would be required.
These compound cuts were anything but obvious, and changed
with every roof pitch. Using mockups and trial and error, we
eyeballed our way to some surprising angles. For a 12-pitch
roof, for example, the eaves crown called for a 35-degree angle
with a 48-degree bevel, while the rake crown board required a
10-degree reverse angle (meaning the long point of the cut is
at the bottom of the crown) and a 48-degree bevel.
The first step in fitting the trim was framing the gable
overhangs. We ripped the ladder stock from 2x8s, assembled the
ladders on the ground, and installed them with TimberLok screws
(Figure 5). For the PVC trim, we followed the same installation
sequence we had used for the mockups, starting at the gable
peak and working down to the eaves.
Figure 5. Overhang ladders ripped from
2x8s attach to the gable with TimberLok screws (top). Since
it’s mitered at both ends, the carpenters work the PVC
trim from the ridge down in sections (middle). Seams are glued
with Bond&Fill (bottom).
We glued the joints with Bond&Fill SlowCure (877/822-4615;
bondfill.com), a sandable
waterproof adhesive made for use with PVC trim.
At the eaves, we temporarily tacked the fascia and crown in
place, letting them run long so we could establish the eaves
soffit line. We then framed the eaves soffits, using jet
blocks, just as we had done with the mockup.
Once the soffit elevation was established, we could frame the
cornice return (Figure 6), a distinctive feature of this trim
style that seems to go by many names; Dave calls it the
“bird box.” The length of the box is somewhat
arbitrary — whatever looks “right” relative
to the rake and frieze above and the corner board below it. The
frieze elements under the eaves wrap around the top of the
corner board and return to the wall below the cornice,
suggesting a column capital.
Figure 6. Shims at the back provide a
slight slope to the cornice return’s cap (left). After
the return is finished, the bottom section of the rake soffit
can be installed (right).
Once the eaves framing and bird box were in place, we
installed the PVC soffit boards on the eaves and the box,
followed by the face trim and cornice top. We ripped the top of
the cornice from a piece of 1x12, installing it with just
enough slope to allow for runoff (Figure 7).
Figure 7. The eaves frieze wraps the
corner and works in conjunction with the cornice to create the
illusion of a capital over the corner board
“column” (left). Lead flashing caps the cornice,
and the rake frieze dies on top (right).
We then installed the bottom section of the rake soffit board,
which we fitted to the sloped angle of the cornice top, sealing
the joint with Bond&Fill. The rake frieze lands on top of
the cornice, over a piece of lead flashing.
The flat crown extends the edge of the roof considerably
forward of the rafter tails, so we added triangular nailing
blocks behind it and brought the roof sheathing to its back
edge. The roofing was an architectural-grade asphalt shingle,
but instead of applying a metal drip edge, we used
pressure-treated red cedar shingles so as not to detract from
Trevor Kurz is president of Kurzhaus
Designs in Orleans, Mass.