Architectural Cornerstones: The Meaning, History, and Intent

This Toronto building, originally a church, features two different cornerstones.

This Toronto building, originally a church, features two different cornerstones.

In relation to architecture, a cornerstone is traditionally the first stone laid for a structure, with all other stones laid in reference. A cornerstone marks the geographical location by orienting a building in a specific direction.

Cornerstones have been around for millennia, in some shape or form. In ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, the equivalent of a “ground-breaking” ceremony was the “foundation ritual” which allowed the gods to protect a building. “Foundation deposits,” or hollowed out stones filled with small vessels, animal deposits, and other symbolic items, were standard in the construction of temples, palaces, tombs, and forts. Depending on the type of structure, the deposits were placed at the corners of buildings, or at points of importance in a structure, such as the entrance. This ensured that remains of the building’s original content were preserved with the structure throughout its life, until demolition.

This Philadelphia Navy Yard building features a cornerstone over the entrance indicating 1874 as the year of construction.

This Philadelphia Navy Yard building features a cornerstone over the entrance indicating 1874 as the year of construction.

Over the years, cornerstones have served a variety of purposes. As a means to preserve time, buildings have been marked with a numerical representation to remind people when the building was erected. This has given correlation to architecture and the design of the time. Additionally, cornerstones have become a strong symbol of a new era. They have indicated prosperity and opportunity—showing a sense of pride for what is possible at the time of construction. Cornerstones have also been turned into pieces of memorabilia, marking present buildings or denoting previously standing buildings. One example is the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s building, formerly Dayton’s Department Store. At the exterior base of the building is a plaque telling the story of the site’s previous tenant, Westminster Presbyterian, which was destroyed by fire in 1895. George Draper Dayton, the owner at the time, believed that the story, and recognition, of the church was important to display on the new building, even though the church had relocated to its current location at 12th Street and Marquette Avenue South.

This Philadelphia Navy Yard building was erected in 1904, as indicated on the cornerstone on the facade.

This Philadelphia Navy Yard building was erected in 1904, as indicated on the cornerstone on the facade.

As the commemorative qualities of cornerstones have become recognized, the locations of craftsmanship have expanded to stones near or above the front door of a building. Architects have used these spaces to declare ownership of the building’s design. There are many instances around Minneapolis and Saint Paul where the architect has left their name in the stone of the building.

Today, cornerstones are more commonly placed ornamentally as interior walls, the floor, or the façade of a building, depending on whether the intention of the stone is inscription or preservation. Often laid with a ceremonial trowel by a person of prominence, a local celebrity, or politician, it can be said that the primary purpose of a cornerstone is the publicity that comes with the ceremony. Preservation, in some cases, has become as important as the marking of a building as is seen with time capsules, hollowed-out stones filled with popular objects, or something significant to the occupants of the building at the time of completion.

Meet the Architect: Wale Falade

Wale Falade, Architect

Wale Falade, Architect

From where do you draw your inspiration?
Everyone and everything around me. Sometimes, the greatest ideas can come from the simplest conversations.

What should every home include?
A TV—it’s the 21st century fireplace.

What design element do you think people should use more?
You’ll be surprised how simple alignments make design look deliberate and ordered.

What colors or materials are you loving right now?
I love wood but I am looking for an opportunity to do something in adobe or rammed earth.

What's one of your favorite design memories?
This may sound weird but building a paper scale model of a house between ages 8-9 and then setting it on fire. Maybe I was trying to convey something existential about design? Who knows!

Besides that, I recently enjoyed working with a client on a shorefront house in New Jersey. It was a mutually engaging design process.

Shop the Look: Updated Classic Bathroom

A clean and modern bathroom remodel by NewStudio Architecture blends with the home's early 20th century aesthetic.

Recently completed, this Minneapolis basement remodel by NewStudio includes a new full bathroom with sauna. Special care was taken in making the space feel comfortable and clean—key for a basement—while also presenting a quality of detail and materials consistent with the home’s early 20th century craftsmanship.

Shown in the photo above, the new bathroom vanity features a marble hex tile floor, tile wainscot, and beadboard walls. The sink is an updated take on the classic console, while matte black hardware throughout adds a modern touch to the space. A frosted glass window insert above the sink disguises the glass block behind while also providing access for cleaning.

Finishes

Hardware & Fixtures

Lastly, the cedar sauna, glimpsed to the right in the photo, is custom by Superior Sauna of Ashland Wisconsin. The glass wall is held in place by CR Laurence clamps in Matte Black.

Meet the Designer: Jan Mankarious

Jan Mankarious, Interior Designer

Jan Mankarious, Interior Designer

From where do you draw your inspiration?
As Grace Coddington, creative director for US Vogue, once said, “Always keep your eyes open. Keep watching. Because whatever you see can inspire you.” I try to get my inspiration from everything I see around me—nature, buildings, and even people. You will be amazed by what you can be inspired by.

What should every home include?
Every home should include something I call the “relaxation innovation corner.” I believe that everyone—no matter what you do for a living—is looking to find a place to relax and get innovative. It might be a corner in a room, or a whole room, but it’s a place to paint, draw, listen to music, read a book, enjoy a nice view, or practice your hobby. In this space you can forget about your problems and gain the energy you need to continue!

What design element do you think people should use more?
I consider seven elements in every design: space, line, form, light, color, texture, and pattern. All of these elements are important, although many people focus on color and light. I would like to see more texture incorporated into designs. Texture can play a part in every object selected, so care and consideration must be taken in order to add depth and contrast to a design.

What colors or materials are you loving right now?
For me, it’s less about a specific color or material, and more about what creates balance in a design. I have learned not to love or hate a specific element, since all can work together to bring a wonderful and unique design. Think of elements, such as color and material, as a team, and I, as the team manager, have to find a way to make them work together perfectly.

What's one of your favorite design memories?
Every project I work on leaves me with design memories, since each one is unique. However, nearest to my heart was the designing of the Sonesta Hotel Extension in Cairo, Egypt. The challenge was to design a new 10-story extension to an existing and well-known hotel, that was in keeping with the original spirit while also bringing a unique look.

Client Perspective: Reflections on a Whole House Remodel

NewStudio clients Ben and Lindsey enjoy spending time in their remodeled kitchen because it is centrally located.

We recently caught up with our clients Ben and Lindsey, to find out how they’re enjoying their remodeled lakefront home. We also asked them about their experience taking on a large remodel, and they offered some advice for anyone looking to do the same.

What were you hoping to accomplish with your remodel?
When we moved in, the floors were covered in white carpet and the house felt very formal. We wanted to transform the look and feel of the house, so it aligned more with our social and active lifestyles. We also wanted to keep the exterior unchanged to keep the feel of a cabin in the woods.  

What did you find were the benefits to hiring an architect and interior designer to help you complete this project?
Allowing the professionals to do what they do best helped our vision become a reality without forcing us to make all the small decisions. The interior design team simplified the process for us. They have great vision, and an amazing eye for detail. The fixtures, colors and materials they picked fit perfectly in our space. 

The Lego Room is tucked away behind a bookshelf door.

What advice would you give to someone looking to do a residential remodel of their own?
Find someone who understands you and your needs. We built a great working relationship with Sean, and his team, over the course of the project. In that time, they developed an understanding of what happens during an average day at our house and what it’s like when the boys come home from school and need a quiet space to study, or when we’re hosting guests for dinner, or when fifteen of our friends arrive for a weekend of sailboat racing. Sean developed a plan that works both for our cozy family activities and our large social gatherings. For Sean and his team, it’s not just about moving walls and rearranging the layout, but rather understanding our priorities and our lifestyle. Our best advice is to find someone who is willing to spend time doing that. 

What is your favorite detail that was added in the remodel?
Sorry, we can’t agree on this one! Ben likes the unique wood wall that runs throughout the house, and the different countertop materials in the kitchen. Lindsey enjoys being able to see the lake from almost anywhere in the house. You can stand at the sink and wash dishes with a majestic view of the lake.

Did you find that the addition of a Lego® room and wine cellar have made you want to buy more Legos and wine?
Recently, we’ve been buying more whiskey and Scotches since the wine cellar has become more of a man cave! I suppose it’s been rebranded as a ‘secret multi-use space.’ We have also really enjoyed having a home for the Legos. Before the remodel, we frequently had to warn our guests to watch their step, but now all the Legos are contained in their own secret space, far away from the shoeless feet of our adult friends. 

Where is your favorite place to spend time with family and friends?
The kitchen, because you are always in the middle of the action. 

What part of the house the house brings you the most joy?
Each of us has our own favorite place in the house. For Ben, it is the extended deck. For Lindsey, it is the screen porch. For the boys, it is the secret Lego® room. And for all of us, it changes often—we have lots of favorite places!

A custom spiral staircase leads to a hidden wine cellar.