Why are Full Cornice Returns (AKA Mutton Chops) disliked here?

nepoolApril 20, 2014

Hi everyone,

I'm making final decisions on the exterior of my new house and am wondering why so many posts here show a dislike for full cornice returns (mockingly called mutton chops or pork chop returns). Is it the returns that are disliked, in general or is it that they are misused on the wrong architectural styles? I'm going to have a gable on the front of my house and a small gable on the front porch, am going for a French Country look (house will be mostly creamy stone), and not sure how I should do the porch and gables. Are full returns 'wrong' for a French country/European/English cottage look? I don't really have a strong opinion on full cornice returns, but noticed many posts with a strong dislike of them.

The article below, says full returns are 'historically and accurately accurate' but isn't clear what period these go with.

Later I will post the prints for my front exterior.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Here is a link that might be useful: Cornice Returns

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wondering why so many posts here show a dislike for full cornice returns (mockingly called mutton chops or pork chop returns).

I confused, the link you posted states it is the box cornice with overhanging rake that is called a pork chop return, not a full cornice return.

According to the book, Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid by Marianne Cusato, Ben Pentreath, Richard Sammons, Léon Krier, âÂÂThe pork chop return, a boxed out eave with no distinction between the horizontal and angled elements, is one of the most common details in contemporary house construction. Never use it. It does not belong in the traditional vocabulary. It is an over-simplification of the box eave that will be out of scale with the house.âÂÂ

    Bookmark   April 20, 2014 at 9:48PM
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I haven't seen a discussion on cornice returns here, yet. And I can't see how a "full cornice return" would ever be called "mutton chops" based on what I see on that link.

So I'm going to assume you mean the box return. Based on that link, I think the problem is that they are cheap. Simple, easy to do, and won't cost you a lot to have the builder do. The styles that the author is suggesting are a lot more complicated, and offer more detail to the house.

If you're building a house that demands high end detail, and then you go and cut corners (almost literally in this case) you're not going to get the high end look you're looking for.

The other thing is that the author specifies TRADITIONAL architecture. If you're building a contemporary house, then "frilly" details like this would be out of place.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2014 at 11:00PM
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>> The other thing is that the author specifies TRADITIONAL architecture. If you're building a contemporary house, then "frilly" details like this would be out of place.

Quoted for TRUTH. The last two would look incredibly out of place on MCM, especially after we change up the roofline in a few years. They would also detract from a craftsman.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 6:27AM
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It's all about architectural consistency and an understanding of architectural styles/history. Thus the choice of roof eves, fascias, cornices, soffits and the like depend on the architectural style of the house. It's simple really!

Whether or not one "likes or dislikes" a particular detail is less important than knowing which details are appropriate and which are not. Unless, of course, one's goal is to have "patchwork quilt" collection of random and unrelated architectural details characterize one's house!

The problem of unrelated details arises when builders and/or owners (even some architects) either don't know about and respect architectural styles and consistent detailing or don't care. IMO, it's really not about budget, since there are many imaginative ways to echo a historically correct detail if one can't afford to build it accurately.

Fortunately, many builders and owners (and architects) take pride in knowing and using historically appropriate details.

Knowledge is power, but first one has to have the knowledge, which makes learning about architecture fun and enjoyable!

Good luck on your project!

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 8:59AM
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This is a fully-outfitted return:

We all know what a "mitten" looks like.

These pics were snagged off photobucket, BTW.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 7:35PM
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Well, now, this thread got me curious. I drove through my 1950's development this afternoon and kept a look out for the types of returns. The homes were all built by one builder, are on narrow lots, basically 1200 or 1400 sq. ft rectangles. The narrow side facing the street has a Chicago-style picture window and front door. To vary things, the original owners had choices on the roof style in front - hip (very rare) or a gable: full width (very rare), larger - over the window or smaller - over the front door. The last two are the most common, probably 50-50 split. (My personal preference is a hip roof, but mine has the large gable over the window.)

Anywho, to my surprise, there are a few that have a gable return (option three in the link from the OP). It seems these were all lost (including my home) when the original owners covered everything with aluminum trim to eliminate painting - turning them into a "box cornice with overhanging rake" (option two). (These are all brick homes, so only the gutters, soffit, fascia, frieze and gables needed painting.) Pretty surprising to have this sort of detail on a cheap-o 50's tract house. The aluminum siding and gutters need replacing - will have to keep this in mind.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 8:30PM
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Sophie Wheeler

It's usually done cheaply, badly, and inappropriately. As are many Nouveau Ecclectic homes. They are poor patchwork quilts with no integrity or authenticity.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 9:44PM
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So is this one bad, or good? I'm trying to figure out when its appropriate to use them, and what is a better alternative to finish a gable on a traditional home. From Houzz:

Traditional Exterior by Boston Architects & Designers david phillips

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 9:59PM
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Those last are traditional gable returns, so they are done properly. One of the keys to these is to get the little bit of "roof" on them pitched adequately but not angled up too much.

The front gable is done properly. The gable return on the dormer is probably done properly but there are other proportion and window-size issues with that dormer. That's a different discussion.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2014 at 10:33PM
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Appears to be inconsistent fascia treatment when comparing gable fascias with "turret" or whatever that form is on the upper left.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 8:46AM
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Like most enduring architectural details, the Greeks invented the cornice return. It is a very elegant design that is well understood by experienced carpenters and architects but sadly not well know to homeowners or many home builders.

A "mutton chop" is not a different kind of cornice return but the absence of a cornice return. The cornice simply ends and is covered up with a board in the shape of the severed cornice. Instead of allowing the cornice moulding to turn and continue for a short distance at the end of the eave, a mutton chop simply chops off the cornice and covers its profile with a flat board that looks a lot like a cornice return that has been removed and badly patched.

The reason this issue is so poorly understood today is that the Greeks did not attach gutters to their cornices and therefore could use a very elegant wrap-around detail that is still copied today. Today the crown and fillet of a Greek eave is replaced with a flat board that supports a gutter. At the end of the eave a builder must choose to end it with a flat board (mutton-chop) or carry the gutter around the corner onto the rake. The gutter return costs more than the mutton-chop so there you have the justification of the ubiquitous mutton-chop.

As for French Country Style, it is, in general, a style made up by
American designers and cannot be found in the country side of France.

An architectural historian will tell you that the French never used front facing gables like the English did and therefore did not develop a tradition of cornice return details. Until the English discovered the antiquities, they allowed the end wall of their gables to expand and cover the end of a cornice. This is seen in the Cotswold Cottage and the Tudor styles which are the basis of most American eclectic French and English house designs.

The prototype of an American version of a French house is a steep hipped roof and a turret with a pointed roof at the entrance. You won't find them in France but they were wildly popular in America in the 20's and 30's.

If you want a French inspired house build with masonry and avoid all cornice returns or mutton chops.

This post was edited by Renovator8 on Tue, Apr 22, 14 at 20:03

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 7:33PM
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Thanks, that was very helpful.

I think my house would be classified as "English Country" vs "French Country" since I'm building a stone faced home with rough cut stone, with an overgrout technique, and 2 gables (small gabled porch with larger gable behind). So no full cornice returns for me, nor Mutton Chops.

I agree, authentic French country homes are 2 story flat fronts. However, I'm sure today's newly built homes in the French country look nothing like that- The Europeans love 'modern' looks and finishes and many many new homes there are now built with no historical architectural details. Ikea style is all the rage!

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 8:48PM
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Nepool said, "... Ikea style is all the rage!..."

And more's the pity!

My guess is that Ikea my sell more products in the U.S. than in Europe, but I was interested to note in my travels to Beijing, that they too have an Ikea, in the middle of central downtown Beijing--so who knows?

Good luck on your project!

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 10:06PM
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My guess is that Ikea my sell more products in the U.S. than in Europe

No, Ikea is very big in Europe.

Personally, I don't find "English Country" or "French Country" to be very descriptive because the country houses there vary a lot depending on what part of the country you are in. But I guess that makes sense because they are American thoughts on how English and French county houses look.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 10:16PM
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A common theme of 'old world' European homes are a stone exterior. I enjoy homes with the type stonework, shutters, in the photo below. I, of course, don't have the funds to build anything to the scale and finish of this, alas, but will try to get as close as my budget will allow.

Re: Ikea- You'd be hard pressed to find a new home/apartment or remodeled home in Europe that is not outfitted with Ikea-style kitchens and baths. Europeans have old world beauty around them everywhere they turn- in the streets, at their work, etc.. Clean and modern is very appealing and 'different' - at home. The old world stuff, to many of them, is just "old".

Traditional Landscape by Atlanta Landscape Architects & Landscape Designers Joe A. Gayle & Associates

    Bookmark   April 22, 2014 at 10:41PM
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There seems to be a misunderstanding about what a cornice return is. Some use the term to mean any treatment of the end of a cornice which leads to the contradictory statement that a "mutton chop" is a kind of cornice return.

The term "cornice" refers to any projecting roof edge whether the roof is flat or sloped and traditional cornices are usually decorated with molding.

Modern builder roof overhangs are not decorated other than with a gutter and if that same shape (gutter and all) turns at the end of the cornice and continues across a part of the gable wall it is said to "return".
If the cornice stops at the gable wall it is said to not have a cornice return. Since the rake trim is usually not large enough to cover the end of the cornice, a flat triangular piece of trim is added that looks somewhat like "mutton chop".

This detail looks especially awkward on a masonry building. The way the English solved this problem was to step or corbel the wall out to meet the rake which had little or no trim. The French, of course, avoided this issue by using hipped roofs that have a continuous cornice on all sides of the roof.

Therefore French and English rural designs based on medieval traditions should not have cornice returns or mutton chops.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2014 at 8:42PM
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Aargh... I think I have one.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2014 at 10:48PM
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No one will notice because they will be focused on that beautiful entry and stonework! What stone is that? Gorgeous!

    Bookmark   May 5, 2014 at 11:07AM
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Thank you nepool. It is called Windsor gray, and is a blend of gray, buff and cream stone quarried in the hill country of Texas. Most of the front is full stone. For weight's sake, the mason dressed the tower in half-stone-inside and out.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2014 at 1:08PM
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