What is a Danish manor – theme

Manor House Architecture

By Peter Bering, MAA, Architect

Architecture is divided into periods, during which changing stylistic trends made their mark on the appearance of influential houses. The Middle Ages are divided into two styles: Romanesque (1050-1200) and Gothic (1200-1536). These divisions are clear examples of the desire of historians and others to gain a cohesive picture of the development. Of course Gothic buildings did not disappear over night with the Reformation. The section below briefly describes the principle trends in architectural history from the Reformation and over the following 500 years. The owners of Danish manor houses were avid developers, who wanted to show that they were followers of the changing fashions.

Renaissance (1540-1650)

The Renaissance (= rebirth) was a revival of ancient classical art and originated in Italy. Artists studied classical relics. The result was a powerfully independent artistic style, which, both as a whole and in its details, was inspired by antiquity.

In architecture, symmetry and regularity became mandatory requirements. A text on the subject of architecture defines beauty as a rational, harmonious fusion of all elements, so that nothing can be added or removed without causing detriment to the whole. In terms of masonry, the preference was for smooth surfaces. Gothic rib vaulting gave way to antique vault shapes: barrel vaults, cross vaults and domes.

In the Early Renaissance, ashlar masonry was common. Façades were divided by horizontal bands and crowned by a strong, protruding main cornice with antique corbels. Initially the ornamentation was simple, using slender antique shapes such as Corinthian capitals, channelled pilasters, astragal moulding, ovolo (egg-and-dart) moulding and dentils; but small heads, chubby putti and garlands were also popular motifs. Gradually ornamentation became more lavish with fantasy capitals and acanthus work. Channelling was replaced by vertically rising composite motifs.

The High Renaissance drew on the strict ideals of the past: ancient shapes were cultivated and precisely reproduced. Individual components were even more accentuated. For example, each window was given its own surround, consisting of columns, cornices and a triangular pediment, and the preference was for powerful Tuscan order columns. The Early Renaissance, which emerged here in Denmark shortly after 1536, was mainly evident in handicrafts. On individual buildings, whose construction appears to have been influenced by Northern Italy, the architecture was still Gothic.

The High Renaissance arrived in Denmark via the Netherlands and bore only very few similarities to the Italian style. The curved gables were direct descendants of medieval crenelated gables, while complex spires  were a continuation of slender Gothic spires. The style is often associated with King Christian IV’s major construction activity. Both the tall gables and the spires are contraventions of the Italian ideals. The same was not entirely true of the decoration: antiquity was clearly evident in the columns, pilasters and triangular pediments of the portals and windows.

Hesselagergaard was one of the first buildings in Denmark with Renaissance features. The gables with large semi-circular terminations, the window blankings and the numerous horizontal cornice strips are unique in Danish architecture. They relate to Venetian church gables, indicating a direct connection to Northern Italy in the early years of the Renaissance. Around 1550 a number of fortified manor houses (baronial castles) were built with stair turrets and corner towers, from which the walls could be enfiladed, and with corbelled watchman corridors with embrasures and machicolations.

The tall curved gables, the grey, horizontal sandstone strips in the red masonry and the small triangular pediments above the windows are characteristic of the Dutch and Nordic Renaissance. It is as if the functional sense of the Middle Ages was still embedded in the Danes. There was a certain order in the placement of the windows etc., but deviation was still in evidence in the irregular divisions of spaces.

In the plans for the grounds of Danish manor houses, the ideals of the Renaissance gained some ground. Ulstrup is a beautiful example of a Renaissance complex, in which an attempt was made to invest the manor’s many buildings with a certain order and regularity. A three-winged main building (never completed) opens out towards the home farm with a low gate section as the fourth wing. The home farm is symmetrical, but only partially. The large barn is placed across the central axis, but the main driveway to the courtyard is at the side so as not to cut through the barn. Practicality still takes precedence over stylistic ideals.

Baroque (1650-1750)

The Baroque style emerged in Rome as a successor to the antique idiom of the Renaissance. But the two periods were essentially different. Baroque was all about movement and restlessness. It did not have the calmness of Classicism.  The relief of the façades was accentuated by strongly protruding cornices, which were even curled around vertical protrusions in the masonry (models  and pilasters). In the later Baroque style the protrusions were also curved – both concave and convex façade displacements. Powerful relief played an important role in baroque architecture, which focused primarily on picturesque qualities. The ancient forms were not copied; they were just used for inspiration.

On the whole, Baroque represented liberation from the academic dictates of the Renaissance. Personality was reflected in quite different ways. The boundaries between different forms of art were not strictly cut, so powerful figures in motion interact directly with architectural shapes (conversely, in paintings, there is a powerful, imaginative use of architectural perspectives). Another feature is a strong sense of space. Designers did not regard a room simply as a construction with four walls, but as a cavity cut out of the body of the building.

Alongside the over-the-top Roman Baroque, Northern Italy saw the creation of a more classical, balanced architectural style, more closely akin to the ideals of the Renaissance. The central sections of the buildings were often designed like the end walls  of ancient temples, with whole or half columns supporting an immense triangular pediment. Where columns and pilasters were part of the composition of the façade, the preference was to cover several storeys. Northern Europe was more inspired by Northern Italian Baroque than by that of Southern Germany/Central Europe.

In France, Louis XIV built castles with grounds with rigid axes, and monumental gardens with topiary and fountains. The long façades of the castles were often composed with the ground floor designed like a plinth for the columns of the main floor, with the central section and side sections jutting out like avant-corps.

As in the Renaissance, Denmark drew inspiration from the Netherlands. This led to the country’s affinity with classical Baroque. It was as if the country was finally mature enough to take on the ideals of the Italian Renaissance. At last Denmark had broken away from medieval traditions. Dutch Palladian architecture prevailed throughout the period. Admittedly, though, around 1700 there came a touch of Roman Baroque, and in certain places influences from South Germany and France. At the same time as the introduction of absolute monarchy, Dutch-inspired (middle-class) Baroque gained ground. The style was akin to classic Baroque: simple, chunky columns and triangular pediments. Acanthus work made a comeback in the shape of heavy vines on the façades of houses.

Nysø, rebuilt around 1671-1673, was one of the first Baroque buildings in Denmark. The layout is rigidly symmetrical around a central axis, highlighted by the more lavishly designed central section of the main building. The strongly projecting side wings invest the façade with powerful relief. The roofs are arched in the gables, so at the top the buildings are characterised by the heavy cornice. The medieval tradition, which was still featured in the Renaissance gables, was over. Roofs were still quite steep. The entire layout is symmetrical, and the barn is bisected by the gateway for the drive in the axis.

Until about 1700, Danish architecture was characterised exclusively by the Dutch version of classical Baroque. Like the heavy garlands of foliage, the triangular pediment above the central section and the pilasters were the main features of this architecture, of which Nysø is the finest example. The same is true of the variegated effect created by the grey, natural stone details in the dark red brickwork: a Dutch feature, which can also be regarded as a legacy of the Renaissance. For a short period after the turn of the century, Roman palace architecture led the way. This association was reflected particularly in the predominantly horizontal division of the rendered façades and the broken window surrounds with triangular and segment-shaped pediments.

Rococo (1740-80)

Rococo was predominantly a style of decoration, so much more prevalent in the interiors of buildings than on their exteriors. Nevertheless, some significant manor houses were built in this period. Façades were flatter and acquired a calm, continuous cornice. The grandest houses had a balustrade. A cornice strip above the ground floor may be an indication that it was considered as the plinth of the building.

The Baroque façade scheme with symmetrical highlighting of the central section and side sections was still used, but pilaster strips were replaced by pilasters , and windows were placed in flat niches. Thus the plane of the façade was dissolved in surfaces that were lightly staggered: powerful relief disappeared. Houses were often grey. Asymmetrical cartouches were placed on the wall with no organic connection to the distribution of components. Rocailles, more common in stucco, panels and doors, were another feature. In other words, the shape, from which the style took its name, was barely evident in the exterior architecture.

Actual Rococo manor houses were a rarity in Denmark. It was the King and the people closest to him who were in their element with the Rococo style. Most estate owners stuck to the Baroque style well into the 18th century.

Classicism (1780-1850)

The transition from Rococo to Neo-Classicism and ancient models was exemplified by the so-called Louis Seize style. Denmark acquired its Academy of Art in 1754. In terms of architecture, the new style imported by the French architect, Nicolas-Henri Jardin, Professor of the Academy, led the way. Like its predecessor, the style was associated with interiors and was principally decorative. It was Jardin’s successor, Harsdorff, who was to make a mark on architecture during the Classicist period. It remained faithful to classical architecture and decoration, and architects sought to reproduce it as accurately as possible.

Following the French Revolution (1789), antiquity became a symbol of freedom, equality and fraternity, and people turned their back on anything with Rococo overtones. Architects were passionate about classical art and culture, copying Greek columns and imitating Roman buildings. The coronation of Napoleon (1804) heralded the start of the French Empire and a pompous commander-like style. Everything, whether large or small, was uniformly clad in antiquity. Churches were built to resemble temples, candleholders were designed in the form of pillars and so on and so forth. Authenticity was not a major priority. Designers imitated precious materials and gilded everything in sight.

More than any other Danish architect, Caspar Friedrich Harsdorff was to make a major mark on the architecture of the day. As a professor at the Academy, Harsdorff came into contact with both architects and craftsmen and had huge influence on the buildings that were constructed throughout the country. The three-part façade scheme of Rococo still formed the basis. The central section was often designed with pilasters and a triangular pediment, while the side axes were accentuated by the piano nobile’s finely crafted window surrounds with pediments supported by consoles.

The relationship between the details and the whole were exceedingly well balanced. The distinctive character of individual houses was rather discreet. In highly monumental buildings, Harsdorff made use of free  columns: best known from the Colonnade of the Amalienborg Palace.

Harsdorff’s pupil, C.F. Hansen, succeeded him as Professor at the Academy. His buildings were simpler and more powerful and, like French empire-style buildings, akin to Roman architecture. Typical of Hansen’s architecture was the large, simple temple front, positioned clearly in front of the building’s main block. Another feature was that all the surfaces exposed to light had no decoration, while those in half-light often had refined classical ornaments. Hansen’s Classicist houses were extremely simple. Apart from their characteristic pitch, the style was indicated only by strips of cornicing and the elongated recessed fields, sometimes with ancient motifs, between the rows of windows from floor to floor. Console-supported canopies over doors were a recurring feature throughout the Classicist period.

In late Classicism, the vertical divisions of the façades disappeared, and all windows on the same floor were bordered by the same surround. The ground floor was still separated from the upper floors by a horizontal strip, while the quadrature, which in earlier periods was reserved for the lower floor, now also spread up over the surface of the wall. It can come over as somewhat stiff and dry. Gradually the ancient forms became Renaissance-like. Even Gothic motifs made an appearance!

Historicism (1837-1915)

While Classicism reigned, the first Romantic manorial buildings emerged. First came the gardens and little cottages. Main buildings in historic styles were not evident until the 19th century. The very first Neo-Gothic house in Denmark, Steensgaard on Langeland, dates from 1837. The reappearance of historic styles was an offshoot of Romanticism and of a strong interest in history and studies of the changing expression of historic monuments.

There was a great deal of restoration, aimed at returning a building back to its original form. Once architects became familiar with every possible style, it did not take long before they started deploying them. The period featured Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Christian IV style, Neo-Baroque, Neo-Rococo and mixtures of styles, which were also referred to collectively as manor-house style. When making a choice, the most important thing was for a building to stand out as important. The main building had to shout “manor house”!

Most of the historic styles were used at the same time, though no Neo-Gothic houses were built after the 1890s. A handful of Neo-Baroque buildings came at a later point and culminated towards the turn of the century.


Medieval: GjorslevSpøttrupTjeleRygaardØstrupgaard

Medieval/Renaissance (baronial castles): EgeskovGisselfeldBorreby

Renaissance: HesselagergaardValløVoergaardRosenholmHolckenhavn

Baroque and Rococo: NysøClausholmBidstrupMargaardLedreborgLerchenborg

Classicism: KrengerupJuelsbergHagenskov (Frederiksgave), SvenstrupMoesgaardKærsgaard

Historicism: SteensgaardBasnæsKrabbesholmValbygaardErholmFrijsenborgOrebygaardSophiendalSanderumgaard