Keystone Motif

What is the keystone motif? The keystone motif is an architectural design pattern found in many ancient and modern buildings. In this article, we’ll explain what a keystone is, and provide several examples.

A keystone placed at the top of an archway to lock the other stones into place.

keystone motif features the classic keystone design of stone arches found in ancient Roman architecture. The keystone is a wedge-shaped stone placed at the very top of a masonry arch.

When a keystone is placed into position, it locks all the other stones in the archway – to keep them from falling or shifting — and allowing the arch to bear weight.

Keystones are a symbol of strength, stability, and quality architecture. Some modern designs utilize the keystone primarily as a decoration, since the keystone is really not needed for the structural integrity of the building.

Keystone motif - Arches with keystone at the top.  Old windows have been removed and space filled in with red brick.
Keystone Motif on a brick wall

Architectural motifs are structural or decorative designs and repeating patterns found in the construction of buildings. In music, a motif is a short melodic phrase that reoccurs throughout a song. In works of art, a motif is a noticeable element that appears throughout the work. An architectural motif can be found in the details, or can be the dominant design concept.


The keystone motif is very prominent in this modern building with 3 archways.
The keystone motif is very prominent in this modern building with 3 archways.

Keystone Motif Examples

In many modern architectural designs, the keystone is not required for the structural integrity of the building. A symbolic keystone provides a classic design flourish to homes.

A decorative keystone pattern is repeated above windows and doors on this home in Woodstock, Georgia.
A decorative keystone pattern is repeated above windows and doors on this home in Woodstock, Georgia.
A keystone motif design for arched windows and doors at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI
A keystone sits on top of arched windows and doors at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan

In the photo below, Jane and Doug Vos near the new, front entrance to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The front lobby and movie theatre were designed and built many years after the original museum. However, the new design carries over many aspects of the old design such as the large arched windows with keystones.

Jane and Doug Vos near the new, front entrance to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

More Examples

Keystone motif atop the brick archway above door on home in Dearborn, Michigan
Keystone archway above stained glass windows and double doors at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Dearborn, MIchigan.
A decorative brick archway with keystone at the old First Baptist Church in Dearborn, Michigan.
Decorative keystone motif above windows on the garage of this home on Morley Street in Dearborn, Michigan.

Some sculpted keystones include the faces of people or animals. These are often found in museums and monuments.

An Indian head carved on keystone - sits on top of arch made of stone.
“Library of Congress Keystone Portrait: Lakota Che-ta-wau-kou-va-ma-ni, ‘The Hawk That Hunts Walking’ or Lakota Chief Ito-na-gaju, ‘Rain In The Face’? (Washington, DC)” by takomabibelot is marked with CC0 1.0. This sculptured keystone is apparently one of thirty-three “ethnological” heads on the Jefferson Building.
Fancy keystones at the Michigan capitol building.
Fancy keystones at the Michigan state capitol building, in Lansing, MI. Photo by Doug Vos.

Originally published on April 29, 2021. Updated on May 12, 2021.

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