When walking through the downtown area of a large city or a residential neighborhood, I can’t help immersing myself in the architecture around me. You can ask my boyfriend, too. When we walk by an architecturally interesting building, I’ll tell him what style building it is and what features make up that style. Most of the time he tunes me out, but I paid for this knowledge in college and I need to use it somewhere.
What I love about architecture, whether colloquial dwelling or massive building, is that each style presents itself as a piece of art representing a particular era, style, or ideology. Behind all of those details lie a story and a history. Perhaps there’s a home that is designed a particular way so it’s more functional than beautiful or maybe it’s built simply to be an ornate structure. Well, if you’re curious about why some buildings look a certain way or what their story is, you’re in luck! We’ll be looking at a few popular architectural home styles over the next few weeks.
To start, let’s look at the heritage of a few popular colonial style homes from their beginning to the modern era.
English Colonial Style
Built out of wood and simple in design, English Colonial Style homes of the 1600s and early 1700s look far different than their modern counterparts of today. Most early English settlers built two-story wood frame homes and had a few small diamond-shaped lead pane windows. To help keep water and snow from entering the home, builders used overlapping shingles or clapboard on exterior walls. Think of them like the shingles on your roof and how those shed water – same concept except on the exterior walls. The homes generally had an open floor design with a fireplace in the middle to heat the entire house during the cold New England winters. The central chimney is a key feature of this early home style. The most notable English Colonial Style home is the House with Seven Gables.
- Homes primarily located in Northeast United States
- Steeply-pitched roof
- Side gable roof (a gable is the triangle shaped part of a wall created by the roof slope)
- Non-symmetrical window and door placement
- Slight overhang created by second story
Some aspects of German Colonial homes share similarities to the English Style, like a steeply-pitched roof with side gables and a centrally located chimney. Unlike English settlers who built primarily with wood, German settlers in the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York area opted for stone masonry walls like back in Germany – which were incredibly thick, sturdy, and insulated well. Also German Colonial homes have a slight upward curve, or kick, at the eaves, or edge of the roof.
- Symmetrical placement of windows
- Small eclipse arches over windows
- Wishbone-shaped chimney
Georgian Style Homes picks up traits associated with the Italian Renaissance in particular symmetry and balance. A central door is flanked on both sides with symmetrically placed windows and fireplaces at each end of the house. Georgian Style homes tended to incorporate more emphasis on the appearance of the interior living space. As a result, more complex central hall floor plans started to appear and become popular. You’ll also see elaborate mantel pieces, arched entry ways, and decorative molding.
- Mostly in the Northeastern United States
- Raised foundation
- Square and symmetrical in shape
- Cornice with decorative molding
- Side gables
- More decorative entry ways
Think Gone with the Wind plantation house. Southern French colonists combined techniques from France and their experience with flooding in the West Indies and Caribbean to optimize the design of their homes. Builders used the second story for primary living space, and since it was raised up from the ground it would take damage from a flood. When I think of French Colonial homes, I always think of a huge covered porch. The porch shades the interior from the sun and keeps the house cooler – much like a passive solar home. The porch also functions as the hallway to move from room to room around the house.
- Mostly located in Louisiana, Mississippi and along the Mississippi River
- Large porch with long overhangs
- Long, low-pitch hipped (no gables) roof
- Symmetrical in appearance
- Symmetrically placed thin wooden columns
- No interior hallways
Federalist Style homes are often confused for Georgian Style homes. While they do share elements of symmetry and look similar, there are particular elements that set it apart – advancing it through our architectural timeline. The Federalist Style is probably the most ornate of the colonial homes, and everywhere you look you’ll see decorative, generally nonfunctional elements of design. Take the balustrade, which basically looks like a half fence, on the eaves of the roof, or the addition of a Palladian, or arched, window over the doorway. The fine details are what make a Federalist Style house.
- Flat or low-sloping roof with balustrade
- Half or full circle windows
- Exterior window shutters
- Decorative molding just below the roof
- Some have ovular rooms
- Some also have dormers on the roof
- Half-story foundations with small windows
- Incorporates decorative elements found in Greek or Roman structures
Later in the 1870s, 100 years after we won the Revolutionary War, many Americans reflected back to colonial times. In an attempt to reconnect with their heritage and roots, they looked back on the many of the colonial styles for influence. As a result, most of the architecture from this period mashes up many features of various aspects of all the aforementioned styles – but mostly the Georgian and Federalist styles. The Revival Era exaggerated those two styles and brought classical elements to the forefront. The Revival Era, coinciding with the beginning of the industrial revolution, also made decorative molding and elements available to the masses – though less elaborate than previous handmade elements. Many people also added porches, like those from French Colonial homes, and sunrooms for functionality.
The Neo-Colonial Style pays homage to both the original and revival styles using 21st century materials like vinyl siding or windows. A lot of houses built in the post-World War II era feature elements of each colonial style. Most common neo-colonial homes have a square appearance, are two story, have side gable roofs and come with few decorative features on the outside. Some homes may have more decorative entryways or dormers, like the Federalist Style, but the addition of attractive elements depends on the homeowner’s preference.
There you go! Now you know a little bit more about one of the most common architectural home styles dotting the American landscape – particularly here in the Midwest and East Coast.
Does the home you live in fit in the tradition of the Colonial Style?