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Idyllic Home With Covered Porch

Colonial homes seem to be a staple of most modern-American, suburban neighborhoods. Lined up along a winding side street, they start to melt together into a never-ending row of homes.

Yet in the 1600s and 1700s, and again during the revival period in the late 19th and 20th century, colonial homes were the go-to architectural build in the United States. Carrying with them the design of their European residences, the early English settlers constructed the colonial home based on what they knew, drawing inspiration and materials from the New World here they settled.

And while each colonial-style home varies by the cultural climate these early settlers emigrated from (Germany, France, England, etc.) there are some striking architectural attributes that make up each colonial-style home.

What Makes a House a Colonial?

According to Zillow, if your home is located in or near New England and was built between the 18th and 19th century, your home is considered a colonial. While this tongue-and-cheek description isn’t false, there are a few more concepts that make a house a colonial.

What Does a Colonial House Look Like?

The most obvious attribute of a colonial home is its symmetry. Colonial-style homes normally have a square or rectangle shape, with the door located in the exact center and the same number of windows reflected perfectly on either side. They traditionally have two to three stories with similar, traditional room layouts.

Additionally, Zillow describes colonial homes as possessing:

  • High-peaked roofs with little to no roof overhang
  • Massive central or end chimneys
  • Pillars, dormer windows and brick detailing (mostly in later colonial-style homes)

Materials used to create the look varied by location, from brick to wood-frame to vinyl. In later version of the colonial-style home, builders developed the “four-over-four” style, referring to four rooms on each floor.

While each type of colonial home varies, these are the most basic characteristics found in most colonial homes.

What Is Meant by Colonial Architecture?

According to Traditional Home, the term “colonial” referred to the houses built by the 17th-century European colonists. Like we stated earlier, the build was based on what they knew from their previous homes in Europe.

However, their new homes evolved and adapted in design based on the regions where they settled. For example, according to Traditional Home, English settlers built wooden cottages, while Dutch settlers incorporated stone and brick, a technique used in Holland – You get the idea!

In order to get a better idea of what colonial architecture means, let’s examine the seven most common types of colonial homes and the features of each build.

English Colonial

English-style colonial house

Image: Thought Co.

English colonial homes, primarily located in Northeast United States (the original 13 colonies), were designed by the first settlers in 1600 New England. The main feature of this type of home is the wood-frame construction. According to Thought Co., this was similar to the style of homes in their home country.

They were simple in design, typically featuring two stories with an open floor plan and fireplace located in the middle of the room to heat the entire house. This also meant the chimney was placed in the center of the home.

In order to keep water and snow from entering the home, the roof was built with overlapping shingles or clapboard on the exterior walls, with diamond-shaped, lead-paned windows.

German Colonial

German-style colonial house

Image: Thought Co.

Similar to English colonial homes, German colonial-style homes were also located around the Northeast of the United States, primarily in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland around the same timeframe of the 1600s.

Like the English colonial, these homes also featured steeply-pitched roofs with side gables and a centrally located chimney. But in contrast, their window placement was symmetrical on the sides of the home, with small eclipse arches over each window.

German settlers again used stone walls, drawing from materials used in the traditional style of their old homes. The walls were built thick, sturdy and insulated.

A tell-tale sign of German colonial home was the slight upward curve, or kick, at the edge of the roof.

Georgian Colonial

Georgian-style colonial house

Image: Traditional Home

Georgian homes, also located in Northeastern America, drew inspiration from England-style architecture. The style of home was named after the Kings George I – IV during the 1700s and 1800s.

This style was known for perfect symmetry and balance in the exterior design with a central door flanked on both side by symmetrical windows. The fireplaces were located at each of the ends of the house, rather than the middle, like the previous colonial styles.

This style of home was very decorative, emphasizing the appearance of the interior living space. As a result, more complex central hall floor plans started to appear and become popular. They also incorporated elaborate mantel pieces, arched entryways, and decorative molding. 

Federalist Style

Federal-style architecture

Image: Ives House by Caleb Ormsbee, circa 1803

Federalist and Georgian-style colonial homes are often confused for one another. While there are the same elements of symmetry and balance incorporated into the design, there are different.

The Federalists added decorative elements to the design of the home further emphasizing the ornate, nonfunctional elements of the home’s design. For example, they added the balustrade, which resembled a half-fence, on the eaves hanging off the roof. They also added the Palladia, which is an arched widow over the doorway.

While these additions added to the home’s elegance, they were non-essential to the function of the home.

French Colonial

French-style colonial house

Image: Houzz

Unlike the English and German settlers who put up stakes in Northeast America, French settlers made their way down south, settling in Mississippi, Louisiana and other southern parts of the country. Southern French colonists combined techniques from France and their experience with the new terrain to optimize the design of their homes.

Like most colonials homes, which were built symmetrically with a square or rectangle frame and a second-story, French colonial homes had a second-story used primarily for a living space. This was in preparation of possible flooding, which was a regular occurrence in the hot, swampy region where they resided.

These homes were known for their large, covered porches, which shaded the interior of the home from the hot sun and kept the house cooler in the summer.

Colonial Revival

Colonial Revival-style colonial house

Image: HomeTalk

The Colonial Revival refers to the late 1800s, when America began reflecting on the early colonial time period. It was an era dedicated the early 16th and 17th century settlers, who created America’s heritage.

During this time, construction reflected the many styles of colonial homes, drawing inspiration from each area/design of colonial home. As a result, most of the architecture from this period blended many features of various aspects of all the aforementioned styles – but mostly the Georgian and Federalist styles.

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.

Neo-Colonial Style

Neo-Colonial-style colonial house

Image: Rent Homes

Most recently, the 21st century brought with it the Neo-Colonial style home. This style draws inspiration from both the original and revival-style of colonial homes, while now using 21st-century materials like vinyl siding.

Most common neo-colonial homes have a similar structure: two-story, square shape, side gable roofs and 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.

Neo-colonial style homes are the type of homes you see still today, lined up down a winding side street, perhaps interspersed with a few ranch-style homes.

Learning the history of various types of homes may help you narrow down your search during the home buying process. If you’re feeling lost or confused about which home is right for you, make sure you reach out to a real estate agent, like the experienced agents at Rocket Homes.

What colonial-style of home is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I have an old ships window that was nailed to the outside of my home on the south shore of Long Island when I bought it over 40 years ago. the man who used to live in the house I was told dove for sunken ships of the coast of Long Island. I Took it to a stain glass repair shop and they reinforced it and replaced a few broken pieces. How would I find out more about this piece? Or how would I find out if there was any company that go for sunken ships off the coast of Long Island? Thanks

    1. Hi Deedee:

      My recommendation is to find someone who’s an expert in maritime history in your area. I would imagine given that you’re on the coast in Long Island that a local expert could be found. It might just take some work to find the right person.

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