House styles not only infuse our streets with personality, they help to tell the story of America. We have selected 15 of the most common house styles in the United States and told their story. Arranged roughly in chronological order are:
Popularity - 1600s and 1945 to 1960
Remember that simple box house you drew when you were in kindergarten? The one with
a door in the middle and a window on each side? You were drawing a Cape Cod house. Let’s hope you put that chimney with the wisps of smoke reaching to the sun in the corner in the cen- ter of your drawing or you weren’t representing a true Cape Cod.
The Cape Cod was the original house style in America, the one the settlers brought with them from England in the 1600s. Not that there was much “style” involved in these simple, utilitarian houses. Their most important feature was that they could handle the stormy gales that blew in off the Atlantic Ocean onto the Massachusetts coast.
To accomplish that mission the cottages were built low with steeply pitched roofs, clad in clapboards and armed with wooden shutters to protect the small-paned windows; there were no decorative embellishments. The floor plan put all the living space on the ground floor and two children’s bedrooms were on either side of the house if there was an upstairs.
Cape Cod style houses came in three flavors - the half Cape featured a door on one side and two windows on the other; the three-quarter Cape displayed two windows on one side of the door and one on the other, and the full Cape had a central door flanked by two windows on each side. Eventually the simple boxy Cape Cod grew up to two stories for prosperous families and if a lean-to was attached to the back for extra space it was known as a saltbox.
After World War II the Cape Cod style was dusted off and used in the new tract housing that covered America’s new middle-class suburbs. Architect Royal Barry Wills emerged as the mas- ter of the modernized Cape Cod style house, bringing an artistry and elegance to the simple form. A Wills design offered exact proportions and windowed dormers and perhaps an attached carport. maybe a breezeway connected an outbuilding. Windows were expanded and often the chimney was pushed from the middle to the end of the house and given a decorative promi- nence. All the while Wills retained the functionality and human scale of the early American housing ideal.
Royal Barry Wills published eight books about architecture proselytizing for the Cape Cod style and its popularity spread to every corner of the country. But increasingly the tidy little Capes began to be regarded as the houses where “poor people” lived - a big four bedroom Co- lonial was the sign that you had made it in America. By 1960 the heyday of the Cape Cod style was over.
Years of Popularity - 1700 - 1840
The Georgian Style dominated American architecture for over a century and, as the bedrock of the Colonial Revival movement, its influence spans more than 300 years. The style takes its name from the monarchs of the British House of Hanover - King Georges I, II, III and IV who held power from 1714 until 1830, a period that parallels the popularity of this building style.
The Georgian Style was the first mass-produced architectural style. Before 1700 ideas for de- signing buildings were passed from craftsman to craftsman but Georgian architecture benefited from the invention of inexpensive engravings for printing. Pattern books with Georgian designs spread easily to house builders throughout England and across the Atlantic Ocean to its colonies in America.
Those plans called for Georgian buildings to be constructed with strict symmetrical arrange- ments based on proportional ratios, sometimes called the “Golden ratio.” The house would be a simple rectangular box centered around a panel front door with fireplace chimneys on either end. Windows, whose panes were restricted in size by the technology of the day, were assembled with six, nine or 12 small panes and double-hung.
An average-sized Georgian house from the 1700s would be two stories, five bays (windows) across, and two rooms deep. The grandest Georgian manor houses would be embellished with decorative moldings and a cornice usually formed with modillion blocks that resembled evenly spaced teeth. When an expensive Georgian house was built of stone blocks it was often wrapped in corner quoins, blocks that ran along its edges.
In America after 1800 a variation of the Georgian Style became popular that introduced themes from the American Revolution such as medallions and urns and scrolls. While maintain- ing the familiar Georgian form, its decorative elements were lighter. This style was based on the work of the great English designer Robert Adam and known as “Adamesque” but when it crossed the Atlantic it was called “Federal Style.” Federal Style houses were often adapted into three-bay rowhouses on crowded American city streets. The finest would show off delicate glass fanlights above the entrance doors.
One of the best places to see true Georgian buildings today is on campuses of colleges that operated in the 1700s like Harvard and William and Mary. Georgian houses began to fall out of favor in the 1840s as Americans experimented with revival styles, bringing back Greek and Gothic architecture. Then came the picturesque Victorians. But a craving for the orderly com- position of Georgian architecture was back in vogue by the early 1900s with the Colonial Re- vival movement. While every Georgian Revival, or Neo-Georgian, house is a Colonial Revival not every Colonial Revival house is Georgian Revival. If you see a Colonial Revival house with a big porch or impressive portico, that is not a true Georgian Revival home.
Years of Popularity - 1820 - 1850
If you are looking at a replica of an ancient temple you are looking at Greek Revival archi- tecture. The style was born in the ashes of the War of 1812 which spawned an understandable disillusionment with all things British, including the mother country’s architectural traditions. Greece was in a struggle for its own independence in the 1820s which stirred American sympa- thies and idealistic Americans had always maintained a kinship with the democratic principles of ancient Greece anyway so it was a natural transition to slide away from English influences and towards elegant Greek designs in building young America.
William Strickland out of Philadelphia led the charge that made Greek Revival the most popular architectural style in America between 1820 and 1850. It was so widespread that it was known simply as the National Style. Greek Revival was seen on impressive mansions and state- houses and along downtown streets on rowhouses.
The columns that define the familiar Greek Revival temple front, whether round or square or smooth or fluted, belong to one of three orders: Doric, Ionic or Corinthian. Doric columns are the oldest and simplest with an unadorned capital; Ionic columns feature scroll-like capitals; and Corinthian columns are typically the most ornate with elaborate carved acanthus leaves spilling out of the top. The columns can be free-standing or attached to the building (engaged) or re-cre- ated as a decorative element etched into the facade (pilasters).
Not all Greek Revival houses boast a telltale temple-like front. Brick Greek Revival townhous- es of the 1830s closely resemble their Federal style cousins. The give-away is usually the front door that is surrounded by narrow sidelights and a rectangular string of transom lights above the door, which is often of ample size, as are the windows.
When Greek Revival migrated south it was the style of choice for grand plantation houses and was molded into the handsome Charleston Single House of the South Carolina port town. The classic antebellum Southern mansion etched in our minds from Hollywood movies was a Greek Revival house.
Chances are that stately Greek Revival mansion in your imagination is painted white. It was believed that Greek temples were always white and so American Greek Revival houses were all whitewashed. It turns out that the ancient Greeks actually painted their temples, at least the wooden ones, in reds and blues and golds.
Classical columns disappeared from the American streetscape in the mid-19th century as the Greek Revival style sat out the Victorian age. The Greek ideals surfaced once again in 1893 with the celebration of the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago as planners built a grand “White City” of classical buildings to house the fair exhibits. City planners across the country, most famously in Washington D.C., adopted the Neoclassical style as part of the City Beautiful movement. While nearly every public building in America in the first decades of the 20th cen- tury was raised in the classical Greek form many an imposing residence again emerged behind full-height white columns. And to this day whenever a homebuilder wants to but a formal face on a house those columns are trotted out.
Years of Popularity - 1840 - 1860
Even without the gargoyles a Gothic Revival house remains one of the most recognizable architectural styles seen in American neighborhoods. Based loosely on the building practices of medieval times in 12th century France, the Gothic style was the first building form to elbow its way onto American streets among the classical Greek and Roman-influenced buildings of the first third of the 19th century.
The leading cheerleader for the Gothic Revival style was Richard Upjohn, an English-born and trained cabinet-maker and master-mechanic. After arriving in America in 1829 at the
age of 27 he morphed into an architectural designer. In 1846 he completed his masterwork of Gothic architecture, Trinity Church in New York City. After that the Gothic style flourished in church- and cathedral-building across the country - so many were constructed, in fact, that it has been estimated there exist today more Gothic Revival structures than authentic Gothic build- ings.
The hallmark of the Gothic style is the pointed arch, which emphasizes the verticality of the composition. To help church steeples climb taller, flying buttresses were often employed. Some- times parapets and battlements show up on towers or a roof in the event an invading catapult lurks nearby. The pointed windows often sport decorative tracery and are the most authentic are formed with leaded glass.
When the Gothic style was applied to residential housing it often took the form of wooden cottages that are now referred to as Carpenter Gothic. These charming structures are effusively decorated with jig-sawn wooden detailing and feature one or more steeply-pitched gables with accompanying bargeboards projecting from the edge. While any material could be used on a Carpenter Gothic house it is most associated with vertical board-and-batten siding. The rustic simplicity of the Carpenter Gothic homes eventually gave way to the elaborate Stick Style of the Victorian era.
During that Victorian age the Gothic style was also adapted for impressive mansions, employ- ing an abundance of differing colors and textures rendered in a polychromatic stew of reds and greens and blues. Many of these picturesque High Victorian Gothic structures hewed to design principles set forth by John Ruskin, the leading English art critic of the age. It is always a treat to stumble across one today.
While Gothic faded away from the drawing boards of American house architects it was achieving its full blossoming on college campuses. Stunning halls began gracing university greens in the late 1870s and the Collegiate Gothic style achieved its full expression at Princ- eton University in the 1890s and, most notably, at Yale University where the entire campus was dressed in this late Gothic Revival face in 1917.
Years of Popularity - 1850 - 1880
In the middle of the 1800s Americans were moving off the farm and into small towns in un- precedented numbers as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. At the same time the first waves of European immigrants from Ireland and England and Germany were making their way in steamers across the Atlantic Ocean.
The dominant architectural style in these new towns was Italianate, although the great migra- tion of Italians to America would not begin until after the style’s greatest popularity had passed. An Italianate building is easily recognized by its elongated slender windows, often under fancy hoods, and wide eaves supported by thick, ornate brackets. The roofs were typically low-pitched. The style lent itself to a wide array of building materials and block after block of Italianate buildings went up in towns across America.
One of those building materials was cast iron which enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity in America. Poured into molds, iron facades could be produced quickly and inexpensively in deco- rative shapes and assembled quickly on site. A cast iron front is almost indistinguishable from
a wooden facade and not many survive today - you can identify one by looking for a foundry stamp, usually located lower down near street level.
Architect John Notman of Philadelphia by way of Scotland is credited with introducing the Italianate style to America in 1839 with the construction of a bishop’s house in Burlington, New Jersey. The “Italian villa” was championed by Alexander Jackson Davis in his house pattern books which often featured square towers with an accompanying belvedere on the roof. These villas drew on the principles of classical architecture with simple balanced proportions that would be adapted on so many downtown American streets.
One of the ways the Italianate style was used in American homes was in octagonal houses. Eight-sided buildings had been around since antiquity and were favored by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries. During colonial times in America octagonal houses with a cupola centered up top were built along the seacoast so worried wives could keep a look out for their fishermen husbands. The finely balanced Italianate proportions were well-suited for thinking beyond the box, especially as promoted by Orson Squire Fowler of upstate New York. Fowler was a phrenologist by trade who made his living “reading” the bumps on patient’s heads. But his house architecture books like A Home for All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building in 1848 were widely influential in spreading the octagonal house.
The financial Panic of 1873 sent American homebuilders spinning into architectural restraint. When good times and decoration returned in the 1880s, the Italianate style did not, replaced
by other exuberant Victorian styles. In the 20th century the Italian influence was resurrected in luxury Renaissance Revival mansions and manifested itself in Florida and California in the Mediterranean Revival style. As the opulence of the 1920s passed, Italian-flavored designs en- dured as its simple lines and harmonious proportions have proved timeless.
Years of Popularity - 1860 - 1880
No American house style has a more readily identifiable characteristic than the steep, double- sloped Second Empire mansard roof. It so dominates the style that many otherwise un-styled vernacular houses get labelled “Second Empire” just by the addition of the signature roof. And other houses designed as other styles get transformed into “Second Empire” by the addition of that telltale roof. A mansard roof, however, does not always tag a house as Second Empire - the roof must be the dominant player in the composition, not a supporting actor.
The Second Empire was that of Napoleon III who came to power in France in 1852 and em- barked on an ambitious building program in Paris. The jewel of his construction spree was the enlargement of the Louvre under an impressive mansard roof. Tall, double-sloped roofs were known in France in the 1500s - the original Louvre Palace sported one. But during the French Renaissance of the middle-1600s one architect used the tall roofs so extensively that they came to be named for him. His name was François Mansart.
Americans have always been besotted by French style and it did not take long for the dramatic Second Empire roof treatment to sweep across the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to its exotic ap- pearance the mansard roof had a practical purpose - the increased headroom made it possible for attics to become full rooms. To bring light into these living spaces a mansard roof is usually punctuated with dormer windows.
In fact the mansard roof was a design technique born of the French pocketbook - at the time property owners were taxed on the number of floors in a building and a convex, nearly vertical mansard roof could squeeze an extra floor of living space into a home without literally raising the roof and upping the tax bill.
Beyond the mansard roof there is no defining ornamentation of a French Second Empire house beyond the presence of ornamentation itself. If nature abhors a vacuum, French archi- tecture abhors the absence of decoration; Parisian architects adhere to the visual arts concept
of “horror vacui” - the fear of an unadorned surface. When looking at a Second Empire house you can see the narrow elongated windows associated with the Italianate style or pediments and small classical porches that are derivative of Greek architecture or corner quoins from English traditions. The fanciest Second Empire homes will boast a delicate iron cresting along the roofli- ne.
The popularity of the French Second Empire style did not last much beyond the reign of Napoleon III, which ended in 1870. But the mansard roof never disappeared from American architecture. The world’s tallest masonry building, Philadelphia’s City Hall constructed in the 1890s, rests under a mansard roof. The famous Plaza Hotel erected in 1907 in New York City is crowned with a mansard roof.
Years of Popularity - 1875 - 1895
The Romanesque Revival style was carried across the Atlantic Ocean with the early waves of German immigrants in the 1840s. It was known as Rundbogenstil which translated as “round- arched style” and it is indeed the round arch that is the signature of the Romanesque Revival style. Every window and door opening on a Romanesque building resides underneath a rounded arch.
The Romanesque style found its greatest expression in church architecture, especially among so-called low church denominations such as Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists. Ro- manesque was also a popular choice for large masonry warehouse buildings that featured row after row of arched windows in the 1880s and 1890s.
One man made the Romanesque style his own - and he happened to be the most influential American architect of the post-Civil War era. Henry Hobson Richardson stepped off a parish plantation in Louisiana to begin a classical education in architecture in the 1850s. He was only the second American accepted to the celebrated L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France but the Civil War brought a halt to his studies. His early work was undistinguished until he embraced the Romanesque style.
The hallmark of Richardson’s interpretation was the massive arch, often framing a recessed entrance. You couldn’t easily fashion such bold arches in wood so his buildings were constructed with rugged quarry-cut stone - often in contrasting colors and textures - assembled in heavy stone walls. Wide gables and prominent corner towers were staples of Richardson’s work. He arranged windows in long bands or placed in groups of threes. Many of Richardson’s arches rested on short columnettes of polished granite, also gathered in groups of three. Richardson’s designs were so distinctive that an architectural style was named after him - Richardsonian Ro- manesque.
Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston from 1872 became the most famous and copied building in America. In 1885 when American architects named the ten best build- ings in America, half the list were creations of Henry Hobson Richardson. Unfortunately he would die the following year of kidney disease at the age of 47.
Between 1888 and 1892 the powerful Richardsonian Romanesque style was the go-to archi- tectural choice for important civic buildings like city halls, courthouses and railroad stations. Captains of industry with deep pockets commissioned impressive single-family houses based on Richardson’s design principles. But the country tumbled into an economic Depression in 1893 and monies dried up for big expensive projects. The Richardsonian Romanesque style disap- peared almost overnight. But the heavy masonry buildings were not so ethereal - many are still on display today, sometimes because it simply cost too much to tear them down.
Years of Popularity - 1880 - 1900
While the Victorian era spawned several architectural styles in America it is the Queen Anne Style house that has come to represent the picturesque “Victorian” in our minds. In the middle of the 19th century architects tapping the Italianate and French Second Empire styles began in- troducing showy ornamentation to our houses, paving the way for the flamboyant Queen Annes in the 1880s. Suddenly houses began sprouting turrets on the corners, towers in all shapes and sizes, and, most distinctively, large wraparound porches.
The most striking innovation of the new Queen Anne houses was their asymmetrical mass- ing. Until the 1880s most houses were balanced around a central hallway. Now, not only was the front door moved off-center, it was often shuffled to a corner of the house and opened directly into a living room. Instead of an orderly roofline Queen Annes adopted a riot of shapes and pitches with gables and dormers slicing in from every conceivable angle.
The exuberant Queen Anne shapes were made possible in part by the new balloon framing that revolutionized house construction and freed builders from the constraints of heavy timber framing and boxy forms of the past. The only limits on the new construction techniques were lack of imagination from the architects; when you look at a Queen Anne house you can expect to see highly detailed spindle work, ornate stained glass, cross gables and finials. Many Queen Anne houses boast a variety of textures and building materials from brick to slate to patterned fish scale shingles. Even the utilitarian chimneys are fair game for ornamentation - they are often crafted with patterned masonry and crowned with a jaunty chimney pot.
The real Queen Anne ruled England for scarcely a dozen years between 1702 and 1714 and the architectural traits embraced by the style were more often seen during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I more than a hundred years prior. English architect Richard Norman Shaw named the style which he popularized in the 1850s as “Queen Anne” and introduced it to America with several buildings for the British government during the wildly popular Philadelphia Centennial in 1876.
You may sometimes hear the term “Eastlake” tossed around with Queen Anne Style houses. Charles Eastlake was an English architect whose variation on the form demonstrated elaborate decorative woodwork, usually sawtooth trim on porch posts and door surrounds. For the most part, however, you can leave the distinction between an Eastlake house and a Queen Anne house to architectural historians.
The popularity of the showy Queen Annes with their accompanying high maintenance was relatively brief. After the turn of the 20th century they quickly died out, its most enduring legacy being the expansive porch which continued to be an American favorite.
Years of Popularity - 1880 - 1900
Imagine taking your Queen Anne house, stripping it of the fancy ornamentation and plopping it down in the woods or on a bluff atop a rocky seashore. Dress it in weather-beaten cedar shake siding and stain the wood a single shade of olive green or Indian red to blend in with the land- scape and you have a Shingle Style house.
Of course in 1885 you wouldn’t have asked your architect for a Shingle Style house - the style would not be given a name until 1949 when Yale University architectural historian Vincent Scully put a tag on picturesque houses that were derived from fishermen’s abodes on the New England coast. The most famous architects of the day - Henry Hobson Richardson of Brook- line; Robert Swain Peabody and John Goddard Stearns of Boston; and the New York firm of Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White were all designing rustic “cottages” for Gilded Age millionaires. Frank Lloyd Wright, early in his career in 1889, designed a Shingle Style house for himself in Oak Park, Illinois.
These rambling country homes did not depend on any one design characteristic other than shingle siding - and not every Shingle Style house was clad in cedar shakes. Most incorporated generous porches and spread out low against the ground on a heavy foundation. Many were dominated by an extra wide gable or perhaps a turreted tower; the eaves of the irregular roofli- ne were set close to the walls to encourage a continuous flow of shingles from the siding to the roof. A whimsical note was often struck on a Shingle Style house by the presence of a sly “eye- brow” dormer.
It was never a dominant Victorian style but the casual flavor of the Shingle Style nevertheless found its way into upscale neighborhoods that never saw a sea breeze. The tastes of well-to-do clients drifted away from rustic simplicity in the early 1900s but no Victorian era houses look more comfortable on today’s residential streets than a Shingle Style creation.
Years of Popularity - 1900 - 1925
For aspiring American architects in the late 1800s the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France represented what Harvard University does for budding scholars today. The school traces its root back to 1648 when talented students were directed to studies in such disciplines as drawing, painting, sculpting, engraving, gem cutting and architecture. In 1863 Napoleon III cleaved the school away from the government and switching its name to “L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts.” The rig- orous curriculum in its Academy of Architecture focused on the classical theories of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The first American to go through the program was Richard Morris Hunt, kicking off a virtual Mount Rushmore of iconic American architects to take the training in the world’s most famous architectural school. Julia Morgan of San Francisco, who would become William Randolph Hearst’s architect of choice, became the first woman to be admitted to the L’Ecole des Beaux- Arts in 1897.
In 1893 America decided to throw a great party to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Chris- topher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It was to take place in Chicago and called the “Columbian Exposition.” Daniel Burnham was chosen to lead the planning committee of dis- tinguished architects to design the fair. What they came up with was a blueprint based on the teachings of the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts with broad boulevards, splendid gardens and buildings with classical facades. They called it the White City.
America fell in love with the White City with spawned a movement known as City Beautiful. Cities across the country attempted to emulate the look with widely mixed results. Many gave up in the face of depleted municipal treasuries. In Washington, DC the City Beautiful movement met with one of its greatest successes; it was decreed that every new building would be created in the classical image which you can see today.
The Beaux Arts style of architecture (translated as “fine arts”) evolved under a variety of names including Renaissance Revival and Neoclassical. While it was seen mostly on imposing public buildings it also showed up in the grand mansions of Gilded Age millionaires. The deep- pocketed owners demanded these estates be constructed with only dressed stone, preferably with as much marble as possible.
A Beaux Arts house would assume the classical symmetric form with a facade framed by the familiar columns but would also include decorative flourishes such as sculpted garlands and flo- ral patterns. But if you look closely some of that stone may be cast stone that is a cement com- posite or molded terra cotta. Some decorations can even be painted to look like stone.
The formality of Renaissance architecture will never go completely out of style but its popu- larity will inevitably wane, especially when the money dries up. The Great Depression of the 1930s snuffed out the Beaux Arts movement in America. In its place rose the Art Deco style which has been described as “stripped-down classicism.”
Years of Popularity - 1900 - 1970 and beyond
For the first 100 years of its existence America did not spend much time looking back at its history - for instance Philadelphia never put the Liberty Bell on display and Boston was ready
to tear down its iconic Old State House until the City of Chicago attempted to purchase it as a tourist attraction. The country took a hard look at its past for the first time on the occasion of its 100th birthday in 1876 when it celebrated with the Philadelphia Centennial. And it liked what it saw.
The next year four young architects - Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead, William Bigelow, and Stanford White - toured the New England coast making sketches of the historic houses they saw there. When they formed the soon-to-be legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White in New York in 1879 the men pioneered the Colonial Revival style on grand townhouses and private clubhouses in America’s major cities.
The style drew on the principles of the Georgian style of architecture from the 1700s and the Adamesque, or Federal, style of the early 1800s. The watchword was “proportion” - when you look at an expertly designed Colonial house you are struck by the eye-pleasing symmetry and precise balance of its architectural elements.
When Americans grew weary of the excesses of the Victorian Age around 1900 new hom- eowners found the restrained elegance of the Colonial Revival style to be the perfect antidote. Whereas Victorians were known for elaborate color schemes, a Colonial Revival is almost invari- ably white with accent colors. Henry Ford, whose customers were parking his cars in Colonial Revival driveways in ever-increasing numbers, summed up the mood of the country when he said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
Colonial Revival became the most popular architectural style in the United States and domi- nated the suburban home-building boom after World War II. These later Colonial Revivals are sometimes called “Neo-Colonials” to differentiate them from the earlier wave of architect-de- signed houses that were cut from a more elaborate cloth.
Their mass-produced characteristics are familiar by now - the rectangular footprint, the two stories, the center-hall construction, the multi-paned, double-hung windows. Most Colonial Revivals display elaborate decorative front entrances. Look for six-panel front doors flanked by sidelights. The fanciest will sport fanlights above the door and may be encased in pilasters or
a columned porch. A broken pediment above the door is a hallmark of a 1700s-era American colonial house. Of course the English weren’t the only colonizers of America. The Dutch settled large swaths of New York and New Jersey, building houses with broad gambrel roofs that resembled barns.
If you see a house with eaves that flare out at the bottom you are looking at a Dutch Colonial Revival house. A Spanish Colonial Revival house is immediately recognizable for its sensuously curved parapets and rich stucco finishes. The least common of the colonial revival styles in the United States is the French Colonial that is seldom encountered outside indigenous territories such as Louisiana.; it is characterized by building-wide porches and matching first and second floors facades.
Years of Popularity - 1905 - 1920
The Prairie Style was the first truly American style of architecture. It grew from the Arts and Crafts movement in England that flourished after 1860 as a rejection of mass-produced goods in the Industrial Revolution. An Arts and Crafts house stressed the handiwork of traditional crafts- man applied to a simple form.
In the United States, Arts and Crafts houses were in fact often known simply as Craftsman houses. In the Midwest these buildings took on the form of the vast expanse of treeless plains. The dominant feature was an emphasis on strong horizontal lines that melted into the endless horizon. Houses that spread out in harmony across abundant land was a uniquely American experience that nothing in classical European architecture could approximate. Architectural historians would later call the style of these houses the Prairie School.
Many architects, especially in Chicago, were working in this Prairie Style in the early 1900s but it was Frank Lloyd Wright, who would become the most famous of all American architects, who took it and made it his own. Wright called his work “organic architecture” that sprung naturally from its surroundings. Wood and stone were popular building materials to convey this back-to-nature feeling.
But Wright was drawing his inspiration from more than the environment. He meant his Prai- rie Style houses to confront the very conventions of American values for it was not the exterior of the house that was his driving motivation but the insides. His “open floor plans” sought lit- erally to tear down the compartmentalization of American life. No more parlors for the ladies and studies for the husbands while the kids were shuttled “out of sight, out of mind” to upstairs nurseries. For Wright, he was “beating the box” of the traditional Victorian house. This free- flowing interior plan, often with a seamless transition between the indoors and the outdoors, became a hallmark of the Prairie Style house.
While Wright would continue applying his theories to over 1,000 designs until his death at the age of 91 in 1959, the popularity of the Prairie Style passed out of fashion rapidly. Parts of it lived on, however, in the American Foursquare and the one-story Ranch Style house of the post- World War II suburbs.
One of the things you can look for to identify a Prairie Style house is a prominent central chimney since the fireplace was often designed as the hub of the interior living space. Prairie houses also demonstrate wide, overhanging eaves and maybe a horizontal projection or two radiating from the house. If you see exposed rafters, however, you are looking at a Craftsman house and not a true Prairie Style.
Windows in a Prairie house are arranged in ribbons, furthering the overall horizontal impres- sion of the presentation. The truest, especially on a Wright house, will feature geometric pat- terns and art glass. The windows were a critical design consideration that would provide not just light but cross-ventilation, promoting fresh air and healthy living. And in the end, that was the aim of the naturalistic Prairie School designers.
Years of Popularity - 1905 - 1935
In 1952 the American Institute of Architects issued a citation lauding two California archi- tects for creating a “new and native architecture.” Truly American styles of architecture are few and far between but brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene were scarcely known, despite the fact that houses they influenced stood in just about every neighborhood in the country.
What the Greene brothers did was popularize the philosophies of the Arts & Crafts move- ment in England that sought to reintroduce the handiwork of the craftsman into an increasingly mass-produced world in the late 1800s. Their devotion to workmanship was such that when they took a commission in Pasadena, California the client got not just a hand-built house but custom furniture as well. The Greenes stuck close to home, taking few new clients and eschewing notori- ety, even refusing repeated offers to take their talents to nearby Los Angeles.
The Greenes began by designing rambling rustic-feeling residences that came to be known as Craftsman houses after the magazine produced by furniture maker-turned writer Gustav Stick- ley. When architects like the Greenes distilled their Arts and Crafts sensibilities into smaller hoses they were called bungalows, a word derived from small thatched huts common in colonial India.
A bungalow was almost always one or one-and-one-half stories with a low-pitched roof and overhanging eaves revealing exposed rafters. Its dominant feature was a large front porch, often with a roof supported by stout, square and tapered pillars. The generous porch could be adapt- ed into an outdoor living room if need be. A bungalow would be constructed of natural-looking wood or stone or stucco.
Bungalows swept the country and were the dominant style for small houses through the first half of the 20th century. The California bungalow was described in pattern books, magazines, mail-order catalogs and seen by millions in a new medium - the motion picture. It began ap- pearing across the country in regionally adapted forms such as bricks on the Chicago bungalow, glazed tiles on the Spanish bungalow and half-timbering on the wide-gabled Swiss Chalet bun- galow. Before World War I a homebuyer could usually find a sturdy, well-built Craftsman bunga- low for less than $1000.
When the Great Depression hit very few houses were built in America, even economical bun- galows. When prosperity returned after World War II the cozy bungalow was not the house Americans were dreaming about. Home builders were increasingly thinking big and bigger and the bungalow became regarded as “a starter house.”
Years of Popularity - 1905 - 1940
The American Foursquare house is the four-door sedan of the new car showroom stuffed with flashy convertibles and sexy sports cars. You can dress it up a bit but at its heart it remains an honest, hardworking house that was the backbone of many an urban neighborhood in the early 1900s. America’s emerging middle class families were looking for a less pretentious house than the difficult to build and costly to maintain Victorians from the late 1800s. The new Foursquares were economical to build, roomy enough to handle the needs of a growing family, fit nicely on narrow city lots and were easy enough on the eyes.
American Foursquare is not so much an architectural style as a building form - a simple box shape with four rooms on each of two floors, arranged symmetrically. There is usually a half- floor up top peeking out from a low dormer centered on the front of a four-sided hipped roof. Typically a Foursquare house is built on an exposed foundation where a furnace was harbored in the basement. And almost always a full-size porch stretched across the front from where you could engage your neighbors.
Onto that basic form you can expect to see pretty much anything on an American Foursquare. There may be tall, slender windows and roof brackets borrowed from the Italianate Style; there may be the classical porch pillars and three-piece Palladian window of a Neoclassical Style; there may be the exposed rafters of a Craftsman Style; or there may be a Georgian Style pedi- mented entrance.
And an American Foursquare could be raised on a downtown lot with any building material
- you will see Foursquares constructed of wood or brick or stone or concrete blocks. When more than one type of building material is used on the first and second floors look for a beltcourse or continuous band that separates the two stories.
In fact the form of the American Foursquare was so standardized that the houses were sold in kits by big mail order companies like Sears Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward. Between 1908 and 1940 over 100,000 kit houses were built in the United States, with Sears selling about three in every four. While the Sears Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans boasted some 370 house designs many were a variation of the simple American Foursquare, costing about $2,000. The kit houses were shipped by rail in boxcars and arrived with a 75-page instruc-
tion book that helped the new homeowner navigate through 10,000 marked and labeled pieces (which could expand to 30,000 for more complicated designs).
Unlike some architectural styles that gained favor in particular parts of the country, Four- squares are found in abundance in every downtown neighborhood in America. But as Ameri- cans moved away from cities in ever greater numbers to larger lots in the suburbs the utilitarian Foursquare remained did not travel with them, remaining rooted in towns where the sturdy house projects a familiar face 100 years later.
Years of Popularity - 1910 - 1940
As American architects of the early 20th century began casting about for historic revival styles to build the houses of the nation’s first suburbs one of the places they landed was “Merrie Olde England” of the 1500s. At that time Great Britain was just coming out of the Middle Ages and prospering under the rule of the House of Tudor, most notably Henry VIII and Elizabeth I who between them ruled for over 80 years. In America the architecture spawned by the English Renaissance became known as Tudor Revival.
Tudor Revival was a versatile style in an architect’s toolbox. It could be adapted to modest one-and-one-half story houses that took the form of an English cottage or it could be applied to create a grand medieval manor house ideal for a sprawling estate.
The most recognizable feature of a Tudor Revival house is its half-timbering. In medieval times that framing held up the building but when executed in United States neighborhoods that half-timbering was only decorative. Historically the spaces between the wooden timbers were filled with plaster, brick or sometimes stone. Today it is often stucco that is inset into the wood framing. On the most opulent of the Tudor manor houses that brick would often be laid in a herringbone pattern like that of Charlie Brown’s shirt.
A Tudor Revival house will often stand out in a neighborhood of its Colonial Revival cousins. The form is asymmetrical and usually dominated by front-facing gables. The roofs are often steeply pitched and chimneys are given prominent billing in the composition; they are frequently oversized with patterned brickwork under ornate clay chimney pots at the top. You may even come across a Tudor cottage that boasts a simulated thatch roof.
Look at the entry doors on a Tudor Revival house - a popular choice is a heavy board-and- batten door that accentuates the medieval feel of the house. It is usually topped by a flattened Tudor arch or perhaps a pointed Gothic arch as the Tudor Style has its roots in Gothic architec- ture. You won’t see a front porch on a true Tudor house but often the front door is given a for- mal enclosed entry.
Small, leaded glass windows, often is the shape of diamonds, proliferate on historically accu- rate Tudor Revival houses, a nod to their 1500s origins when English glassmakers began pro- ducing the sturdy glass with a high amount of lead oxide.
The half-timbering on Tudor Revival houses is brought inside with heavy exposed wooden beams in the main rooms. True Tudors would find the walls slathered with dark English panel- ing that often winds up being lightened to suit modern tastes. That taste for the English country- side has never gone away. In the first half of the 20th century Tudor Revival was a big player in American suburbs, rivaling Colonial Revival houses in some neighborhoods. And in 21st cen-
tury homebuilding, almost 500 years after its appearance, half-timbered Tudor Revival-inspired houses still elbow their way onto neighborhood streets in the postmodern architectural age.