Several years ago I published a news letter
focused on residential architecture resulting in
many of my readers expressing thanks for both
the information and clearing up a lot of
misunderstandings. The section about the same
subject on JEFFSHAPIROREALTOR.COM still
draws a lot of attention and comment.
I decided this month to offer this history and
look at the most common styles gracing our
I hope you find it informative and as enjoyable
as I have putting this together
Brief Look at the History of
American Residential Architecture
• The exterior of your house is the face of your home and shares its
style and personality with the neighborhood and those just driving by.
It’s the last thing you see of your home as you head into your day, and
the first thing that welcomes you on your return. Its details and
materials are just as important; even more so, as the crown molding,
bath floor tile or your kitchen's backsplash. Materials such as stone,
copper, wood, steel and brick can be used to finish a specific
architectural style or create a new one. Your house's exterior paint
color may be the most visible design decision you make, especially if
showcased with exterior lights. The landscaping in the front and side
yards offer both a welcoming transition from street to door and a buffer
between your home and the public spaces it shares. Architects design
a home’s exterior for beauty, functionality, suitability with the lot, region,
local building codes, and are guided by what you want as well as their
own design influences and philosophies. It can be completely new and
innovative, display a mix of influences or reflect the style of an earlier
period. Popular home designs in the U.S. include Victorian, Queen
Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor, Cape Cod, Mediterranean, Craftsman,
Prairie Style, Art Deco, Modern, Mid-Century Modern, Ranch Style and
• The Colonial house is expected to be symmetrical with two windows on
either side of a central doorway. Five windows rank across the second
floor. This fits into the Palladian influence upon the architects in England
whose pattern books were being copied by builders in the colonies.
These influences spread to those building houses for farmers in the
country as well as prosperous businessmen in the emerging cities.
• As the population from New England spread across what is now New
York State into Northern Pennsylvania, Ohio, and into Illinois, they
brought this style of the Colonial house with them.
• These houses below represent the development of the Colonial house
The Stanley Whitman House on High Street in
Farmington, Connecticut was built in about 1720.
This house marks a line between the Medieval
style and the Colonial style which was to follow.
Note the Medieval fenestration (windows) and
the overhang with pendant drops. Note the
Colonial use of wood, the central chimney which
serves the fireplaces in all rooms, and the
symmetry. The lean-to, added across the back 40
years later, gives the house a traditional New
England saltbox shape.
This house, built in the 1720s in Milton,
Massachusetts, is a typical Colonial style
house. Its symmetrical exterior and
entryway is influenced by the pattern
books from England that were available
to local builders. It's floor plan is called
four over four: it has four equal sized
rooms on the first floor with four rooms
above. The central chimney serves
fireplaces in all eight rooms. This house
does not include the traditional lean-to.
• The Dutch influence on American colonial architecture can be found in New York City
and surrounding areas in New Jersey, on Long Island and along the Hudson River.
The Dutch Colonial Revival is considered a subtype of the Colonial Revival style. It
often shares a great many of the same characteristics including symmetry, similar
siding, windows, entries, and finishes both inside and out.
• Where the Dutch Revival is most obviously different is in its distinctive profile; it's not
uncommon to hear it described as a "barn house."
• The gambrel roof allowed a complete second story to be built at minimal expense.
Another advantage, as seen in the 1798 Federal Direct Tax records, was that
gambrel-roofed houses were classified for tax purposes as one-story homes, which
allowed them to be taxed at a lower rate than two-story houses.
• The Dutch Colonial Revival, without question, is one of the prettiest and most varied
house styles built during the 20th century. It was very popular through the 1920s but
became rarer during the 1930s. It's unusual to see post-WWII Dutch Colonial
Revivals though occasionally you may see a gambrel roof on a post-War rambler.
• In the Louisiana territory, houses were built in the French style.
Surviving structures can be best seen in New Orleans and in rural
Louisiana along the Mississippi River. The plantation houses are
timber framed structures featuring tall and steeply pitched hipped
roofs characteristic of rural French manor houses. They are adapted
to the sub-tropical Louisiana in two ways: the main living area, built
of heavy interlocked timbers, was built on a very tall brick foundation
to protect the house from the periodical river flooding; and, the
houses were usually surrounded by wide porches, or galleries, to
provide refreshingly cool yet sheltered outdoor living during the
summer months. Characteristic are extensive porches and no halls.
They are graced with French doors from every room to the porch.
• Florida and the Southwest offered few of the riches to the Spanish
Empire as Mexico and Peru and were sparsely settled by
missionaries and military men to serve as buffers to French and
English expansion. However, by the time settlers arrived in Virginia
and Massachusetts in the early 1600s, the Spanish Empire had
been thriving for more than a century. Today few buildings from this
era survive, except for the mission chapels in California, Arizona,
New Mexico, and Texas. Most colonial houses were modest
structures of adobe and stone. The Governors palaces in Santa Fe,
New Mexico and San Antonio, Texas, however, offer brief glimpses
into the original Spanish colonial architecture
• One of the most classic, understated house styles is the Colonial Revival. Stately and
distinguished, rather than cute or cottage like, they are substantial homes that
declare that the owners are persons with a solid center and traditional values.
• During the 1890s, Colonial Revival was expressed everywhere. One of the major
drivers behind its popularity was the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Prominent architects from across the US competed to out-do each other with their
designs in what was then called the "White City." During the day, the buildings were
white, but at night the magic of the city transcended anything seen before; all the
buildings were lit in electric lights. The effect was far reaching as millions traveled to
Chicago to see the fair. When they left, they took an appreciation for classical
architecture with them.
• The reason for the continued popularity of the Colonial Revival is its timeless design.
Unless you are extremely knowledgeable of building materials and techniques, it's
sometimes difficult to date the Colonial Revival with absolute accuracy.
• There was really only a hundred years between the original "Colonial" architecture
and the revival styles that attempted to emulate it. Early Colonial Revivals style were
sometimes excessive ... sort of Queen Anne attitudes with Greek and Roman details.
Neo-Classical, it could be argued, is one expression of the synergy between the two.
The predominate floor plan for all of these houses is a central hall with stairs, the
living room, two rooms deep from front to back, with the dining room on the
opposite side of the hall and the kitchen behind it. Bedrooms and baths are above.
The houses often have porches and garages attached with perhaps a one or two
story EL in the back for a family room.
• In French, the term beaux arts means fine arts. Based on ideas taught at
the legendary École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Beaux Arts style flourished
between 1885 and 1920.
• Also known as Beaux Arts Classicism, Academic Classicism, or Classical
Revival, Beaux Arts is a late and eclectic form of Neoclassicism. It combines
classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome with Renaissance
ideas. Beaux Arts is characterized by order, symmetry, formal design,
grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. In the United States, the Beaux
Arts style led to planned neighborhoods with large, showy houses, wide
boulevards, and vast parks. Due to the size and grandiosity of the buildings,
the Beaux Arts style is most commonly used for public buildings like
museums, railway stations, libraries, banks, courthouses, and government
• The Foursquare, or Box, is a type rather than a style. It is characterized by its
cubic form and simple, economical floor plan.
• The antecedents of the American Foursquare differ depending on your source. Its
origin may lie in a cross-pollination of the waning Queen Anne style with the
nascent emergence of the simplified Free Classic and the resurgent Colonial
Revival style that became incredibly popular during the later half of the 1890s as a
result of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World's
Fair). Versions of the Foursquare appeared in publications and plan books before
1900 so popularity being what it is, it wasn't long before savvy builders simplified
the shape and detail making it affordable to the middle-class. As a farmhouse, it
competed against the wing-and-gable type that was predominant across the US
during the late 19th century
• It wouldn't have hurt that it was a square house of dependable proportions and
solid, honest construction in a country where a square deal was offered by then
President Theodore Roosevelt. From it's very beginning, it was perceived as an
American type and style.
• The Cape Cod cottage style (and in turn its Colonial Revival descendant of
the 1930s–50s) originated with the colonists who came from England to
New England. They used the English house with a hall and parlor as a
model, adapting this design with local materials to best protect against New
England's notoriously stormy weather. Over the next several generations
emerged a 1- to 1 1⁄2-story house with wooden shutters and clapboard or
• The Reverend Timothy Dwight IV , president of Yale University from, coined
the term "Cape Cod House" after a visit to the Cape in 1800.
• The Pilgrims designed houses that provided safety from New England’s
extreme winter climate. Temperatures in January and February can drop to
-20 degrees Fahrenheit, and multiple-feet snow pile-ups occur frequently. To
fight the chill, the Pilgrims built extensive central chimneys and low ceilinged
rooms to conserve heat. Most Cape Cod homes faced the south, which
allowed sunlight to enter the windows and provide additional heat. The
steep roof characteristic of New England homes also prevented excessive
amounts of snow from accumulating on the house. Fluctuating Cape Cod
temperatures presented the problem of moisture within interior walls, which
was addressed by using wainscoting: a design element still prevalent today.
Finally, the Pilgrims dealt with stormy winds by installing shutters on the
windows. A trademark of Cape Cod home design, the shutter is now an
aesthetic element instead of a functional on.
CAPE COD II
• Colonial-era Capes were most prevalent in the Northeastern United States
and Atlantic Canada. They were made of wood, and covered in wide
clapboard or shingles. Most houses were smaller, usually 1,000–2,000
square feet in size. Originally, they did not have dormer windows. There
were generally an odd collection of windows in the gable ends, and in these
windows nine and six panes were the most common. The rooms were
generally furnished with all hardwood floors.
• The style has a symmetrical appearance with front door in the center of the
house, and a large central chimney for fireplaces in each room. A cape-style
house also commonly had a master bedroom on the first floor and an
unfinished loft on the second floor. A typical early house had little or no
exterior ornamentation, although many built during the Greek Revival
featured an entablature with corner pilasters, pedimented gable ends, and a
pilaster-and-lintel entry with sidelights.
CAPE COD III
• The houses of early New England settlers seem distantly related to
modern Cape Cod–style homes and cottages found throughout the
country. While the original half, three-quarter, and full Cape styles
are still common, homeowners experimented over the years by
doubling the full Cape and adding new wings onto the rear end.
Homeowners also added roof dormers for increased space, light,
and ventilation. Despite the changes, 1 1⁄2-story Capes are still a
popular, affordable style on the housing market.
• A split-level home (also called a tri-level home) is a style of house in which the floor levels are
staggered, so that the "main" level of the house (e.g. the level that usually contains the front entry), is
partway between the upper and lower floors. The main level typically contains common living areas (a
living room, kitchen, dining room, and/or family room). There are typically two short sets of stairs, one
running upward to a bedroom level, and one going downward toward a basement area. The basement
level is usually finished off, and often contains additional living areas (most often, a family room, an
office and/or a hobby or playroom), as well as frequently laundry facilities and other utilities. The
basement level often also features a garage, and is usually level with the driveway. Beneath the main
level (downward from the basement level) is usually crawl space, or sometimes additional basement
space, which is frequently unfinished.
• A sidesplit is where the split level is visible from the front elevation of the home.
• A backsplit is where the split level is only visible from the side elevation. The front elevations shows
only a single story and the two stories are in the back. A bi-level includes two short sets of stairs and
two levels. The entry is between floors. The front door opens to a landing. One short flight of stairs
leads up to the top floor; another short flight of stairs leads down. The top floor tends to be full height
ceilings with the living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms. The lower floor often has
lower ceilings and is partially below ground. However, in many modern split foyer homes, the lower
level is at grade, which necessitates an outdoor staircase to reach the front door. These homes often
also have very high ceilings on the lower level to accommodate the home's HVAC ducting.
SPLIT LEVEL II
• The raised ranch includes a
basement on the bottom and a "full
set of stairs" (a full flight of stairs,
usually 12 or 13) which leads to the
1st level. A raised ranch has a
different look on the front than a split-
entry, as the front door lines up
differently to the front windows. The
front door entry at is predominately
at the lower floor. The top floor per
FNMA/FHLMC is the living area and
the lower floor is the basement, even
SUGAR MAPLE SPLIT My understanding is the "sugar maple"
enters at grade level typically with a entry foyer, den and in most cases
a full or half bath (sometimes with laundry) and access to a garage
(could be one or two car). Many times a back door opens to rear yard at
grade level from this level as well. From this level there is usually three
to four steps down to a partial basement (under the living room/dining
room and kitchen areas). From the foyer and up 4 steps you enter the
"living" level, usually the formal living room, formal dining room and
kitchen. From the kitchen more often then not, you can go back down
the 4 steps to the den level. Back in the formal living room and up 4
steps you get to the "sleeping" level. Usually three bedroom (larger
home could have four) and typically one full bath in the hallway (might
have a second full in master if larger "model"). Many times there is a
linen closet in the hallway outside the hall way full bath, once opened
there might be a half door (at eye level) in front of you and once opened
there is usually storage space over the living room, dining room and
kitchen area. Speaking of storage, there is usually a pull-down set of
stairs in the second floor hallway accessing "attic" storage over the
GREEK REVIVAL - AMERICAN GOTHIC
• The most popular style of architecture prior to the Victorian era was the Greek Revival. This style was
used almost exclusively for public buildings where simplicity and dignity were considered the most
important attributes. By the 1840s the Greek style was no longer fashionable for a private residence. Its
popularity had waned about the time Victoria became Queen. Many early cottages were built as
summer residences only, with no insulation, yet the underlying surfaces were of solid construction.
Architects and builders often submitted alternate designs for a house where the floor plans were
identical, and only the facades varied. But when frame construction came along, houses were built
quickly and ornate details were added later. Many early homes had neither kitchens or bathrooms. As is
typical of these early homes, additions often house the kitchens and baths.
• Most of the early homes, especially those built in England, were built of stone, and enhanced with
decorative "stone tracery". The number of full-blown Gothic stone mansions was never large. Only the
wealthy could afford such homes which required the labors of highly skilled stone carvers. The costly
Gothic style was eventually translated into wood, and thousands of "Carpenter Gothic" houses still
• The Character American Carpenter Gothic style is characterized by steep gables and pointed windows.
Often the construction was vertical "Board and Batton" which was considered particularly fitting for a
Gothic cottage because of its upward tendency. In a wider sense we now apply the term "American
Gothic" to all homes of typically Victorian design. These homes mark the real beginning of modern
architecture. The homes are planned from the inside out - the layout of the rooms and the traffic pattern
determines the outward look. Inside they have a happy hide-and-seek quality of surprise.
• When Gothic came to America and was translated to "Carpenter Gothic", the stone tracery was
replaced by wooden Gingerbread. The ornate wooden detail is considered a folk art. Each carpenter
had his own ideas and employed his own fanciful designs.
• The Victorian architectural period mostly spans the period of roughly 1825-1900.
The Victorians drew deeply from history, nature, geometry, theory, and personal
inspiration to create their designs. Prior to 1890, designers, though properly
trained in the academics of standard architectural systems, still managed to
employ their own creative ideas.
• Early Victorian structures were relatively simple in style, while those built after the
Civil War became more complicated. They combined styles as they saw fit. The
end result was often a stunning visual effect. The building styles of post-Civil War
America were elaborate and flamboyant, very much fueled by new industrial
society. Now collectively called "Victorian" the architecture was made up of
several main styles. These include Italianate, Second Empire, Stick-Eastlake,
and Queen Anne. Generally, Italianate style structures have flat roof lines,
corniced eaves, angled bay windows and Corinthian-columned porches. Stick-
Eastlake structures often include square bays, flat roof lines and free-style
decorations. Queen Annes have a gabled roof, shingled insets, angled bay
VICTORIAN VARIATIONS – ITALIANATE STYLE
• The Italianate style was popularized in the United States by Alexander Jackson Davis
in the 1840s as an alternative to Gothic or Greek Revival styles. Davis' design for Blandwood, the
former residence of North Carolina Governor John Motley Morehead, is the oldest surviving
example of Italianate architecture in the United States, constructed 1844. An early example of
Italianate architecture, it is closer in ethos to the Italianate works of Nash than the more
Renaissance inspired designs of Barry. Davis' 1854 Litchfield Villa in what has become Prospect
Park, Brooklyn is a splendid example of the style. It was initially referred to as the "Italian Villa" or
"Tuscan Villa" style. Richard Upjohn used the style extensively, beginning in 1845 with the Edward
King House. Other leading practitioners of the style were John Notman, by many the first to bring
the style to the United States and Henry Austin. Notman designed "Riverside," the first "Italian
Villa" style house in Burlington, New Jersey in 1837 (now destroyed).
• Italianate was reinterpreted again and became an indigenous style. It is distinctive by its
pronounced exaggeration of many Italian Renaissance characteristics: emphatic eaves supported
by corbels, low-pitched roofs barely discernible from the ground, or even flat roofs with a wide
projection. A tower is often incorporated hinting at the Italian belvedere or even campanile tower.
Motifs drawn from the Italianate style were incorporated into the commercial builders' vocabulary,
and appear in Victorian architecture dating from the mid-to-late 19th century.
• This architectural style became more popular than Greek Revival by the late 1860s. Its popularity
was due to its being suitable for many different building materials and budgets, as well as the
development of cast-iron and press-metal technology making the production of decorative
elements like the brackets and cornices more efficient. However, the style was superseded in
VICTORIAN VARIATIONS – QUEEN ANNE
• Queen Anne Style buildings in America came into vogue in the
1880s, replacing the French-derived Second Empire as the "style
of the moment." The popularity of high Queen Anne Style waned
in the early 1900s, but some elements, such as the wraparound
front porch, continued to be found on buildings into the 1920s.
• The "Queen Anne" style that had been formulated in Britain by
Norman Shaw and other architects arrived in New York with the
new housing for the New York House and School of Industry at
120 West 16th Street. Gabled and domestically scaled, it is of
warm, soft brick enclosing some square terracotta panels, with
an arched side passage leading to an inner court and back
house; its detailing is largely confined to the treatment of its
picturesquely disposed windows, with small-paned upper sashes
and plate glass lower ones. There are triple windows of Serlian
motif and a two-story oriel that projects asymmetrically.
• The name Tudor suggests that these houses were built in the 1500s, during
the Tudor Dynasty in England. But of course, Tudor houses in the United
States are modern-day re-inventions and are more accurately called Tudor
Revival or Medieval Revival. Some Tudor Revival houses mimic humble
Medieval cottages - They may even include a false thatched roof. Other
Tudor Revival homes suggest Medieval palaces. They may have
overlapping gables, parapets, and beautifully patterned brick or stonework.
These historic details combine with Victorian or Craftsman flourishes.
• As in many Queen Anne and Stick style homes, Tudor style houses often
feature striking decorative timbers. These timbers hint at - but do not
reproduce - Medieval construction techniques. In Medieval houses, the
timber framing was integral with the structure. Tudor Revival houses,
however, merely suggest the structural framework with false half-timbering.
This decorative woodwork comes in many different designs, with stucco or
patterned brick between the timbers.
• In the United States, Tudor styling takes on a variety of forms ranging from
elaborate mansions to modest suburban homes with mock masonry
veneers. The style became enormously popular in the 1920s and 1930s,
and modified versions became fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s.
• The essential characteristics of a Tudor Revival house usually include the
use of half-timbering, oversized fireplaces, and the use of brick and stucco
siding. Roofs are steeply pitched, and dormers and overhangs are common.
The American Bungalow
• Bungalow style means different things to different people and is therefore not a
particularly precise term. It generally connotes a Craftsman-style house, and is
widely used by most people that way.
• Blurring the definition are some who describe any small house built from 1900 to
about 1950 as a bungalow. They may call them Spanish or English bungalows
regardless of whether or not they have any true bungalow characteristics.
• There are all kinds of Bungalow styles and most of the including Craftsmen, Arts
& Crafts and Prairie. Most of the Bungalow homes you see today are out West,
especially in California.
• A contemporary house is a building with a modern day design to it. This
design is often characterized by irregular house shapes, large windows,
open floors and have organic designs. Contemporary design or modern
design relies on clean lines, smooth and polished surfaces, and few
intricate details. It is not stark and cold, but contemporary design is
comfortable and spacious, without clutter.
MODERNISM - FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
• The notion that "Form follows function", a dictum originally expressed by Frank Lloyd Wright's
early mentor Louis Sullivan, meaning that the result of design should derive directly from its
• simplicity and clarity of forms and elimination of "unnecessary detail"
• materials at 90 degrees to each other
• visual expression of structure (as opposed to the hiding of structural elements)
• the related concept of "Truth to materials", meaning that the true nature or natural appearance
of a material ought to be seen rather than concealed or altered to represent something else
• use of industrially-produced materials; adoption of the machine aesthetic
• One of the most ubiquitous house styles is the Minimal Traditional. Commonly
overlooked as a non-style, it quickly evolved from the simplified "modern"
interpretation of the many revival styles prevalent during the 1920s.
• The more ornamented, distinctive styles of the 1920s such as the English
Revival or Spanish Eclectic were stripped of all unnecessary details and
marketed as Modern American, Modern English, or Modern Colonial cottages.
These small homes replaced the craftsman-style bungalows of the previous
decade, which by the early 1930s were considered out of date and hopelessly
old-fashioned. Because they were small, they were also affordable by many
working and middle-class families.
I hope you enjoyed this look at American residential architecture. Obviously I just
touched on many areas and didn’t even mention others. If any of my readers would
like me to go further, just let me know. I have in the works a “biography” of
Levittown, NY and an in depth look at Frank Lloyd Wright and his impact on
Sales Agent – Realtor®
New York – New Jersey
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage®
Senior Real Estate Specialist
NJ Circle of Excellence
15 Vervalen Street, Closter, NJ 07624
that no matter
the style of home
you want or plan
on selling, I am
here to help you
with any of your
real estate needs.
My Best, Jeff