The Basics of American Home Styles

Pocahontas was chatting with her friend Captain John Smith, comparing her reed-covered hut with his sturdy log home. “Hey John,” she asked, “What style is your house?”

“I’m not sure,” Smith answered, “but I think it’s a Colonial.”  (Rimshot)

American home design from the Colonial period through the late nineteenth century followed trends and reflected popular tastes. Well-known styles were often “all the rage” for a number of decades until another style supplanted it; rarely did more than one or two styles dominate home design at the same time.

Elements of Style

The two important characteristics that have the most to do with a house’s style are massing and detailing. Massing is the size and shape of the “boxes” that make up the house; detailing is everything from trim and siding to windows and doors.

The John Blair House Kitchen, Williamsburg, VA
The earliest American homes were simply massed. The classic Williamsburg Colonial – upon which many hundreds of thousands of American homes are based – is a simple rectangular box.

A Colonial home is usually clad in wood siding or brick, and has double-hung windows (the kind that slide up and down).

Colonial homes were based on simple European models and were rarely exuberantly detailed. The Georgian style – a simple two-storey brick box with symmetrical windows and a centered door – is a well-known example.

Revival and Eclectic Styles

Home designers and builders have been influenced by styles from earlier times throughout American history. In the 19 th Century, many homes were based on classical models.

Greek Revival
Greek Revival homes have very simple forms, often just a single rectangular block. Taking cues from Greek temples, builders added a front porch with massive columns, and a very heavy cornice line at the roof.

Italianate styled homes emphasize the vertical and are almost always very elaborately decorated. The cornice line at the roof of an Italianate is notable for wide overhangs and large scrollwork brackets, and the windows are often crowned with ornately carved headers.

Colonial Revivals aren’t copies of original Colonials; rather they’re liberal interpretations of all shapes and sizes, using Colonial details and elements for inspiration. The Colonial Revival style was extremely popular during the early 20th Century and almost always has a front porch, a detailed cornice line, double hung windows, and symmetrical massing.

Tudor is a very free-form style, asymmetrical with very steeply pitched roofs. A wide variety of material is seen on the outside, although the best-known examples include some “half-timbering” – areas of stucco or brick broken up with wood timbers. The entry of a Tudor home is often modest but heavy, and windows are broken up with many small panes.

Victorian Homes

“Victorian” refers to a group of styles popular in America during the late 19th century that was made possible in part by the invention of new framing techniques.

Queen Anne Victorian
Queen Anne is the most common Victorian style and is characterized by an irregular shape, a steeply pitched roof, elaborately carved details, and large porch.

Queen Annes are best known for their multi-hued color schemes and complex siding and trim details.

Shingle style is uniquely American in origin, and was one of the first styles to be embraced by society Architects of the late 1800s. Shingle style homes are often similar in massing to the Queen Anne style, but as the name suggests, used wood shingle siding as exterior cladding.

Unlike the Queen Anne, shingle style homes usually shun elaborate exterior detailing and trim.

Early 20th Century

In the first half of the 20 th century American Architects began developing new home styles instead of relying on classical and European models for inspiration.

Among the more notable American styles is Prairie, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright but practiced in various forms throughout the country. Prairie homes are typically long and low with deep roof overhangs. Porches are common and usually supported by massive columns. The Prairie style wasn’t in fashion long but strongly influenced hundreds of thousand of “ranch” homes across the country.

The Gamble House - A Landmark Craftsman
Craftsman style began in California and quickly became the preferred style for small homes across the country until about 1930. Small Craftsman homes are usually called Bungalows and are characterized by low-pitched gabled roofs with wide overhangs. Details such as beams and brackets are very common.

A Craftsman home has a “hand-crafted” look that continues throughout the interior.

Need expert Residential Architectural advice for your new home or remodeling project? Contact Richard Taylor, AIA at RTA Studio Architects to arrange a meeting or an online consultation.