U.S. Home Architecture: Classic Houses

You don't know where you stand if you don't know how you got there. Here's a brief history of iconic U.S. home styles.

Illustration by Tom Hennessy
1 ×

 

American domestic architecture came into its own in the 20th century. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene & Greene, and Philip Johnson created true homegrown styles. But an equally important development never showed up on a blueprint — the preservation movement. Laws now protect the finest period neighborhoods, owners of old houses maintain their original facades even as they update interiors, and architects turn to the past for inspiration.

This desire to hold on to the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries ensures that future generations will experience American history in its most intimate form: the homes we lived in. From the simple log cabin brought over by Swedish settlers in the late 1600s to the sophisticated geometry of 20th-century modernists, the rich variety of homes reflects the melting pot of people and cultural influences that have shaped this country. "Each one of us has an ancestry, we have a genealogy — and so do houses," says John Milnes Baker, author of American House Styles. Next, a timeline of our architectural history.
American domestic architecture came into its own in the 20th century. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene & Greene, and Philip Johnson created true homegrown styles. But an equally important development never showed up on a blueprint — the preservation movement. Laws now protect the finest period neighborhoods, owners of old houses maintain their original facades even as they update interiors, and architects turn to the past for inspiration.

This desire to hold on to the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries ensures that future generations will experience American history in its most intimate form: the homes we lived in. From the simple log cabin brought over by Swedish settlers in the late 1600s to the sophisticated geometry of 20th-century modernists, the rich variety of homes reflects the melting pot of people and cultural influences that have shaped this country. "Each one of us has an ancestry, we have a genealogy — and so do houses," says John Milnes Baker, author of American House Styles. Next, a timeline of our architectural history.
2 ×

Timeline of American House Styles

 

Timeline of American House Styles

Classic house tout
Illustration by Tom Hennessy
3 ×

More American House Styles

 

More American House Styles

Class 1
Illustration by Tom Hennessy
DUTCH COLONIAL
Time: 1650-1710. Place: New York's Hudson Valley, New Jersey.
The gambrel roof built by Dutch settlers provided extra attic space.
4 ×

American House Styles Continued

 

American House Styles Continued

Classic houses 2
Illustration by Tom Hennessy
SALTBOX
Time: 1670-1780. Place: New England.
The distinctive catslide roof sloughed off heavy snows and rain.
5 ×

The Ornamenting of America Styles

 

The Ornamenting of America Styles

Classic house 3
Illustration by Tom Hennessy
CAPE COD
Time: 1710-1850 Place: New England.
Abundant timber encouraged the expansion of a traditional one-room English cottage.
Although a taste for heavy ornamentation shaped the houses of the Victorian era, it took the Civil War to make their detailing possible. The railroads and factories that the North built for the war launched the industrial age and with it the ability to mass-produce elaborate metal and wood embellishments. "What do you do with a cannon factory in peacetime?" asks Roger Moss, director of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, a research library for American architectural history. "You start making stoves, or doorknobs, or decorative tin ceilings." By the 1870s, an expanded rail system could deliver affordable products, like standardized lumber and machine-carved spindles and brackets, as well as wrought-iron fences, roof tiles, and fancy-cut shingles — or the machines to make them — from Boston to San Francisco. (Stylish details arrived later in the South, where it took 25 years to restore the railroads.) Now even the middle class could build fanciful homes, and the owners of houses built in plainer classical styles could update them with gingerbread porches, spawning a uniquely Victorian folk tradition that swept the country.

Hearths and Homes
These days, a fireplace is just a design detail, but in Colonial times, it was a necessity that dictated the layout of a home. Each living space needed this heating source, and although two rooms could share a chimney along their common wall, they had to be small and boxy to be warmed by the fires. When 19th-century technology supplanted the need for a massive brick chimney in every room, it liberated house design. By 1830, the cast-iron stove had improved and flues became smaller. The ability to connect multiple stovepipes to the same flue from any position along a wall led to house designs with irregular layouts and additional rooms. Rectangular Georgian and Federal homes gave way to Italianate and Second Empire styles, with their wings and towers. Versatile 2x4 balloon framing, which replaced unwieldy post-and-beam construction, furthered the design revolution.

By 1880, central furnaces that used single chimneys made in-room heating fires obsolete. Ducts carried warmed air, removing the last constraints on design. Enter the Queen Anne, with its complex floor plans, bay windows, odd-shaped roofs, and imaginative protrusions. No flue, no fireplace — unless, of course, you still wanted the charm.
6 ×

Where to Find It

 

Where to Find It

Classic houses 4
Illustration by Tom Hennessy
GEORGIAN
Time: 1720-1780. Place: East Coast to South
Builders copied from carpenter's manuals the classical designs favored in England.
International house style:
Architect Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, CT, 1949.

Post-Modern house style:
Architect Robert Venturi's Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, PA, 1964
Venturi Scott Brown & Associates Inc.
215-487-0400
www.vsba.com

Our thanks to:
John Milnes Baker, AIA
914-232-8569
the author of American House Styles
W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.

Robert Moss
Director of Athenaeum of Philadelphia
www.libertynet.org/athena
 
 

TV Listings

Find TV Listing for This Old House and Ask This Old House in your area.