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How to Tell Apart the 6 Colonial American Home Styles (& Why You Should Want To)

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Sometimes, it's actually very important to judge a book by its cover, especially in the case of home exteriors. As someone whose day job focuses on residential interiors, I've been learned how true this can be by reading Virginia Savage McAlester. Her newly updated and expanded book, A Field Guide to American Houses, is a dive into our country's collective architectural history.

The oldest street in America, in Philadelphia.
The oldest street in America, in Philadelphia. Photo by Elle Decor

Spanning a period roughly from 1600 to 1820, Colonial architecture is exactly what it sounds like: architectural techniques and styles used in American colonies, adapted from various motherlands, be them English, Dutch, French, or Spanish. These homes are important, but relatively rare pieces of American history—though one thing is for sure, they are styles with staying power. Their influence is pervasive even in today’s architectural landscape.

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Likely a newly built home, in the colonial style.
Likely a newly built home, in the colonial style. Photo by The Painted Drawer

Which is why it's good to know which Colonial style is which and how to tell them apart. Here are some identifying features of the main movements.

Dutch Colonial (1625–1840)

How to identify it:

  • Stone or brick construction
  • Chimneys at either end
  • Parapet gabled roofs
  • Flared eaves and gambrel roofs, in rural areas

Dutch colonies had a short-lived presence along the Hudson River before the English gained control. Given their prime location (New York City, originally deemed New Amsterdam, was colonized by the Dutch in the early 17th century), and the fact that English colonies surrounded them from the North and the South, it didn’t take long for the English to start moving in. Nevertheless, the Dutch architectural heritage lives on in this area.

The Van Alen House in Kinderhook, NY.
The Van Alen House in Kinderhook, NY. Photo by Daniel Case

In urban hubs along the Hudson (including modern day New York) brick homes with parapet-gabled roofs were the norm. These houses exhibited steeply pitched roofs with chimneys at each end, as in the image above.

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The gable is the triangular section of a roof between its pitches—and in a parapet-gabled roof, this side actually extends up above the roofline approximately 18 inches. The roof, in this case, stops just inside the gable wall.

Flared eaves and Gambrel roofs on Dutch Colonial homes. Photos by Old House Web, Jim Henderson

Rural Dutch residences, constructed from local material like stone, lasted longer than their urban counterparts. Some, but not all, exhibited flared eaves, as shown above where the roof line flips out over the porch. Another characteristic of these homes that signifies their Dutch origin is that they have Gambrel roof, meaning four slopes rather than just two.

French Colonial (1700–1830)

How to identify it:

  • Multiple exits oriented to the outside
  • Extensive porches supported by columns, in rural areas
  • Homes raised above grade to protect from flood damage, in rural areas

A defining feature of French Colonial houses is their outward orientation; in French homes, nearly every room has it’s own exit to the exterior. Inhabitants can walk from one room directly into the next because hallways are not utilized, in contrast to the English residences of this time, which are oriented inward.

The Font-Juncadella Building in New Orleans shows multiple exterior entrances; it was built circa 1806, renovated in the 1950s.
The Font-Juncadella Building in New Orleans shows multiple exterior entrances; it was built circa 1806, renovated in the 1950s. Photo by The Historic New Orleans Collection

Depending on how well you remember your middle school history, you probably are familiar with the Louisiana Purchase. After this acquisition of Jefferson's, French architecture went on the decline—though it prevailed longer in New Orleans.

Next time you’re in this city, of course eat some beignets and drink some hurricanes (though preferably not the horrible trash-can batch ones at Pat O’s), but also try to make time to take in the city’s architectural history. Some of the best examples of French Colonial architecture are found here.

Destrehan Plantation outside of New Orleans. Built circa 1790.
Destrehan Plantation outside of New Orleans. Built circa 1790. Photo by Architecture.About.com

Rural French colonial architecture, on the other hand, is known for its sprawling porches supported by columns, as shown above. These homes were frequently built high above ground level to avoid flood damage.

Spanish Colonial (1600–1850)

How to identify it:

  • Thick walls, small windows, flat roofs
  • Minimal exterior decoration
  • Some exhibit pitched roofs with cantilevered porch on second level

Spanish settlements spanned much of the Western United States, from Texas to California, and much of modern-day Mexico as well. Most residences during this time had little decorative detail, thick walls, and small windows.

Two primary sub-types are the pitched roof and flat roof, with long and narrow second story porches common in some of the pitched roof prototypes.

Spanish Governor’s Palace, ca. 1772. San Antonio, TX
Spanish Governor’s Palace, ca. 1772. San Antonio, TX Photo by Texas Highways

Because the author of this article is a proud San Antonio native, I will provide you with an additional Spanish Colonial example from this great city, along with an important fact about it: The emblematic design at the top of the Alamo was not part of the original Spanish structure, which had a flat roof, but was added later by the U.S. Military.

The original Alamo is shown below the orange line; windows and decorative pediment were later additions
The original Alamo is shown below the orange line; windows and decorative pediment were later additions Photo by John Wayne-The Alamo

English Colonial: Georgian and Federal (1700–1820):

Two English colonial styles that are by definition separate from one another, Georgian and Federal are so similar that I’ve grouped them together here. (In reality, the impetus for the formal name switch came with America’s independence from Britain, after which “Georgian” was a little too reminiscent of the land they were trying to leave behind).

This period marks an increased interest in Classicism, particularly stemming from the Italian Renaissance, which evidently took quite a while to make its way to the New World. Suddenly, there were builders and carpenters on the scene who took care to study and formalize their works. During the tail end of the Federal period, the first true American architects came on the scene, having a broad impact.

Georgian:

  • Box layout
  • Symmetrical windows at front façade
The Georgian-style Stenton house in Philadelphia is the typical “box” shape layout with symmetrical window placement along the front façade.
The Georgian-style Stenton house in Philadelphia is the typical “box” shape layout with symmetrical window placement along the front façade.

Federal

  • Semi-circular fanlight
  • Small porch at entry
The Ives house designed by architect Caleb Ormsbee shows the tell-tale Federal characteristics of a semi-circular fanlight window above the door, as well as a small porch at the entry. Built 1806.
The Ives house designed by architect Caleb Ormsbee shows the tell-tale Federal characteristics of a semi-circular fanlight window above the door, as well as a small porch at the entry. Built 1806. Photo by WikiWand

And because history is made more meaningful when we know the context and individual stories of people who lived it, I will add that American Girl Doll Felicity Merriman would have likely lived in a house similar to Federal-style one above.

Early Classical Revival: (1770–1830)

How to identify it:

  • Full height entry porch with columns
  • Triangular pediment above door

The final style in American Colonial architecture is Early Classical Revival, which came about at the birth of America as a country. The fact that this style calls upon Roman architecture is no coincidence, considering government structures at this time were largely modeled after them as well.

The emergence of this style also marked a shift in Americans from stylistic followers to leaders: This was a style Americans helped champion, possibly no one more so than Thomas Jefferson, whose association with the style is so strong that it is sometimes referred to as Jeffersonian.

Jefferson’s Monticello is a high-style example of the Early Classical Revival, though it still demonstrates the characteristic full-height entry porch, with four columns and a triangular pediment.
Jefferson’s Monticello is a high-style example of the Early Classical Revival, though it still demonstrates the characteristic full-height entry porch, with four columns and a triangular pediment. Photo by Khan Academy

Even if you don’t consider architectural history as one of your interests, the more you know, the more you can distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. As with anything, increased knowledge results in increased appreciation!

In our current culture of HGTV and DIY home renovation projects, it can be easy to lose sight of architectural integrity. Along with fast food and fast fashion, there has emerged a form of fast architecture. As the above examples show, however, good architecture can last centuries. I definitely cannot say the same about any Forever 21 purchases I may or may not have made in the past.

What architectural style are you most drawn towards? Share your preferences in the comments.

Tags: architecture, american architecture, colonial architecture, residential architecture, home design