Influences on American Home Styles, 1600 to Today

American Residential Architecture in a Nutshell

stately homes in an old growth neighborhood
Oak Park Neighborhood in Suburban Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

Even if your house is brand new, its architecture draws inspiration from the past. Here's an introduction to house styles found throughout the United States. Find out what influenced important housing styles in the U.S. from Colonial to modern times. Learn how residential architecture has changed over the centuries, and discover interesting facts about the design influences that helped shape your own home.

facade detail of very old house, dark clapboard, dark salmon-colored door and window trim, diamond-paned window glass
Samuel Pickman House, c. 1665, Salem, Massachusetts. Photo ©2015 Jackie Craven

When North America was colonized by the Europeans, settlers brought building traditions from many different countries. Colonial American house styles from the 1600s until the American Revolution include a wide range of architectural types, including New England Colonial, German Colonial, Dutch Colonial, Spanish Colonial, French Colonial, and, of course, the ever-popular Colonial Cape Cod. More »

Large white antebellum plantation house, pillars holding up pediment and two porches
Neoclassical (Greek Revival) Stanton Hall, 1857. Photo by Franz Marc Frei/LOOK/Getty Images

During the founding of the United States, learned people such as Thomas Jefferson felt that ancient Greece and Rome expressed the ideals of democracy. After the American Revolution, architecture reflected the classical ideals of order and symmetry—a new classicism for a new country. Both state and federal government buildings throughout the land adopted this type of architecture. Ironically, many democracy-inspired Greek Revival mansions were built as plantation homes before the Civil War (antebellum).

American patriots soon became disinclined to use British architectural terms such as Georgian or Adam to describe their structures. Instead, they imitated the English styles of the day but called the style Federal, a variation of neoclassicism. This architecture can be found throughout the United States at different times in America's history. More »

Queen Anne-style Victorian house was built in 1890
Ernest Hemingway Birthplace, 1890, Oak Park, Illinois. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

The reign of Britain's Queen Victoria from 1837 until 1901 gave name to one of the most prosperous times in American history.  Mass-production and factory-made building parts carried over a system of rail lines enabled the building of large, elaborate, affordable houses throughout North America. A variety of Victorian styles emerged including Italianate, Second Empire, Gothic, Queen Anne, Romanesque, and many others. Each style of the Victorian era had its own distinctive features.

Gilded Age 1880-1929

The rise of industrialism also produced the period we know as the Gilded Age, a wealthy extension of late Victorian opulence. From roughly 1880 until America's Great Depression, families who profited from the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. put their money into architecture. Business leaders amassed enormous wealth and built palatial, elaborate homes. Queen Anne house styles made of wood, like Ernest Hemingway's birthplace in Illinois, became more grand and made from stone. Some homes, known today as Chateauesque, imitated the grandeur of old French estates and castles or châteaux. Other styles from this period include Beaux Arts, Renaissance Revival, Richardson Romanesque, Tudor Revival, and Neoclassical—all grandly adapted to create the American palace cottages for the rich and famous. More »

low, horizontal home in natural setting, large windows and flat roof overhang
Usonian Style Lowell and Agnes Walter House, Built in Iowa, 1950. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-highsm-39687 (cropped)

American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) revolutionized the American home when he began to design houses with low horizontal lines and open interior spaces. His buildings introduced a Japanese serenity to a country largely populated by Europeans, and his notions about organic architecture are studied even today. From roughly 1900 until 1955, Wright's designs and writings influenced American architecture, bringing a modernity that became truly American. Wright's  Prairie School designs inspired America's love affair with the Ranch Style home, a simpler and smaller version of the low-lying, horizontal structure with a predominate chimney. The Usonian appealed to the do-it-yourselfer. Even today, Wright's writings about organic architecture and design are noted by the environmentally sensitive designer. More »

small white stucco home, one story, with brown tile roofing, large arched front window, and open porch half across the front
Spanish Colonial Revival Bungalow, 1932, San Jose, California. Photo by Nancy Nehring/E+/Getty Images

Named after primitive thatched huts used in India, bungaloid architecture suggests comfortable informality—a rejection of Victorian-era opulence. However, not all American bungalows were small, and bungalow houses often wore the trappings of many different styles, including Arts & Crafts, Spanish Revival, Colonial Revival, and Art Moderne. American bungalow styles, prominent in the first quarter of the 20th century between 1905 and 1930, can be found throughout the U.S. From stucco-sided to shingled, bungalow stylings remain one of the most popular and beloved types of homes in America. More »

Early 20th Century Style Revivals

neighborhood home with Tudor details - half-timber work, pale yellow stucco, complicated roof lines, front chimney rising from a one-story brick front entryway
Donald Trump’s Childhood Home c. 1940 in Queens, New York. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, American builders begin to reject the elaborate Victorian styles. Homes for the new century were becoming compact, economical, and informal as the American middle class began to grow. New York real estate developer Fred C. Trump, built this Tudor Revival cottage in 1940 in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens, a borough of New York City. This is the boyhood home of American President Donald Trump. Neighborhoods such as these were designed to be upscale and affluent in part by a choice of architecture—British designs like the Tudor Cottage were thought to elicit an appearance of civility, elitism, and aristocracy, much like neoclassicism evoked a sense of democracy a century earlier.

All neighborhoods were not alike, but often variations of the same architectural style would project a desired appeal. For this reason, throughout the U.S. one can find neighborhoods built between 1905 and 1940 with dominant themes—Arts & Crafts (Craftsman), Bungalow styles, Spanish Mission Houses, American Foursquare styles, and Colonial Revival homes were common.

Mid-20th Century Boom

modest, one-story hipped roof home
Midcentury American Home. Photo by Jason Sanqui/Moment Mobile/Getty Images

During the Great Depression, the building industry struggled. From the Stock Market crash in 1929 until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, those Americans who could afford new houses moved toward increasingly simple styles. After the wars ended in 1945, G.I. soldiers returned to the U.S. to build families and the suburbs.

As soldiers returned from World War II, real estate developers raced to meet the rising demand for inexpensive housing. Mid-century homes from roughly 1930 until 1970 included the affordable Minimal Traditional style, the Ranch, and the beloved Cape Cod house style. These designs became the mainstays of the expanding suburbs in developments such as Levittown (in both New York and Pennsylvania).

Building trends became responsive to federal legislation—the GI Bill in 1944 helped build America's great suburbs and the creation of the interstate highway system by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 made it possible for people to not live where they worked.

"Neo" Houses, 1965 to the Present

large house with eclectic mix of architectural details, including stone combinations of siding, hipped and gabled roofing, and roofless balconies
America's Neo-Eclectic Mix of House Styles. Photo by J.Castro/Moment Mobile/Getty Images (cropped)

Neo means new. Earlier in the nation's history, the Founding Fathers introduced Neoclassical architecture to the new democracy. Less than two hundred years later, the American middle class had blossomed as the new consumers of housing and hamburgers. McDonald's "super-sized" its fries, and Americans went big with their new houses in traditional styles—Neo-colonial, Neo-Victorian, Neo-Mediterranean, Neo-eclectic, and oversized homes that became known as McMansions. Many new homes built during periods of growth and prosperity borrow details from historic styles and combine them with modern features. When Americans can build anything they want, they do.

Immigrant Influences

modern, horizontal-oriented white home with open carport, slanted roof, and situated beneath rocky hills
Mid-Century Modern Home Built by the Alexander Construction Company in Palm Springs, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Immigrants from all over the world have come to America, bringing with them old customs and cherished styles to mix with designs first brought to the Colonies. Spanish settlers in Florida and the American Southwest brought a rich heritage of architectural traditions and combined them with ideas borrowed from Hopi and Pueblo Indians. Modern day "Spanish" style homes tend to be Mediterranean in flavor, incorporating details from Italy, Portugal, Africa, Greece, and other countries. Spanish inspired styles include Pueblo Revival, Mission, and Neo-Mediterranean.

Spanish, African, Native American, Creole, and other heritages combined to create a unique blend of housing styles in America's French colonies,  particularly in New Orleans, the Mississippi Valley, and the Atlantic coastal Tidewater region. Soldiers returning from World War I brought a keen interest in French housing styles.

Modernist Houses

Modernist houses broke away from conventional forms, while postmodernist houses combined traditional forms in unexpected ways. European architects who immigrated to America between the World Wars brought modernism to America that was different from Frank Lloyd Wright's American Prairie designs. Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, Marcel Breuer, Eliel Saarinen—all of these designers influenced architecture from Palm Springs to New York City. Gropius and Breuer brought Bauhaus, which Mies van der Rohe transformed into International style. R.M. Schindler took modern designs, including the A-Frame house, to southern California. Developers like Joseph Eichler and George Alexander hired these talented architects to develop southern California, creating styles known as Mid-century Modern, Art Moderne, and Desert Modernism. 

Native American Influences

close-up detail of tan-colored adobe facade with wooden door, vertical bars on a window, and a shield-shaped plaque in-between
The Oldest House in the U.S. May Be This One in Santa Fe, New Mexico, c. 1650. Photo by Robert Alexander/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

Long before Colonists came to North America, the native people living on the land were constructing practical dwellings suited to the climate and the terrain. Colonists borrowed ancient building practices and combined them with European traditions. Modern-day builders still look to Native Americans for ideas on how to construct economical, eco-friendly pueblo styles homes from adobe material.

Homestead Houses

hipped roof, recangular home, grey in color, with large vertical front window near a screen door
Dowse Sod House, 1900, in Comstock, Custer County, Nebraska. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

The very first acts of architecture may have been huge earthen mounds such as the prehistoric Silbury Hill in England. In the U.S. the largest is the Cohokia Monk's Mound in what is now Illinois. Building with earth is an ancient art, still used today in adobe construction, rammed earth, and compressed earth block houses.

Today's log homes are often spacious and elegant, but in Colonial America, log cabins reflected the hardships of life on the North American frontier. This simple design and hardy construction technique is said to have been brought to America from Sweden.

The Homestead Act of 1862 created an opportunity for the do-it-yourself pioneer to get back to the earth with sod houses, cob houses, and straw bale homes. Today, architects and engineers are taking a new look at man's earliest building material—the practical, affordable, energy-efficient materials of the earth.

a line of prefabricated homes permanently attached to foundations
Prefabricated Houses in a Mobile Home Park in Sunnyvale, California. Photo by Nancy Nehring/Moment Mobile/Getty Images (cropped)

The expansion of the railroads and the invention of the assembly line changed how American buildings were put together. Factory-made modular and prefabricated houses have been popular since the early 1900s when Sears, Aladdin, Montgomery Ward and other mail order companies shipped house kits to far corners of the United States. Some of the first prefabricated structures were made of cast iron in the mid-19th century. Pieces would be molded in a foundry, shipped to the construction site, and then assembled. This type of assembly line manufacturing because popular and necessary as American capitalism flourished. Today, "prefabs" are gaining new respect as architects experiment with bold new forms in house kits. More »

The Influence of Science

sphere on a platform with a car underneath and steps leading up to entrance points
Spherical Home Designed to Mimic a Molecular Carbon Atom. Photo by Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The 1950s was all about the space race. The Age of Space Exploration began with the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created NASA—and a lot of geeks and nerds. The era brought a flurry of innovations, from the metal prefab Lustron houses to the eco-friendly geodesic dome.

The idea of constructing dome-shaped structures dates back to prehistoric times, but the 20th century brought exciting new approaches to dome design—out of necessity. It turns out that the prehistoric dome model is also the best design to withstand extreme weather trends like violent hurricanes and tornadoes—a 21st century result of climate change.

Tiny House Movement

Harry Connick Jr. attends his Tiny House Challenge on November 4, 2016 in New York City
The 21st Century Tiny Home. Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Architecture can stir memories of a homeland or be a response to historic events. Architecture can be a mirror that reflects what is valued—like Neoclassicism and democracy or ostentatious opulence of the Gilded Age. In the 21st century, some people have turned their rat race lives around by making the conscious choice of going without, downsizing, and clipping away thousands of square feet off their living area. The Tiny House Movement is a reaction to the perceived societal chaos of the 21st century. Tiny homes are roughly 500 square feet with minimal amenities—seemingly a rejection of the supersized American culture. "People are joining this movement for many reasons," explains The Tiny Life website, "but the most popular reasons include environmental concerns, financial concerns, and the desire for more time and freedom."

The Tiny House as a reaction to societal influences may be no different than other buildings constructed in response to historic events. Every trend and movement perpetuates debate of the question—when does a building become architecture?

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