New England Colonial Architecture - Old Style Homes in a New World

What Are the True Colonials?

Hoxie House, c. 1675, in Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod
Hoxie House Built in 1675 in Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Photo by Walter Bibikow/AWL Images/Getty Images

When the British landed on the shores of the New World, they not only brought place names from England (e.g., Portsmouth, Salisbury, Manchester), but the colonists also carried the knowledge of building traditions and architectural styles. The religious separatists we call Pilgrims arrived in 1620, quickly followed by a group of Puritans in 1630, who settled in what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

Using whatever materials they could find, the immigrants constructed timber-framed houses with steep roofs. Other settlers from Great Britain spread throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, building rustic dwellings like the ones they had known in their homeland. They colonized a land that became New England.

The earliest dwellings were likely hastily-constructed sheds and cabins—the recreation of the Plymouth Colony shows us this.Then, shoring up against the cold New England winters, colonists built single-story Cape Cod houses with massive chimneys placed at the center. As families grew, some colonists built larger two-story homes, still to be seen in communities like Strawbery Banke on the New Hampshire coast. Colonists expanded their living space and protected their property with sloping saltbox roof additions, named after the shape of boxes used to store salt.

The Daggett Farmhouse, built in Connecticut around 1750, is a good example of the saltbox roof style.

Wood was plentiful in the northeastern forests of the New World. The English people who colonized the new England grew up with architecture from late medieval and Elizabethan England. The British colonists were not far removed from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and medieval timber-frame houses, and they continued these building practices through the 1600s and well into the 1700s.

The 1683 Parson Capen House in Topsfield, Massachusetts is a good example of Elizabethan architecture in New England. Since these simple homes were made of wood, many burned down. Only a few have survived intact, and fewer still have not been remodeled and expanded.

New England Colonial Types & Styles

Architecture in Colonial New England went through many phases and can be known by various names. The style is sometimes called post-medieval, late medieval, or first period English. A New England Colonial home with a sloping, shed-like roof is often called a Saltbox Colonial. The term Garrison Colonial describes a New England Colonial home with a second story that juts out over the lower level. The historic 1720 Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut is described as a post-medieval style, because of its second-story overhang, but a later "lean-to" addition transformed the Garrison Colonial into one with a saltbox-style roof. It did not take long for colonial styles of architecture to combine to form new designs.

Modern Colonials

Builders often imitate historic styles. You may have heard words like New England Colonial, Garrison Colonial, or Saltbox Colonial used to describe modern-day homes.

Technically, however, a house built after the American Revolution—after communities were no longer colonies of England—is not a colonial. More correctly, these homes of the 19th and 20th centuries are Colonial Revival or Neo-colonial.

Northern versus Southern Colonial Houses

Early New England colonial houses were usually located mostly along the shores of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Remember that Vermont and Maine were not part of the 13 original colonies, although much of the architecture is similar, modified by French influences from the north. Northern colonial homes were wood framed construction, usually the plentiful white pine, with clapboard or shingle siding. Early homes were one story, but as more family arrived from Britain these "starter homes" became two-stories, often with steep roofs, narrow eaves, and side gables.

A large, center fireplace and chimney would heat upstairs and downstairs. Some homes added the luxury of saltbox-shaped lean-to additions, used to keep wood and supplies dry. New England architecture was inspired by the beliefs of the inhabitants, and the Puritans tolerated little exterior ornamentation. The most decorative were the post-medieval styles, where the second story slightly protruded over the lower floor and the small casement windows would have diamond-shaped panes. This was the extent of decorative design.

Beginning with the Jamestown Colony in 1607, New England, Middle, and Southern Colonies were established up and down the eastern coastline of what would become the United States. Settlers in southern regions such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Virginia also constructed uncomplicated, rectangular homes. However, a Southern Colonial home is often made with brick. Clay was plentiful in many southern regions, which made brick a natural building material for southern colonial homes. Also, homes in the southern colonies often had two chimneys—one on each side—instead of a single massive chimney in the center.

Tour New England Colonial Homesteads

The New England Colonial home of Rebecca Nurse was built in the 17th century, making this giant red house a true Colonial. Rebecca, her husband, and her children moved here to Danvers, Massachusetts around 1678. With two rooms on the first floor and two rooms on the second, a large chimney runs through the center of the main house. A kitchen lean-to addition with its own chimney was built in about 1720. Another addition was constructed in 1850.

The Rebecca Nurse house has its original floors, walls, and beams. However, like most homes from this period, the house has been extensively restored. The lead restoration architect was Joseph Everett Chandler, who also oversaw the historic restorations at the Paul Revere House in Boston and the House of Seven Gables in Salem.

Rebecca West is an interesting figure in American history for being a victim of the Salem Witch Trials—in 1692 she was accused, tried, and executed for practicing witchcraft.

Like many historic homes throughout New England, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is open to the public for tours.

Many of New England's finest colonial homes are open to the public. The Hoxie House in Sandwich, Massachusetts was built in 1675 and is said to be the oldest house still standing on Cape Cod. The Jethro Coffin House, built in 1686, is the oldest house on Nantucket.  The home of author Louisa May Alcott, Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, is a good example of farmhouses built between 1690 and 1720. The town of Salem, Massachusetts is a museum itself, with the House of Seven Gables (1668) and the Jonathan Corwin House (1642), also known as "the Witch House," being two popular tourist attractions. A Boston home built in 1680 and once owned by American patriot Paul Revere is a popular post-medieval style to view. Lastly, Plimoth Plantation is the Disney-equivalent of 17th century New England living, as the visitor can experience an entire village of the primitive huts that started it all. Once you get a taste of Colonial American house styles, you'll know some of what has made America strong.

COPYRIGHT: The articles you see on these pages are copyrighted. You may link to them, but do not copy them in a blog, web page, or print publication without permission. Sources: Architecture of New England and the Southern Colonies by Valerie Ann Polino; English Colonial Domestic Architecture of New England by Christine G. H. Franck; Architectural Style Guide, Historic New England; A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester, 1984; American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker, 1998; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 1994; Architectural Style Guide, Boston Preservation Alliance [accessed July 27, 2017]