Guide to Colonial American House Styles, 1600 to 1800

Architecture Before the American Revolution

grey-sided, two-story old house, second story hangs over first, front door off center
Paul Revere House, Boston, c. 1680.

Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

 

The pilgrims weren't the only people to settle in what we now call Colonial America. Between 1600 and 1800, men and women poured in from many parts of the world, including Germany, France, Spain, and Latin America. Families brought their own cultures, traditions, and architectural styles. New homes in the New World were as diverse as the incoming population.

When silversmith Paul Revere bought a fixer-upper in 1770, the Boston, Massachusetts house was already 100 years old. Using locally available materials, America's colonists built what they could and tried to meet the challenges posed by the climate and landscape of the new country. They constructed the types of homes they remembered, but they also innovated and, at times, learned new building techniques from Native Americans. As the country grew, these early settlers developed not one, but many, uniquely American styles.

Centuries later, builders borrowed ideas from early American architecture to create Colonial Revival and Neocolonial styles. So, even if your house is brand new, it may express the spirit of the America's colonial days. Look for features of these early American house styles:

fog sets in on a brown sided house, side gable with deep red trim, second floor overhangs the first
Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, c. 1720. b_christina via flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)  cropped 

1600s - 1740
The first British settlers in New England built timber-frame dwellings similar to the ones they had known in their home country. Wood and rock were typical physical characteristics of New England. There's a medieval flavor to the enormous stone chimneys and diamond-pane windows found on many of these homes — in fact, they are often called Post-Medieval English. Because these structures were built with wood, only a few remain intact today. Still, you'll find charming New England colonial features incorporated into modern-day Neocolonial homes. More »

German Colonial

stone farm house, two story, with red roof, two chimneys, shingled awning between first and second floors, side gable
Jacob Keim Farm, 1753, Oley, Pennsylvania. Ken Martin via flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) cropped 

1600s - mid-1800s
When Germans traveled to North America, they settled in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. Stone was plentiful and the German colonists constructed sturdy homes with thick walls, exposed timbering, and hand-hewn beams. The 1753 Jacob Keim farmstead in Oley, Pennsylvania is typical of this vernacular colonial style. Made from local limestone, the original house also had a red clay tiled roof that was typical of the biberschwanz or "beaver tail" flat tile roofs of Bavaria in southern Germany.

Spanish Colonial

two story house close to street, white stucco first floor and timber second floor with side balcony extending from hipped roof
The González–Alvarez House, St. Augustine, Florida. Jimmy Emerson via flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  cropped 

1600 - 1900
You may have heard the term Spanish Colonial used to describe elegant stucco homes with fountains, courtyards, and elaborate carvings. More than likely those picturesque houses are romantic Spanish colonial revivals. Early explorers from Spain, Mexico, and Latin America built rustic homes out of wood, adobe, crushed shells (coquina), or stone. Earth, thatch, or red clay tiles covered low, flat roofs. Travel through California and the American Southwest and you'll also find Pueblo Revival homes that combine Hispanic styling with Native American ideas.

Few original Spanish homes from the colonial era remain, but wonderful examples have been preserved or restored in St. Augustine, Florida, site of the first permanent European settlement in America. The González–Alvarez House purports to be the city's oldest Spanish colonial home from the 1600s.. "The original home was a one-story rectangular-shaped stone dwelling with thick coquina walls that were plastered with lime and whitewashed," describes the National Park Service. "Covered by a hipped roof shingled with wood, the home’s two large rooms had tabby floors (a mixture of shells, lime, and sand) and large windows without glass." After Spanish and English occupation and destruction, the present house was built in the 1700s.

Dutch Colonial

Black and white historical photo of large house, side view, second and third floors within gambrel roof, two large chimneys, rear addition and barn
Unidentified Large Dutch Colonial House And Barns. Eugene L. Armbruster/The New York Historical SocietyGetty Images (cropped) 

1625 - mid-1800s
Like the German colonists, Dutch settlers brought building traditions from their home country. Settling mainly in New York State, they built brick and stone houses with rooflines that echoed the architecture of the Netherlands. You can recognize the Dutch colonial style by the gambrel roof. Dutch colonial became a popular revival style, and you'll often see 20th century homes with the characteristic rounded roof.

small house, steep sloped roof on facade, center chimney, center door, two windows on each side of door near eave, white trim and light grey siding
Traditional Cape Cod Architecture. Doug Kerr, Dougtone on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

1690 - mid-1800s
A Cape Cod house is actually a type of New England Colonial. Named after the peninsula where the Pilgrims first dropped anchor, Cape Cod houses are one-story structures designed to withstand the New World's cold and snow. The houses are as humble, unadorned, and practical as their occupants. Centuries later, builders embraced the practical, economical Cape Cod shape for budget housing in suburbs across the United States. Even today this no-nonsense style suggests cozy comfort. Cape Cod-style houses may not all be from the colonial era, but the iconic design is part of the historic fabric of America. More »

Stone Ender Houses

very old home with steep roof down to wooden facade but the side of the building is all stone, a continuation of the massive chimney
Clemence-Irons House, 1691, Johnston, Rhode Island. Doug Kerr via flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) cropped

1600s - 1800s
Ultimately, early colonial homes in the U.S. were vernacular — that is, local, domestic, pragmatic architecture built with native construction materials. In the area we call Rhode Island, limestone was a readily available building material. Colonists began building houses they had seen in western England with materials gathered at the Blackstone River in northern Rhode Island. This style of house became known as the Stone-Ender, as only one end of the house was constructed of stone — a stone extension of a massive chimney.

Georgian Colonial

front facade of a two story house with three dormers in a gambrel roof, pediment over front door, two 12-over-12 windows on each side of the door and five across the top of the second floor -- yellow-gold color siding with white trim
Crowninshield-Bentley House, 1727, Salem, Massachusetts. Jackie Craven

1690s - 1830
The New World quickly became a melting pot. As the thirteen original colonies prospered, more affluent families built refined homes that imitated the Georgian architecture of Great Britain. Named after English kings, a Georgian house is tall and rectangular with an orderly row windows symmetrically arranged on the second story. During the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century, many Colonial Revival homes echoed the regal Georgian style.

large plantation manor, two stories with columned balconies, hipped roof
Destrehan Manor, 1790, Destrehan, Louisiana. Robert Holmes/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images  

1700s - 1800s
While the English, Germans, and Dutch were building a new nation along the eastern shores of North America, French colonists settled in the Mississippi Valley, especially in Louisiana. French colonial homes are an eclectic mix, combining European ideas with practices learned from Africa, the Caribbean, and the West Indies. Designed for the hot, swampy region, traditional French colonial homes are raised on piers. Wide, open porches (called galleries) connect the interior rooms. More »

Federal and Adam

yellow masonry two-story house with black shutters, small columned portico, flat roof with railing along the edge, fountain hardscape in foreground
Virginia Executive Mansion, 1813, by Architect Alexander Parris, Richmond, Virginia. Jack E. Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (cropped)

1780 - 1840
Federalist architecture marks the end of the colonial era in the newly-formed United States. Americans wanted to build homes and government buildings that expressed the ideals of their new country and also conveyed elegance and prosperity. Borrowing Neoclassical ideas from a Scottish family of designers — the Adam brothers — prosperous landowners constructed fancier versions of the austere Georgian colonial style. These homes, which may be called Federal or Adam, were given porticoes, balustrades, fanlights, and other decorations.

Sources

  • González-Alvarez House, St. Augustine, Florida, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/american_latino_heritage/Gonzalez_Alvarez_House.html [accessed May 26, 2018]
  • Clemence-Irons House (1691), Historic New England, https://www.historicnewengland.org/property/clemence-irons-house/ [accessed May 26, 2018]
  • Stone-ender houses of Rhode Island, Vita Brevis, https://vita-brevis.org/2015/08/stone-ender-houses-rhode-island/ [accessed May 26, 2018]