Guide to Colonial American House Styles From 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

 

The Pilgrims weren't the only people to settle in 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.

New England Colonial (1600s–1740)

Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, c. 1720

b_christina/flickr.com/CC BY 2.0

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. Still, you'll find charming New England colonial features incorporated into modern-day Neocolonial homes.

German Colonial (1600s–mid-1800s)

Jacob Keim Farm, 1753, Oley, Pennsylvania

Ken Martin/flickr.com/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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 (1600–1900)

The González–Alvarez House, St. Augustine, Florida

Jimmy Emerson/flickr.com/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The term Spanish Colonial is often used to describe elegant stucco homes with fountains, courtyards, and elaborate carvings. But 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. California and the American Southwest are also home to 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.

According to the National Park Service.

"The original home was a one-story rectangular-shaped stone dwelling with thick coquina walls that were plastered with lime and whitewashed. 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 current house was built during the 1700s.

Dutch Colonial (1625–mid-1800s)

Unidentified Large Dutch Colonial House And Barns

Eugene L. Armbruster/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

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. Dutch Colonial style is marked by the gambrel roof. Dutch Colonial became a popular revival style, and 20th-century homes often feature the characteristic rounded roof.

Cape Cod Houses (1690–mid-1800s)

Traditional Cape Cod Architecture

Doug Kerr, Dougtone/flickr.com/CC BY-SA 2.0

A Cape Cod house is 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.

Stone Ender Houses (1600s–1800s)

Clemence-Irons House, 1691, Johnston, Rhode Island

Doug Kerr/flickr.com/CC BY-SA 2.0

Ultimately, early colonial homes in the United States were vernacular—that is, local, domestic, pragmatic architecture built with native construction materials. In the area now known as 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 (1690s–1830)

Crowninshield-Bentley House, Salem Massachusetts

 John Phelan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

The New World quickly became a melting pot. As the 13 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 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.

French Colonial (1700s–1800s)

Destrehan Manor, 1790, Destrehan, Louisiana
Robert Holmes/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images  

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.

Federal and Adam (1780–1840)

Virginia Governors Mansion
pabradyphoto / Getty Images

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.

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