What Is Neotraditional Architecture?

New and Traditional at the Same Time

The Shaw's Supermarkets building in Windham, NH is an example of Neotraditional architecture. It has a complicated roofline with a decorative cupola and weather vane.
The Shaw's Supermarkets building in Windham, NH is an example of Neotraditional architecture. It has a complicated roofline with a decorative cupola and weather vane. Photo courtesy Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0) (cropped)

Neotraditional (or Neo-traditional) means New Traditional. Neotraditional architecture is contemporary architecture that borrows from the past. Neotraditional buildings are constructed using modern materials like vinyl and mock-brick, but the building design is inspired by historic styles.

Neotraditional architecture does not copy historic architecture. Instead, Neotraditional buildings merely suggest the past, using decorative details to add a nostaligic aura to an otherwise modern-day structure.

Historic features like shutters, weather vanes, and even dormers are ornamental and serve no practical function. Details on the homes in Celebration, Florida provide many good examples.

Neotraditional Architecture and New Urbanism:

The term Neotraditional is often associated with the New Urbanist movement. Neighborhoods designed with New Urbanist principles often resemble historic villages with homes and shops clustered together along quaint, tree-lined streets. Traditional Neighborhood Development or TND is often called neo-traditional or village style development, because the design of the neighborhood is inspired by neighborhoods of the past—similar to neotraditional homes being inspired by traditional designs.

But what is the past? For both architecture and TND, "the past" is usually considered before the mid-20th century when the sprawl of suburban areas became what many would call "out of control."  Neighborhoods of the past were not automobile-centric, so neotraditional houses are designed with garages in the rear and neighborhoods have "access alleys." This was the design choice for the 1994 town of Celebration, Florida, where time stopped in the 1930s.

For other communities, TND may include all house styles.

Neotraditional neighborhoods do not always have only neotraditional houses. It's the neighborhood plan that is traditional (or neotraditional) in a TND.

Characteristics of Neotraditional Architecture:

Since the 1960s, most new homes constructed in the United States have been Neotraditional in their design.

It's a very general term that encompasses many styles. Builders incorporate details from a variety of historic traditions, creating houses that might be called Neocolonial, Neo-Victorian, Neo-Mediterranean, or, simply, Neoeclectic.

Here are just a few details you might find on a Neotraditional building:

  • Complicated roof with several gables or parapets
  • Towers, cupolas, and weather vanes
  • Awnings
  • Mock shutters
  • Ornamental brackets
  • Half-timbering
  • Stained glass windows
  • Palladian windows, arched windows, and round windows
  • Embossed tin ceilings
  • Victorian lampposts

Neotraditional Is Everywhere:

Have you seen the New England chain supermarkets that look like inviting country stores? Or the drug store chain whose new building is designed to create that small town apothecary feeling?  Neotraditional design is often used for modern-day commercial architecture to create a feeling of tradition and comfort. Look for the pseudo-historic details in these chain stores and restaurants:

  • Applebee's Restaurant
  • Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
  • T.G.I. Friday's
  • Uno Chicago Grill
  • Rite Aid Pharmacy

Neotraditional architecture is fanciful. It strives to evoke warm memories of a fairy tale past. It's no wonder, then, that theme parks such as Main Street in Disney World are lined with Neotraditional buildings.

Walt Disney, in fact, sought out architects with specialties Disney wished to create. For example, Colorado architect Peter Dominick specialized in rustic, western building design. Who best to design Wilderness Lodge at Disney World in Orlando, Florida? The team of architects chosen to design for these high-profile theme parks have been called Disney Architects.

A return to "traditional" methods is not only an architectural phenomenon. Neotraditional Country Music rose to prominence in the 1980s in reaction to a popularization of the country musical genre. As in the architectural world, "traditional" became something marketable, which immediately lost any notion of a traditional past because it was new. Can you be "new" and "old" at the same time?

The Importance of Nostalgia:

When architect Bill Hirsch is working with a client, he appreciates the power of the past.

"It may be the design of an object in the house," he writes, "such as the glass doorknobs in your grandmother's apartment or the pushbutton light switches in your great-grandfather's house." These important details are available to a modern audience—not salvaged pushbutton light switches, but new hardware that meets today's electrical codes. If the item is functional, is it neotraditional?

Hirsch appreciates the "humanizing qualities of traditional design," and finds it difficult to put a "style label" on his own house designs.  "Most of my houses tend to grow out of many influences," he writes. Hirsch thinks it's unfortunate when some architects criticize the "new old house" trend of neotraditionalism. "Style comes and goes with the times and is subject to our individual whims and tastes," he writes. "Principles of good design endure. Good architectural design has a place in any style."

  • Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect by William J. Hirsch Jr., AIA, 2008, pp. 78, 147-148
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  • Celebration - The Story of a Town by Michael Lassell, 2004
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Craven, Jackie. "What Is Neotraditional Architecture?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-neotraditional-architecture-178016. Craven, Jackie. (2017, February 19). What Is Neotraditional Architecture? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-neotraditional-architecture-178016 Craven, Jackie. "What Is Neotraditional Architecture?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-neotraditional-architecture-178016 (accessed November 18, 2017).