What the U.S. Census Tells Us About Architecture

Where Do People Live in the U.S.?

Line of White Homes in Suburbs
The Suburbs - Where We Live. William Gottlieb/Getty Images

How many people live in the United States? Where do people live across America? Since 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has helped us answer these questions. And maybe because the first census was run by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the nation has more than a simple count of people — it is a census of population and housing.

Architecture, particularly residential housing, is a mirror to history. America's most popular house styles reflect building traditions and preferences that evolved in time and place. Take a quick journey through American history as reflected in building design and community planning. Explore the history of a nation in just a few maps.

Where We Live

United States map illustrating population centers heavy in the east and heavy spots in major cities
United States Census Map, 2010, Population Distribution in the United States and Puerto Rico. US Population Distribution in 2010, where one dot equals 7500 people, public domain, U.S. Census (cropped)

Population distribution across the United States hasn't changed much since the 1950s. Each white dot on this U.S. Census map equals 7,500 people, and although the map has gotten brighter over the years — because the population has increased — the centers of brightness indicating where people live hasn't changed much for many decades.

Many people still live in the Northeast. Urban population clusters are found around Detroit, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, and Southern California. Florida is nearly outlined in white, indicating the burgeoning of retirement communities along its coast. The census shows us where people live.

Population Factors That Affect Architecture

wooden homes with thatched roofs
Main Street of the Recreated Plimoth Plantation Pilgrim Colony in Massachusetts. Michael Springer/Getty Images (cropped)

Where we live shapes how we live. Factors that influence the architecture of single-family and multi-family housing include:

  • Climate, Landscape, and Available Materials:
    Early homes built in forested New England were often constructed of wood. For example, the reconstructed village at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts displays timber buildings thought to be like the homes built by the Pilgrims. On the other hand, brick Federal-style colonial homes are more common in the South because the soil is rich in red clay. In the arid Southwest, adobe and stucco were commonly used, which explains the pueblo-revival styles of the 20th century. Nineteenth century homesteaders who reached the prairie built homes from blocks of sod. Sometimes the landscape itself can inspire new approaches to home construction. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style house mimics the prairie of the American Midwest, with low horizontal lines and open interior spaces.
  • Cultural Traditions and Local Building Practices:
    Georgian and Cape Cod style homes along the eastern coast of the U.S. reflect ideas brought from England and northern Europe. In contrast, Mission style homes show the influence of Spanish missionaries in California. Other parts of the country carry the architectural legacy of Native Americans and early European settlers.
  • Economic Factors and Social Patterns:
    House size has increased and decreased several times throughout the short history of the United States. Early settlers were thankful to have one-room shelters with interior spaces compartmentalized by curtains of cloth or beads. During Victorian times, homes were constructed to accommodate large, extended families, with many rooms on multiple floors. After the Great Depression, American tastes turned to small, uncomplicated Minimal Traditional homes and bungalows. During the post-WWII population boom, economical, single story Ranch-style houses became popular. It's no wonder, then, that homes in older neighborhoods look very different than homes in recently developed areas. Suburban developments that were quickly built over a few years will not have the variety of house styles found in neighborhoods that evolved over a century. Population growth spurts, like the one that occurred in the middle of the 20th century, can be visualized by neighborhoods of similar homes. American mid-century homes from 1930 to 1965 are defined by that growth in population — that "baby boom." We know this by looking at the census.

Technological Advances

historic black and white photo of houses by railroad tracks
Railroad Expansion Brings New Building Opportunities to Housing. William England London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images (cropped)

Like any art, architecture evolves from one "stolen" idea to another. But architecture is not a pure art form, as design and construction are also subject to invention and commerce. As populations increase, new processes are invented to take advantage of a ready market.

The rise of industrialization transformed housing throughout the United States. The 19th century expansion of the railroad system brought new opportunities to rural areas. Mail order houses from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward eventually made sod houses obsolete. Mass production made decorative trim affordable for Victorian-era families, so that even a modest farmhouse could sport Carpenter Gothic details. In the mid-twentieth century, architects began to experiment with industrial materials and manufactured housing. Economical prefab housing meant that real estate developers could quickly build entire communities in rapidly growing parts of the country. In the 21st century, computer-aided design (CAD) is changing the way we design and build homes. The parametric housing of the future, however, wouldn't exist without pockets of population and affluence — the census tells us so.

The Planned Community

Historic black and white photo of Roland Park, Baltimore, Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr c. 1900
Roland Park, Baltimore, Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr c. 1900. JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images (cropped)

To accommodate a population moving westward in the mid-1800s, William Jenney, Frederick Law Olmsted, and other thoughtful architects designed planned communities. Incorporated in 1875, Riverside, Illinois, outside of Chicago may have been the theoretical first. However, Roland Park. begun near Baltimore, Maryland in 1890, is said to have been the first successful "streetcar" community. Olmsted had his hand in both ventures. What became known as "bedroom communities" result in part from population centers and availability of transportation.

Suburbs, Exurbs, and Sprawl

historic black and white aerial photo of rows of "tiny boxes" in patches at the intersection of major highways
Levittown, New York on Long Island c. 1950. Bettmann/Getty Images (cropped)

In the mid-1900s, suburbs became something different. After World War II, U.S. servicemen returned to start families and careers. The federal government provided financial incentives for home ownership, education, and easy transportation. Nearly 80 million babies were born during the Baby Boom years of 1946 to 1964. Developers and builders bought tracts of land near urban areas, built rows and rows of homes, and created what some have called unplanned-planned communities, or sprawl. On Long Island, Levittown, the brain-child of real estate developers Levitt & Sons, may be the most famous.

Exurbia, instead of suburbia, is more prevalent in the South and Midwest, according to a Brookings Institution report. Exurbia includes "communities located on the urban fringe that have at least 20 percent of their workers commuting to jobs in an urbanized area, exhibit low housing density, and have relatively high population growth." These "commuter towns" or "bedroom communities" are differentiated from suburban communities by fewer houses (and persons) occupying the land.

Architectural Invention

historic black and white photo of man standing near a tar-papered shack being covered by blocks of sod
South Dakota Homesteader Mixes Methods and Styles, c. 1900. Jonathan Kirn, Kirn Vintage Stock/Getty Images (cropped)

It's important to remember that architectural style is a retroactive label — American houses are generally not labeled until years after they are built. People construct shelters with the materials that surround them, but how they put the materials together — in a way that may denote a style — can vary enormously. Oftentimes, colonists' homes took the shape of the basic Primitive Hut.  The U.S. is populated with people who brought architectural styles with them from their native lands. As the population shifted from immigrant to American-born, the rise of the American-born architect, such as Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), brought new, American-born styles like Romanesque Revival architecture. The American spirit is defined by a mix of ideas — like why not create a frame dwelling and cover it with prefabricated cast iron or, maybe, blocks of South Dakota sod. America is populated with self-made inventors.

The first U.S. Census began on August 2, 1790 — a mere nine years after the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorkville (1781) and only one year after the US Constitution was ratified (1789). Population distribution maps from the Census Bureau are helpful to homeowners trying to find out when and why their old house was built.

If You Could Live Anywhere....

suburban row of houses with two-car garages prominent
Sunnyvale Townhouses c. 1975 in California's Silicon Valley. Nancy Nehring/Getty Images (cropped)

Census maps "paint a picture of the westward expansion and general urbanization of the United States," says the Census Bureau. Where did people live at certain times in history?

  • by 1790: original 13 colonies along the East coast
  • by 1850: Midwest settled, no farther west than Texas; half of the country, west of the Mississippi River, remains unsettled
  • by 1900: the western frontier has been settled, but the largest population centers remain in the East
  • by 1950: urban areas have grown large and dense in a post-war Baby Boom

The East coast of the United States is still more populated than any other area, likely because it was the first to be settled. American capitalism created Chicago as a Midwest hub in the 1800s and Southern California as the center of the motion picture industry in the 1900s. America's Industrial Revolution gave rise to the mega-city and its job centers.  As 21st century commercial centers become global and less attached to place, will the Silicon Valley of the 1970s become the last hot spot for American architecture? In the past, communities like Levittown were built because that's where the people were. If your work doesn't dictate where you live, where would you live?

You don't have to travel the entire continent to witness the transformation of American house styles. Take a walk through your own community. How many different house styles do you see? As you move from older neighborhoods into newer developments, do you notice a shift in architectural styles? What factors do you think influenced these changes? What changes would you like to see in the future? Architecture is your history.