19th century architectural styles
This guide is intended as an introduction to American domestic architectural styles beginning with First Period colonial architecture through the Colonial Revival architecture of the early twentieth century. The guide focuses on common stylistic trends of New England and is therefore not inclusive of all American architecture. Click on a stylistic period listed below for a brief synopsis, list of defining features, and images of examples.
First Period (Post-Medieval English): 1600-1700
Built during the first generation of settlement by English colonists, First Period architecture owes much of its appearance to building traditions from Europe. It could be argued that houses from this period are without style; they were not designed by architects. Yet several common elements mark these structures and two distinct traditions developed (northern and southern) with corresponding similarities of form and appearance. Each of these traditions took advantage of materials at hand as well as architectural features suited to their respective climates.
In New England, colonists departed from traditional European wattle and daub (woven lattice of wooden strips covered with a material made with some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung, and straw), constructing wood-frame homes covered with weatherboard, clapboard, or shingles. This was a direct result of the prevalence of local timber. In addition, New England First Period homes were typically two stories tall with steeply pitched roofs, essential for shedding heavy snow loads. Central chimneys were also standard, being the most efficient way to heat these buildings during cold New England winters. Today, surviving examples have almost all been restored to their early appearance and thus retain very little original material.
First Period architecture is limited to those areas of the country settled before 1700. Connecticut and coastal regions of Massachusetts contain the highest number of First Period structures, although other examples can be found moving inland along major waterways such as the Hudson River.
- Steeply pitched roof (usually of wood shingles) with little or no rake or eave overhang
- Side-gabled entrance
- Massive central chimney (in the north); paired chimneys (in the south); stone end chimneys (Rhode Island)
- Small casement windows with leaded diamond panes
- Second-floor wall overhang, sometimes decorated with brackets or pendants
- Batten Doors
- Asymmetrical door and window openings
- One-room-deep linear plan
- L-shaped staircases around central chimney
Visit Historic New England's first period houses: Arnold House, Boardman House, Browne House, Clemence-Irons House, Coffin House, Jackson House and Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm.
The dominant style for domestic construction in the United States from 1700-1780, Georgian architecture grew out of the Italian Renaissance in Europe. Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), an Italian architect, devised a set of design principles based on the Classical proportions of Roman ruins. His famous work, The Four Books of Architecture (1570), which emphasized classicism, order, and symmetry regardless of function, influenced English architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren. In turn, these principles were brought to the colonies, gaining popularity beginning around 1700 principally through architectural pattern books.
Georgian architecture gets its name from the succession of English kings named George (beginning in 1715). In the United States the style included innumerable variations on a simple English theme: a symmetrical, two-story house with center-entry façade, combined with the two-room-deep center-passage floor plan. By the end of the seventeenth century, the upper classes in the colonies began to embrace the European concept of gentility, displaying their elevated taste and station by maintaining codes of dress, speech, and behavior. This status was also aptly displayed by the orderly symmetry of Georgian architecture, a legacy that survives today.
Georgian houses are most commonly found along the eastern seaboard, where English influence was concentrated. Today, most examples survive in seacoast communities that did not continue to grow rapidly during the nineteenth century such as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Newport, Rhode Island.
- Symmetry, centered façade entry with windows aligned horizontally and vertically
- One or two-story box, two rooms deep
- Commonly side-gabled and sometimes with a gambrel or hipped roof
- Raised foundation
- Paneled front doors, capped with a decorative crown (entablature); often supported by decorative pilasters; and with a rectangular transom above (later high-style examples may have fanlight transoms)
- Cornice emphasized by decorative moldings, commonly dentils
- Double-hung sash windows with small lights (nine or twelve panes) separated by thick wooden muntins
- Five-bay façade (less commonly three or seven)
- Center chimneys are found in examples before 1750; later examples have paired chimneys
- Wood-frame with shingle or clapboard walls (upper windows touch cornice in most two-story examples)
- Central hall plan
- High ceilings (10-11 feet) smoothly plastered, painted and decorated with molded or carved ornament (high-style)
- Elaborate mantelpieces, paneling, stairways and arched openings copied from pattern books (high-style)
- Pedimented windows and dormers
- Belt course between stories (masonry examples)
- Quoins of stone or wood imitating stone
- Roof balustrades (after 1750)
- Centered front gable (pediment) or shallow projecting central gable (after 1750)
- Two-story pilasters (after 1750)
Visit Historic New England's Georgian houses: the Codman Estate, Cogswell's Grant, Langdon House, and Quincy House.