When it comes to identifying home styles, most people know generic terms such as Victorian, Bungalow, and Spanish. Really pegging the thing is a little tougher, though. Although more precise terms like Tudor, Mission, and Craftsman are often casually thrown about--especially by real estate agents, who ought to know better--they’re used wrongly more often than not. Herewith are some of the most common points of confusion.
For starters, calling a house “Victorian” is like calling a car “postwar”--it only describes what era the thing was built in. Luckily, the four major styles of Victorians are easy to tell apart: If the house has horizontal siding, false cornerstones, and windows with segmental arches, it’s an Italianate. If it looks like an Italianate but also has a steep mansard roof, it’s a Mansard. If it has a square bay window, skinny proportions, and a porch with lots of linear wooden gingerbread, it’s a Stick (also called Eastlake). If it has windows with colored glass borders, a few curved walls or a turret, and a porch with lots of decorative spindles, you can bet it’s a Queen Anne. Next category, please.
Bungalow is ageneric term describing any home that’s built close to the ground and has a low-pitched roof. More precisely, if a bungalow has wood siding or shingle (often with stone or clinker brick trim), it’s a Craftsman Bungalow. If it has stucco on the outside, it’s a California Bungalow.
The gaggle of labels hung on Spanish-style homes--Mission, Spanish Colonial, Churrigueresque, Moorish, Mediterranean--are another endless source of confusion. Strictly speaking, Mission refers only to architecture modeled on the West’s Spanish Colonial missions, and would suggest a rather plain house with thick stucco walls, an Alamo-like scrolled gable, and a few decorative barrel tiles, if not a whole roof full of them (for practical purposes, the term Spanish Colonial is essentially synonymous with Mission).
On the other hand, tile-roofed houses with more ornate features such as spiral columns and elaborate door and window surrounds are called Churriguersque, after the 17th-century Spanish Renaissance architect Jose Churriguera. Pointed or parabolic arches, ceramic tile accents, and perhaps castle-like crennelation would be clues that you were looking at a Moorish-style home. Of course, when in doubt, you’re always safe using the term Mediterranean, which has come to include pretty much anything with red tile on the roof.
The terms Tudor, Elizabethan, or Half-Timbered are often used interchangeably to describe English-inspired homes, but these terms don’t mean the same thing. A Tudor-style house usually has brickwork combined with restrained half-timbering, steep gables, a massive and prominent chimney, and relatively small windows sometimes topped by a pointed Tudor arch. By contrast, an Elizabethan-style home would have large areas of leaded windows divided into grids or into the familiar “Olde English” diamond pattern, along with lots of florid half-timbering in repeating motifs.
While both of the above examples might also be called “Half-Timbered”, that term more properly refers to a building technique and not a style.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned any postwar home styles, it’s because it takes quite a bit of time for style names to stabilize. Case in point: During the Sixties, California Ranchers and split levels were routinely called “Contemporaries”, as if they were going to stay in fashion forever. Today that term is all but forgotten.
Likewise, today’s gewgaw-laden tract houses are often referred to as “neo-traditionals”, but that term is so vague that it’s unlikely to survive. Hence, it’ll be a while before we know what posterity deems to call them.