Monday, April 8, 2019


Early colonial house in Deerfield, Connecticutt, c. 1734.
Note the massive central fireplace chimney.
(Image courtesy
Two hundred years ago, the Colonial house was king. Of course, it wasn’t called a Colonial at the time—it was just the nearest thing a New Worlder could get to a proper English house.

Most Colonial-era houses were based on English Medieval patterns from about 1600 to 1700. These were tough times, when settlers were ecstatic just to have a roof over their heads. 

As New England grew wealthier, colonial houses
became more elaborate. Note the flanking chimneys
on this example, a nod to English Georgian styles.
By the early 18th century, however, the scrappy Yanks were already doing their best to emulate England’s stately Georgian homes. Proper English stone was hard to come by in the New World, so the lush New England forests offered up the post-and-beam framing and clapboard siding that became a hallmark of these foursquare houses (though in the humid South, brick was the preferred material). Ornament, also of wood, was limited to entrance portals, decorative hoods above six-over-six double-hung  windows, and sometimes, a modest classical cornice.   

 Resurgent interest in the colonial era inspired many architects
of the late 1800s, including the celebrated firm of
McKim, Mead, and White.
(Isaac Bell House, Newport, Rhode Island, 1883)
Colonial floors plans were boxy and symmetrical in the Georgian manner, with a central stair hall flanked by the public rooms. While the earliest Colonial-era homes had been wrapped around a massive chimney in order to conserve heat, these more upscale versions adopted the impressive Georgian device of twin chimneys flanking the gable-ends.  The Yanks had truly arrived. But along with this new prosperity came changing tastes, and by 1780, the plain-spoken Colonial homes that had served so well lost favor and were forgotten for nearly a century.

The fact that there never really was a “Colonial style” per se—rather, just a Colonial era whose homes were based on English models—didn’t stop anyone from creating a Colonial Revival, however.  The movement traces its roots to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876, whose historical exhibits gave many fairgoers their first look at the relatively primitive homes of the early colonists.     

The wider availability of architectural photographs
printed in magazines and textbooks brought a more authentic
wave of Colonial Revival homes during the 1920s.
(Image courtesy
The Exposition fanned America’s patriotism and reawakened interest in the homes of its earliest era. At first, this so-called Revival was just a pastiche of Colonial period motifs--broken pediments, Palladian windows, Classical porches--which were often rather unhappily wedded to otherwise standard late-Victorian houses.   
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, growing disgust with the clutter of Victorian architecture resulted in the chaste Colonial being held up as a stylistic ideal. In 1895, one architect opined, “. . .the old Colonial grace, simplicity, and refinements are sure to make a favorable impression in contradistinction to. . . lopsided design and cheap senseless ornaments.”

The mid-twentieth century saw the Colonial Revival style
boiled down to a few gimcracks such as window shutters
and weathervanes.
(Image courtesy
By 1915, a more authentic Colonial Revival appeared, brought on by the wider availability of books and measured drawings. Architects adopted the more severe, foursquare massing of the originals, and took pains to correctly reproduce such details as cornices and porches.

The straightforward simplicity of the style had tremendous influence on many architects, from McKim, Mead, and White on the east coast, to Julia Morgan, Bernard Maybeck, and Willis Polk on the west, all of whom were inspired by the Colonial’s ascetic composition.  Even later Modernists such as Charles Moore managed to reinterpret Colonial simplicity in their work.

 The most recent phase of the Colonial Revival occurred during the postwar era, when ranch-style tract houses were frequently done up in the kitschiest of Colonial emblems, consisting largely of false shutters, weathervanes, and brass eagles. But have no fear; in the current mania for mid-century modern architecture, these, too, have their adherents.

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