I have been perpetually confused with what defines a house style as a Colonial. It has always seemed like the go to descriptor for any house that didn’t cleanly fit into any other category. I couldn’t find the common bond between one colonial and any other colonial.
What I didn’t know was that, unlike say the Cape, the Colonial style is a general style encompassing many well-defined styles and a few nebulous ones. Let’s learn!
First the basics: The American Colonial is defined by simpleness and symmetry. The original Colonials developed, as the name suggests, from construction styles of American colonists from the 1600’s *1. Some of the subtypes are attributed to the cultural heritage of the residents: Dutch, Spanish, French, German Colonials for example. The regional preferences of these cultural groups result in greater frequency of certain subtypes by region. Today we’ll look at the following Colonial types:
Garrison, Saltbox, Georgian, (Federal), Dutch, German, Spanish, and French.
This one’s easy. Bump out the second floor a foot and you’re go. Mom D informed me that legend says this style was developed to allow Colonial’s to defend their homes by aiming their guns at the front door through that one foot gap. Bob Villa supports this legend, but suggests that perhaps the real origin is more likely roots in Elizabethan townhouses*.
Take your standard colonial and drop the back roof down closer to the ground. Wikipedia suggests that this was done either to a) evade some taxes by having the rear roof of the house at 1 story or b) affordably accommodate a growing family with a cheap lean-to addition in the back.
Whoa there, now we’re getting fancy. Georgian styles added some flare. The decorative crown on the door? The faux flat columns on either side of the door? Exciting! Throw in some symmetric chimneys and we are good. Sometimes these might have added ornamentation like dental molding around the eaves. All these examples of flare were methods of pragmatically displaying wealth and prosperity *2. This style developed after 1700. *3
Federal houses are Georgian Colonials on steroids. Grandiose and formal. Their doorways are even more intense, they frequently have half circle windows or fanlights above their doors, with occasional pillars. Sometimes, Federal extends away from the pitched roof style home with some massive flat roof types. Other times they have their Pediment (the triangle part of the home) as the front of the building.
Fun fact: Some websites put the Federal style into the Colonial Revival type of houses. Other websites seem to put the Federal building as its own style. If any brilliant architectural historians are out there to set this one straight, please comment.
Let’s stop briefly to hit up roof styles. Check it out, some of these will be important to understand before we continue:
And thus concludes our intermission. Back to Colonials.
GAMBREL THAT ROOOOF! The Dutch Colonial is extremely distinctive. You take a standard colonial, increase the pitch of the roof and then barn-ify it with a couple dormers. In fact these are often referred to as barn style homes. Sometimes the entryway has a pretty arch, other times there’s a porch on the one side. These Colonials are easy to identify. These style homes were more commonly constructed in the early 1900’s, so we’re definitely within the colonial revival era. NOTE: my drawing is not very good.
Standard colonial made out of stone. Bam. German Colonial.
This house subtype is extremely hard to define. There are examples on the internet of basic colonials with ceramic tile roofs, to grand spanish villas rife with arches and stucco walls. There are a lot of these in California. I am not going to attempt a drawing as the style is too vague to capture in MSPaint.
Also tricky to define, French Colonial architecture in America can describe any number of different styles. One common theme that I have noticed are unusual roofs. First there’s the bonnet roof. Think McDonalds in the 90’s.
French example 1
Sometimes the roof on these extends far out over the house with pillars coming down all the way around.
Then there’s the steep roof French Colonial. It has a hip roof, but this one is much steeper.
French example 2
From my own observations, these houses tend to have multiple house sections all with those steep roofs. Arched dormers and center chimneys are not uncommon.
So there we have it! A quick walk down the path of Colonial architecture. It would seem that my initial impression of Colonials as a ‘catch-all’ isn’t entirely bogus because there are a lot of different looks to this genre, but hopefully this post provides a bit of clarity to this generous style. Thanks for reading!