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The Defining Features of Colonial Homes and Where They Came From

November 20 2018
by Leisl Bailey

Colonial homes, like this Georgian Colonial, are symmetrical with columns outside.

Take a walk down the suburbs of most cities in the United States today and you’re sure to find ties the homes typical of the European settlers: colonial homes. Distinctly their own, these homes stand apart from the Victorian, shotguns, and craftsman homes that dot the States, with their boxy build and symmetrical appearance.

But where did the early settlers get this design, and why does it continue to make its way into our architecture today?

Colonial Homes

Patterned after their homelands with a simple and easy-to-build design, colonial homes started popping up as early as the mid-to-late 1500s.

Although each colonial has the same boxy shape and symmetrical features, there are strong influences from those nations that were in power over their areas at the time. There are six colonial subtypes pre-revival, and each plays a part in the colonial homes we know and love today.

Defining Features of Colonial Homes:

  • Pitched roof featuring massive central or symmetrical end chimneys
  • Brick detailing
  • Columns or pillars
  • Dormer windows
  • Generally side gabled

Colonial Georgian

These colonial homes rose to popularity during the reigns of King George II and King George III (known as the Georgian period) in England. They were generally built out of stone and brick with wooden trim and columns—the whole of which was painted white.

The English settlers built Colonial Georgian homes throughout the 13 original colonies, although the settlers built them out of both brick and clapboard, rather than the stone and brick of the originals.

The Georgian is a combination of the medieval with hints of classical architecture. This is evident in the columns and rectangular dentils patterning the roofline.

This style of home mainly housed the English middle class. They appealed to settlers who associated the decorative features of the house with the aristocracy of England. Since the colonials of England were made from stone and brick, the settlers put sand in their paint to make their wooden colonials appear as if they had been made of stone.

Spanish Colonial

The Spanish Colonial has been around since the late 1500s and dots large sections of the western US and Florida where Spanish rule once reigned supreme. Contrary to the steep roof of the Georgian, the Spanish Colonials have flat or slightly pitched roofs. This roofing style hailed from Africa, Spain, and Native American peoples and filtered up through Mexico.

This colonial style is typically made out of pit-sawn softwood boards and thatched roofs.  That style led to them getting a whitewash with oyster shell in the late 1700s and eventually getting built with sturdier materials like adobe.

Dutch Colonial

Stemming from the Dutch colonies of New York City and New Jersey, the Dutch Colonial homes featured gambrel roofs that kicked out slightly on the eaves. It is uncertain where that flair on the eaves comes from, although many (such as Virginia Savage McAlester in her seminal book, A Field Guide to American Houses) speculate they came from the French-Flemish style of homes.

French Colonial

Prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, French architecture had a strong influence on the Northeast. You can still see evidence of this French architecture in New Orleans where French Colonials still stand.

These homes feature the true-to-style French doors and stucco with a steep roof that hangs over the door. Designed to fit the area in which they were built, these 2- to 3-story houses have a large covered porch surrounding the house to give their residents a place to cool off throughout the southern summers. The house was built with the bedrooms on the second story in case of flooding, which is typical of that region.

German Colonial

When German and northern European immigrants settled the Delaware River Valley in the 1600s, they started building what is known as the German Colonials.

Using local materials such as limestone and wood, they constructed their sturdy homes often into the hillside to protect them from the cold and wind. Another trademark of these colonials is the red clay tiles on the roof that was typical to the Bavarian homes of the time period.

Federalist

The Federalist is similar to the Georgian. While they have intricate detailing along the columns and moldings, you can really recognize these homes by their Palladian windows. These homes were especially popular along the East Coast in the late 1700s to the early 1800s.

Colonial Revival

In the late 1800s, residents of the United States started remembering their earlier roots and emulating the housing style that was popular at the time of the Revolution. This rebirth of the colonial became known as the Colonial Revival. These homes, while similar to the original colonials, combined elements and melded the past with the present to create the homes that influenced the Modern or Neo-Colonial Homes.

Modern colonial homes feature the same rectangular layouts, number of stories, and decorative entrances as their historic counterparts. One defining aspect of modern-day colonials is that they feature bay windows and other elaborate features that are not typical of historical colonial homes.

Buying a Colonial

These homes typically have the living area on the main floor, with the bedrooms on the second and third floors. This makes it easy to spread out as a family but is more difficult for those that have trouble with stairs.

Although heating and cooling colonials is difficult, their design often conforms to the area with covered porches, cooling decks, and the use of fans.

Updating a Colonial

When updating a colonial, try to maintain the elements that define the space as specifically colonial. These elements include the crown moldings, door detailing, simple exteriors, and beautiful columns.

If you want to update the space, consider knocking out a wall or two on the main floor to add a more open floor plan. You can also update the brick or vinyl exterior and add an eye-catching mantel the fireplace. If your house happens to be one without a covered porch, add one! The covered porch is a detail that is typical to many homes of that era and will add just enough to the exterior to update it without overwhelming or losing the elements that make the place a colonial.

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