Modern History Monday – American Houses * Architectural Style Primer 1620-1830

Last week on “Modern History Monday” I wrote about the Colonial house and how it created a sense of “Home”.  Regardless of what type or style of “home” that you live in, the “Colonial” house seems to distill the house form down to the basics.

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Oldest house on Nantucket – 1686

For those that might be interested in architectural house styles, I thought that I would do a VERY brief primer on the house styles that you might see as you travel around your neighborhoods and home towns across the country.


Augustus Saint Gaudens Historic Site “Aspet” – 1817, embellished 1885-1895


I have always felt that categorizing the buildings that I see into basic style and time periods, helps me see some of the interesting details and vast array of individualism in the building of our homes.  I find that the basic historical periods of architecture help organize the process and give me a quick basic age time frame.  Here is my basic division of styles and the corresponding date period:

(This is a GENERAL list designed to give a basic framework, if you are interested in going into the information further, there are many books on the subject.  The “Bible” on this subject is considered to be “A Field Guide to American Houses” by Virginia Savage and many local Historical Societies have more detailed information on American domestic architecture.)


Architectural Periods & Styles

Early Colonial: 1625–1725

Georgian: 1725–1780

Federal: 1780–1830

Greek Revival: 1830–1860

Gothic Revival (1840–1880)

Italianate (1850–1885)

Second Empire (1860–1880)

Stick (1860–1890)

Queen Anne (1880–1910)

Shingle (1880–1900)

Colonial Revival (1880–1955)

Tudor Revival (1910–1940)

Prairie (1900–20)

Craftsman (1905–1930)


Lady Pepperell House kittery Point ME 1760

Lady Pepperell House, Kittery Point, MA – 1760


What we think of as a “Colonial” house is actually a group of 3 styles, Early Colonial or “First Period” 1625-1725, Georgian 1725-1780, and Federal 1780-1830.  The dates are fairly flexible with more rural houses  lagging behind the “stylish” and up-to-date town houses…some areas were just more fashion forward than others!  Because, like most elements of design, there is a strong desire to be “fashionable” that dictates the style of home one would build.  I will highlight a few of each period and mark some of the more prominent characteristics to look for that identifies the style or likely period.

Early Colonial – First Period

These houses are the very first homes built by the earliest settlers to the new American colonies.  The buildings were in many ways almost closer to a medieval style building in England, with the tiny windows, steeply pitched roofs, and a basic, plank door.  Glass was extremely expensive and hard to produce so the windows were small with tiny, diamond shaped panes.  The household may have even used a linen cloth dipped in tallow stretched over the opening to let in light.

There was almost always a central chimney, and the houses were most often one room deep.  The long slanted roof sloping down to a shed at the back was also common – this style is called a “Saltbox” as it looked like the box that held the salt.  The houses were also typically sitting right on the ground with no visible foundation or cellar wall.

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Rebecca Nurse Homestead- Salem, MA – 1678

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Jackson House, Portsmouth, NH – 1665

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Paul Revere House, Boston, MA – 1680

This photo of the Paul Revere House shows the street elevation and gives you a good idea of what the city must have looked like in its very earliest days, with rows of these houses side by side….and it also makes it very evident how much the early towns looked similar to the towns in England that they had left behind.

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 Street View – Paul Revere House, Boston, MA

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Jonathan Corwin House, better known as the Salem Witch House – Salem, MA – 1675


Named after the British kings at the time – George I, George II, and George III, this period style marks the return of the classical influence to buildings.  The craze for the “Classical Style” came from the discovery of the works of the Italian Andrea Palladio which traveled through Europe and into England.  This style was adapted into pattern books that were available to every craftsman and houses became more open, with larger windows, a more formal symmetry and the very most in-vogue appearance.

These houses were often 2 rooms deep with a large central stair hall.  There were often 2 end chimneys, rather than the single central chimney.  The exterior decoration was often wood made to look like stone, as well as a much more elaborate paneled door and gabled door surround.  We see a solid foundation visible at the base of the building, made of stone or brick. The most famous example of this Georgian style is Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington in Alexandria VA, enlarged in 1754 and embellished for the next 45 years.

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Mount Vernon, Alexandria, VA

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 Chase-Lloyd house, Annapolis, MD – 1760


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 South Windsor, CT

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Derby House, Salem, MA – 1762

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Wentworth-Gardner House, Portsmouth, NH – 1760


Named to mark the new United States of America, the Federal style is the cousin to the new Neoclassical style sweeping through Europe at the time.  Still classical in design, with symmetry, columns and capitals, the Federal style is lighter and more delicate in the embellishments.  The details appear more refined and less blocky.  It is still a rectangular box with a roof, but there is now often a third storey, and less emphasis on the roof.  There is more tracery in the window glazing, with the classical “Palladian” window and arched fanlights incorporated into the door surround.


 Barrett House, New Ipswich, NH – 1800

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Prescott House, Boston, MA – 1808

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Rundlet-May House, Portsmouth, NH – 1807

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Even the stables at the Rundlet-May house carried the proportions and decorations of the Federal style, in keeping with the fashion.


Ives House 1806

Thomas P. Ives House, Providence, RI –  1803

Circular porch is a 1884 addition (Classical Revival Period)

Nickels Sortwell House Wiscasset Maine USA 2012

Nickels-Sortwell House, Wiscassett, ME – 1807


The new nation was confident and proud, and the wealthy looked to Europe and the elegant Neoclassical style to advertise their wealth as well as their fashionable demeanor.  For the first time we see something that is frivolous, a garden folly…rather than the purely practical.  This was a (Western) world-wide trend in fashion, architecture and interior decoration.

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Derby Summer House- Salem, MA – 1793

Derby Summer House Glen Magna Danvers credit ESSEX HERITAGE Amanda Levy

Also known as the McIntire Tea House, now located in Danvers, MA – this charming confection is significant as an extremely rare and well-preserved example of an 18th-century summer house, and also includes some of the earliest American sculpture in the carved wooden figures mounted on its roof.


These houses all reflect the amazing diversity of building styles, within their respective periods and show a great deal of confidence on the part of the builders in the new colonies, and then the exuberance of a new nation.

Next we will see what Americans will build as the new nation turns away from England and adopts a style that reflects their pride and independence.  We will take a look at the dominant building style of the period after the War of 1812 and up to the Civil War in 1860 – Greek Revival.

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