I once read somewhere that the center entry, classic, “Colonial” house building style is the essential image of a house as drawn by all of us (in America at least) as a child. I love how there is almost always a shining or smiling sun as well as a family image in most pictures.
The word “Colonial is usually used to describe the original houses built in this country from about 1700-1800, it incorporates early Colonial styles up until the Federal style, but before the Greek Revival period began to dominate the styles of houses being built in America. It is not so much strictly a date or time period as it is the established style of most houses as well as the public buildings being built in the original 13 colonies along the Eastern seaboard.
A variation on this style is the classic “Cape Cod”, a more modest version, often with only a single storey. Some of the very earliest homes in this style had only one room, and are closer to the much older cottage-style croft all over the British Isles.
Brockton Heights, MA
All colonial houses ranged quite a bit in style with lots of individual embellishments, but they primarily shared certain elements – a center entry door and central staircase, divided light, sash windows, symmetrically arranged and a gable roof. They all had a fireplace and chimney somewhere, so we have the iconic smoking chimney creating that sense of a cozy fire burning. And there you have the child’s drawing!
The wealth of a homeowner showed up here with the additions of columns, fanlights or sidelights above or beside the door, elaborate carvings and and possibly an expensive paint color and door knocker. Remember, glass was incredibly expensive during colonial times and if you were adding windows, especially arched windows, you were quite well-off and could afford not only the glass, but the best craftsmen to create it!
Wood was plentiful and cheap, so the majority used wood to construct their houses, especially in New England, where brick and stone were more expensive. The prominent coastal cities such as Boston, New York, Marblehead and Salem,MA – even as far south as Charleston, SC had the shipbuilding craftsmen put their skills to work building houses as well. Brick became the material of choice throughout Virginia and is still the iconic building material today for traditional style homes throughout the South.
Setting aside regional differences that corresponded to climate and temperature considerations, the style was remarkably consistent. The proportions were classic based upon 4 main rooms, 2 upstairs and 2 down flanking a center stairhall of some sort. The windows flanked the center door and consisted of taller windows on the first floor and slightly shorter ones on the second.
Martha’s Vineyard, MA
John Paul Jones House, Porstmouth, NH
Federal Hill, KY
Warner House, Portsmouth, NH
Jennings-Brown house, Bennetsville SC
Looking at these many examples of the style, you can start to see how much the proportion and scale creates the strong sense of balance that makes the houses pleasing to the eye. We tend to like things that are symmetrical as well, but even when they are non-symmetrical, we appreciate the individual “quirks” that we see.
Some are certainly more elegant than others, some more plain and “sturdy”, but they are all inviting and approachable. I even think that they make me wonder what’s inside, and create a sense of anticipation.
When I think of the hundreds and hundreds of these “Colonial” style houses we see every day, I appreciate even more seeing these original examples. The simplicity of the style. and simplicity of the materials, it is no wonder that it is our iconic concept of “Home”.