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What is a Colonial House?

John M. Dixon|November 5, 2020

“Colonial” appears more often on residential real estate pages than any other style designation. It was inspired by houses built before the American Revolution, which in themselves reflected the European taste of that time for architecture based on ancient Greek and Roman precedents. Houses of this style were designed to present an image of order and stability to the world. They typically have neatly rectangular fronts, with uniform windows arranged symmetrically around a central entry door.

The stately imagery of the original Colonials was largely supplanted during the 1800s by a trend toward more picturesque design, toward houses with irregular, asymmetrical forms and often fanciful details made possible by mechanized woodworking methods. Then, around 1900, renewed appreciation for our American history set off a revival of the more sober Colonial, which peaked during the 1920s and 1930s – and hasn’t totally stopped yet. Both the original Colonials and the later adaptations varied widely in size and the intricacy of their details.

Colonial houses typically display these principal characteristics:

•    The main body of the house has a front that is one flat plane -- no major forward projections or roof gables facing front.
•    A main entry is at the center of that front, and windows of consistent sizes are placed symmetrically to either side – with upper-floor windows and attic dormers (if any) also placed symmetrically.
•    Wings often attached to one or both sides of the main block -- always lower in profile, not necessarily symmetrical.
•    Materials may be wood or masonry over the entire front, though sometimes brick or stone on the first story with wood boards or shingles above. 
•    Details of window and door frames, entry porches, dormers, etc., derived from Classical (Greek or Roman) examples, varying from starkly simple to quite elaborate, typically simpler on any wings.
•    Interior layouts reflect the symmetry of the house fronts, most characteristically in the “Center-hall Colonial,” with living room and dining room of equal width flanking the entry.

The more elegant examples of Colonial style may have:

•    Sidelight windows flanking the front door. 
•    Small entrance porches with flat or gabled roofs, sometimes columns in more or less accurate historical styles.
•    More rarely, arched windows, in some cases a Palladian window (a central arch flanked by to flat-topped openings) – typically at the center above the entrance.

Varieties of Colonial

Cape Cod: These one-story – or more typically story-and-a-half -- versions of Colonial were all the rage throughout the Northeast in the 1930s. Always clad in wood boards or shingles, with drastically simplified trim, they were nevertheless usually symmetrical, and they typically had one prominent chimney rising from the center of the roof. Less orthodox examples may have a couple of (symmetrically placed) dormers facing front – and any of them may have broad shed dormers hidden on the back. Cape Cods were hardly ever built after the 1940s, but many survive in fine condition, perhaps sensitively expanded.

Saltbox: Variations on the standard two-story Colonial, these houses had roofs that extended down in the back to the top of the first floor – resulting in a shape that people of earlier centuries recognized as a box for salt. The Saltbox is found more often in houses of actual colonial times than in latter-day reproductions, which were rarely built later than the 1930s.

Dutch Colonial: These were the rage in the 1920s. Their distinctive roofs have a steep pitch rising from the top of the first story, with a lower pitch above. The style recalls houses of the areas originally settled by the Dutch, the distinctive roofs of which allowed more ample second-floor spaces than single-pitch roofs. While there are sometimes simple dormers breaking through the lower slope, usually there are shed dormers extending the full width of the house, both front and back. In fact the steep lower roof is generally just a stylistic flourish on what is essentially a two-story rectangular volume. But the resulting cottage-like image had wide appeal. The Colonial symmetry usually prevails, often with a small gabled entry porch roof at the center.

Colonial Hybrids

In the first half of the 1800s, as styles based on various European precedents became popular, many houses adopted picturesque massing and exotic details. But others maintained the stately, symmetrical qualities of the Colonial, some cross-breeding with Colonial traditions often occurring.

•    The Greek Revival style rose to great popularity between 1820 and 1840, sharing key Colonial characteristics in terms of symmetry and classical details, but often with hefty columns – some of them two stories high supporting front-facing low-pitched gables that emulate the pediments of ancient Greek temples.
•    Shore Colonial is a term sometimes seen in real estate pages, identifying houses of hybrid design from about 1900 to 1920. These generally had wood siding and more or less Colonial detailing. But they were asymmetrically organized and had hipped roofs with broad eaves and extensive porches – sometimes linked to porte-cocheres to shelter the period’s horseless carriages.
•    Country Colonial, while not a widely used designation, could be useful to identify a version of Colonial, typically from the 1930s, which has Colonial details and wood siding, but irregular massing and often some areas clad in fieldstone (less often brick), inspired by historical examples in inland portions of the Northeast, where masonry often appeared on rural house walls.

Good, Better, Best

If you are a typical buyer, you may be a bit overwhelmed by the house hunting process.  It may be easy to decide, for instance, what town you want to live in, but determining whether a house is “good” for you may be elusive if you do not have experience or knowledge in design or construction. Once you find a place you’re excited about, you may want to consider bringing in an architect or decorator to help you assess a home from the standpoint of function and design.  A building inspector and/or contractor can evaluate the quality and condition of construction, mechanical systems, roof, windows, and other aspects.

Some areas for you to think about as you look at a Colonial house:

1.    Relationship of the house to its environment: How is it situated in relationship to the street or road? Is the house front visible to the public? If other sides of the house are visible from the street – as on a corner property – do they maintain the Colonial image?  Do other features of the house’s site – as well as adjoining houses and properties -- relate well to it?
2.    Approach and arrival: Is the entry route clear for visitors, and does it present a pleasing prospect to them? Once inside, is there a good space to greet them? And how about alternative entrances for family, supplies, etc.?
3.    Interior spaces: Will the layout of rooms suit your lifestyle or can it be readily altered to do so – without compromising the Colonial exterior?  How is the quality of natural light in the rooms? Do the spaces lend themselves to good furniture layout? (A decorator’s judgment might be helpful here.) In rooms tucked under sloping roofs – as in many houses of the Cape Cod type – are the spaces adequate? And do the dormers in such rooms offer sufficient light and view?
4.    Materials and workmanship: Are materials, indoors and out, in good condition? Are the details characteristic of Colonial – outside and inside – in good condition? If not, could they be readily refinished or replaced. If key Colonial features have been inappropriately altered, would you want to correct them – and would that be difficult? 
5.    Landscape: Has existing landscaping become overgrown, possibly hiding much of the house or limiting daylight – and could that be easily corrected?  Do the house and site allow for additional outdoor spaces such as the pool or particular gardens you might want?

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