What You Should Know About American Colonial-Style Houses

If you love symmetry, this architecture's for you.

Historic colonial style house...
Getty ImagesJohn Greim

Love looking at beautiful houses? Ever wonder why they look the way they do? You're not alone, which is why we decided to get down to the nitty-gritty of several common architectural styles to learn where and when each came to be known, and the distinguishing details of each style, so you can identify them like a pro. The more you know, ya know? First up: American Colonial.

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American Colonial architecture has a pretty self-explanatory origin story: We can trace its emergence as a common house style in the American colonies during colonial rule (1600s to mid-1700s). Throughout the United States, there are examples of Spanish, French, Dutch, and British Colonial architecture, since we had settlers from all of those countries inhabit parts of what is now the U.S. for varying amounts of time.

However, when you hear American Colonial architecture, you can assume it means British Colonial architecture in America. That’s because (1) America was under British colonial rule for the longest time and in the largest area, and (2) British Colonial as a type of architecture “is much less defined than it sounds given the vastness of the British Empire and the highly varied responses its colonial architecture took within each colony,” according to Andrew Cogar, architect and president of , an Atlanta- and New York-based architecture firm that specializes in traditional-yet-modern residences that are inspired by historical precedent.

Historic Mission House originally occupied by the Reverend
Getty ImagesJohn Greim

Before going any further, it’s important to point out that architectural styles are not hard-and-fast rules. Two houses built “in the same architectural style, while they may share many similar attributes, can have highly varied results,” Andrew says. Even within the American colonies, there are differences in the climates and building materials readily available that influence how homes are constructed—not to mention space constraints that determine how homes are designed in urban areas versus rural ones. As Andrew points out, though, “individual and regional distinctions aside, architectural styles share key attributes that are easily recognizable within each style.”

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What Defines American Colonial Homes:

Traditional American Colonial homes are fairly simple. Similar to the homes colonists lived in back in England, they’re rectangular, typically two stories, and fairly symmetrical. They have steep, side-gabled roofs, which means the triangular portion of the roof is only visible from the sides; looking at the front door, you only see shingles. Traditionally built with wood and sometimes stone (AKA the materials available), these homes were only one room deep and two or three rooms wide, with either one massive, central fireplace or fireplaces at both ends of the house. They have a centered front door and the same number of small, multi-paned windows on either side of and above the door.

Historic Winslow Crocker House
Getty ImagesJohn Greim

Andrew says that what he loves about this relatively plain house style is “the honest and earnest expression of detail and form,” and that the overall look of an American Colonial house is much more dependent on the size and proportions of the roof “than it is from specific architectural detailing or ornament.” He also notes that the American Colonial style is versatile, “and can feel just as much minimalist modern as it does traditional and historic, especially with the use of oversized glass door and window openings.”

What Separates True American Colonial Style From 'Inspired' Ones:

True American Colonial homes stopped being built around the time of the American Revolution—popular with the dawn of a new country and the kicking of British influence to the curb—but the essence of American Colonial architecture continues to be a popular building style today across the United States. As Andrew points out, the lines defining each specific architecture style can get a bit blurred when a style experiences a revival. “While drawing heavily on their predecessor styles, revival styles take a previous generation’s architecture and revisit it in their current cultural and technological style,” he says, “effectively reinventing it for their own needs.”

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