When it comes to our homes there is more than just “modern.” A whole world of residential architecture styles exists outside of the cookie-cutter image of the American suburb. From coast to coast, you can find houses that ache for ancient Greek classicism and Gatsby-era Long Island, with stories to tell in their turrets and towers and walls that speak of recent and remote periods of American history. In the most intimate of architectural scales we can glean a bit about how our forebears once lived and gather a great deal about how these homes’ stewards would like to live today. Follow along for a breakdown of some of the most cherished house styles on this side of the Atlantic.
Adobe is one of the oldest building materials found in North America. A traditional adobe, or Pueblo style, home is a low-slung structure built from sun-dried mud bricks and timber beams around a central courtyard. The form is simple and the size can vary, but these structures spread outward, rarely upward. Most adobe homes feature a dotted line of wood penetrating at least one section of the front facade. These are just the ends of the timber beams that support the home’s roof, and offer visual excitement along with structural integrity.
Any art lover has seen an example of Adobe Revival architecture, whether they know it or not. Painter Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico, is the perfect domestic example of the architectural style. The oldest rooms in the adobe ranch are from the mid-18th century. O’Keefe modernized her house, making sure there was ample light to support her artistic practice, and scattered midcentury-modern classics throughout each room. If you’re a lucky adobe homeowner, follow suit by keeping your furnishings well designed yet simple, alongside earth tones, lots of white, and perhaps some modern art of your own.
Arts and Crafts
The Arts and Crafts movement was an all-encompassing artistic endeavor, including textile designers, glassblowers, ceramists, architects, and cabinetmakers. The style developed in response to the industrial revolution and emphasized time-consuming, detailed craftsmanship. William Morris and Edwin Lutyens are among the most recognizable names from the movement. (Morris’s designs for wallpaper are still available for purchase today.)
The first structures of this style were erected in the middle of the 19th century in England and borrowed decorative elements from Gothic and medieval architecture (both periods were considered to be design golden ages for the English), like stained-glass windows, pitched roofs, and dramatically arched doors and windows.
Once the movement reached the United States at the end of the century, much of its historical references were updated and modernized. The curlicues and scrollwork of previous styles were pared down to the simplest curves and swirls under architects like Louis Sullivan. Most popular between 1900 and 1940, the Arts and Crafts style split off into two directions predicated on geography: the simpler Prairie style home, which originated in Chicago under Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Craftsman style, which took root in Southern California.
One of the most recognizable styles to the architecture novitiate, Art Deco homes are the structural equivalent to the Jazz Age flapper’s deceptively simple ensemble. Graphic shapes like zig-zags, stripes, pyramids, and chevrons were favored as decoration on these buildings. Single-family Art Deco homes are rare, as the style was used mostly for commercial buildings (see Manhattan’s skyscrapers) but not impossible to find.
The first Art Deco buildings were erected in France, between 1900 and 1920. The heyday of the period though, was between the two world wars, 1920–1940. Inside, the aesthetic was all encompassing, with architects often designing built-in or custom furniture to perfectly complement their built space. Chrome, glass, and marble took precedent, as did blond woods and sumptuous textiles like velvet and silk.
The Brutalist style is better known for civic or cultural buildings rather than homes, but the visual vocabulary remains the same—raw industrial materials, a lack of ornamentation, and an overall imposing presence.
The aesthetic was founded on a very clear and straightforward philosophy—visual honesty. One thing all Brutalist buildings share is exposed materials, famously, cast concrete, but also brick and stone. Nothing is added to load-bearing materials to decorate the structure—the decoration lies in the medium itself and the way it takes form as a building. In the United States, Paul Rudolph was an early adopter of the movement, notably in his 1963 building for the Yale School of Architecture.
In Brutalist residential architecture (mostly multifamily housing), there is usually more wall than window, which is why the style was condemned for so long. Oppressive though this style of building may seem, there is still a strong contingency of Brutalism lovers spread throughout the U.S. and Europe.
The English cottage in America is a structure identifiable mostly by nostalgia, perhaps for a time that never really existed. This kind of home is identifiable by its scale, usually on the small size, and its nonsensical, rambling floor plan. This style has two floors at most, with a thick thatched roof, small windows, and wide wood plank floors.
An authentic English cottage isn’t built all at once but put together piecemeal over generations. And if you happen not to be part of the minor landed gentry, you can ape the look by making sure your floor plan follows fancy, not function.
Its small size is perfectly suited to the English country aesthetic: old chintz, too many books, and overstuffed winged armchairs sagging from hours of conversation. This style of home is always located in a picturesque environment, preferably atop some hill or tucked away like a hobbit hole, surrounded by hedges and overgrown ivy. It’s built to appear dilapidated, charming for its imperfection.
Federal-style homes closely followed the Georgian period, built mostly between 1780 and 1820 (continuing through 1840 in the states). Like Georgian styles, the Federal home was in essence a simple box—usually two rooms deep (in most modest examples)—but eventually Frankensteined by architectural add-ons to the sides and back of the house.
Clapboard siding was popular in Northern states and brick in Southern states. Chimneys are most often found emerging from the center of the home or along a side. There is an atmospheric lightness in Federal homes, in comparison with their stylistic predecessors, probably as the result of larger windows and higher ceilings. Decorative plaster pops up in these homes—sometimes in moldings, sometimes in mantels—adding a fanciful lilt to the otherwise sober structures.
Georgian style homes, like Arts and Crafts, originated in England, albeit about two centuries prior. The period encompasses the reign of the three king Georges (1698 to 1811), but the architectural style lasted in the United States two decades after George III died. The style is distinguished most visibly by symmetry, proportion, and geometric gridlike forms: Most structures have a central, paneled door with an even number of windows (usually with tiny panes of glass) on both sides, a central chimney, and a neat side-gabled roof. Right angles were the name of the game.
Your Georgian might be built of wood with shingle walls (most commonly found in the North), while brick versions (sometimes covered with stucco) spot the middle and southern portions of the country. Georgian homes grew to include slightly more decorative additions with each decade, usually reinterpreting or reusing motifs from classical Rome and the Italian Renaissance. Variance generally depended on the taste and skill of the builders—from the original craftsmen who brought the style to the colonies before 1740 to professional architects who spread the style to other corners of the U.S.
One of the earliest examples of Gothic Revival domestic architecture was constructed by the iconic dilettante Horace Walpole. He built his confectionary palace Strawberry Hill House between 1749 and 1776, making adjustments throughout that period. It started out as a collection of cottages and ended up a fanciful Gothic castle worthy of Beauty and the Beast.
The Gothic Revival style is extremely distinctive to the modern eye for its turrets, towers, spires, and decorative tracery work. Every surface is treated. At Strawberry Hill, for instance, ceilings drip with decorative plasterwork like icing on a cake. As with traditional Gothic structures, one of the central architectural and decorative details in Gothic Revival homes is the pointed arch. You find it in doorways, windows, and halls. The style is dramatic to say the least, calling you not only to look up, but requiring a squint to make out the tightly interlaced details in every corner.
Nostalgia has long been an architectural inspiration, and the Greek Revival style is perhaps the most obvious example. This genre of buildings is characterized most clearly by a perfect sense of symmetry. Front doors are almost always centered and almost always surrounded by an entry porch. The porch requires columns, of course, and what is more quintessentially ancient Greek? Doric columns are generally favored, with their simple capitals and bases. The forms of these houses was simple as well, with a low-pitched, gabled roof.
The style was popularized in the middle of the 19th century, between 1825 and 1860 throughout the country, and is still being built today. At the time when this style was most prevalent, it became synonymous with an American national identity, so much so that it was referred to as the “National style.” Naturally, there were differences in style dictated by region. In the popular imagination, Greek Revival homes are mostly Southern plantations, but the style was actually most prevalent in places with large population growth like New York or Pennsylvania. A few existing examples from the period are Gwynedd Hall in Pennsylvania (1824) and the Eliphas Buffett House (1800).
If you’ve ever happened to drive around Hollywood, you would have definitely passed by a little (or large) Mediterranean villa. This home looks thrust into American suburbia from its origins on a Spanish coast. It’s generally cream-colored, topped with terra-cotta roof tiles, and features arched windows and doors, as well as scrolling ironwork. This style was developed for a temperate climate, originating on the Mediterranean, as the name suggests, and taking root in temperate states like Texas, California, and Florida.
Along with Spanish influences, Mediterranean-style homes also take cues from Italian architecture through time. Some of the homes built more recently have either round (Spanish) towers or square (Italian) ones. The style was popular through the 1990s and remains so in the 2000s. Some structures have Moorish details like pointed arches, stripes, checks, and graphic floral-inspired motifs.
If there is one architectural style that has come back with force in the 21st century, it’s midcentury modern. From furniture to houses, the style encapsulates a wide range of forms. There was Scandinavian modernity in the mid-20th-century, which utilized clean lines, natural materials (like locally accessible wood), wide windows, and low-slung profiles. It developed alongside American midcentury modernism, which was extremely similar in form.
Iconic examples of this style are peppered along both coasts. There is Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania house Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1935; the Glass House, built by Philip Johnson in Connecticut between 1948 and 1949; and the Neutra VDL house, built in Los Angeles, as its name suggests, by Richard Neutra in 1932 and rebuilt in 1964.
Many of the preeminent architects of the midcentury also designed furniture—Alvar Aalto, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen—allowing for original examples to be designed comprehensively along with the homes they were meant to inhabit. Structures and furniture were in perfect harmony.
Postmodern homes are distinctive in their difference. One is never the same as another, but they often share characteristics indicative of the 1980s when the style was most popular: primary colors, right angles, geometric architectural additions, half-moon windows, exposed concrete and piping, and—now and then—a glass brick. The point of postmodernism was to create something truly new and surprising, a counterpoint to straight-laced modernism that had defined the last half century. Robert Venturi, one of the leaders of the movement, summed up the style perfectly when—as a cheeky rejoinder to Mies van der Rohe’s oft-used famous phrase—he quipped, “Less is a bore.”
Humor characterizes these homes, which join together characteristics as wide ranging as ancient Egypt and Art Deco. Trompe l’oeil and abstract interventions can occasionally be caught on the interiors, and superfluous decorative additions (like strange weathervanes and nonfunctioning turrets) may be seen outside. Like the new house in Beetlejuice, plays on perspective often make their way into postmodern dwellings.
Few modern styles are as to-the-point as the ranch is. A ranch is exactly what it claims to be—one story with a low-pitched roof. The ranch is usually asymmetrical, with a front door placed off-center; a mix of materials, often pairing glass, brick, wood paneling (inside and out); and a cement patio in the front or back of the house. Sometimes these houses extended to include wings off one or both sides, often encompassing a garage.
The style originated in Southern California, where the structure is well suited to the climate. After the austerity that defined domestic architecture during World War II lifted, the style became one of the most prevalent among new builds in the 1950s and 1960s throughout the country. The earliest ranch-style houses in the states date back to 1935, toward the end of the Art Deco and Art Moderne periods. Generally they were favored in hot cities—Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix—and remained popular through the early ’70s.
Occasionally tightly packed, layered shingles were paired with stone, but usually as an accoutrement to the shingles, never as the main meal. Shingle Style homes generally referenced two previous styles: Queen Anne, from which it took its shingles, generous porches, and irregular forms; and Colonial Revival, which incorporated the same rambling floor plans, gambrel roofs, and Palladian windows. One contemporary influence was the Romanesque, popularized by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, in the late 19th century, with its stone exteriors, wide arches, and again, irregular shapes. The style was at its peak between 1880 and 1910, but contemporary iterations are still frequently built in keeping with the quiet, quaint nature of early, shingle-heavy neighborhoods.
One in particular, the Beale residence, better known as Grey Gardens, serves as a signpost for the style. Its rambling floor plan and 14 rooms played host to a mother-daughter duo, famously documented in 1975 by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, whose eccentricity paralleled the house itself.
The Tudor style is slightly misleading in its title. As opposed to Tudor architecture that occurred during the Tudor period in England (the 16th century), Tudor-style domestic architecture in the United States was based more so on European medieval and Renaissance vernacular architecture. The style was prevalent between 1890 and 1940, but it reached its peak in the 1920s, a period in which about 25 percent of new homes were built in the style. (The style faded out in favor of midcentury modernism after World War II.)
Most Tudor homes are identifiable by their high-pitched, front-gabled roofs, and exposed rafters, but half timbering is perhaps what sticks out first to the modern eye. This refers to structures with load-bearing timber beams that are filled with panels in between them and left exposed. In some of the Tudor homes of the 20th century, these exposed timber beams are purely decorative. More farce continues in the false thatched roofs some of the homes boasted, winking at a Shakespearean cottage, if not perfectly copying it.
In little enclaves throughout big cities, certain aspects of the Tudor style could also be found in apartment buildings, or more accurately on them. The half-timbering above decorated entrances, window surrounds, and pitched roofs occasionally top the smaller buildings and make for a Disney-like juxtaposition.
In the world of furniture design, Victoriana has been synonymous with that which is least desirable—heavy, ornate, clunky, and dark; the sad, cluttered style of the grandmother who doesn’t sneak you candy. But the American Victorian home actually has a light side. The Victorian period technically spans Queen Victoria’s reign (from 1837 to 1901), but the homes most commonly understood as Victorian today were built between 1860 and 1900.
In an era of mass production, more was possible with residential building—doors and windows could be manufactured in large quantities—and homeowners started to veer away from simple American vernacular styles toward more ornate, frilly confections.
Victorian houses could have turrets, monstrous wings, circular windows at odd locations, off-center entries, and more porch than any one family could ever need. Houses were painted a myriad of colors, from robin’s-egg blue to coral red, and often featured stained glass inside and out. These were steep, usually with three stories and severely pitched roofs that drew the eye up. The Victorian house was about individuality, following a period where simplicity and function were prioritized.
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