Cashing in on Colonials

Inspired by the houses of early settlers, colonial architecture expresses the American ideal of home.

May 1, 2004

Colonial homes dominate the American landscape. Uncomplicated, economical, and refined, they reflect the building practices of America's earliest settlers. A true colonial is a home from one of America's original 13 colonies or outlying territories. However, many newer homes incorporate ideas from America's colonial past. When you point out the colonial features, you bring to light fascinating pieces of our architectural heritage.

We often think of a colonial as stately and symmetrical with an orderly arrangement of windows around a central front door. Yet America's colonial architecture comes in many shapes and sizes. Colonial styles evolved from several different cultural traditions, including English, Dutch, Spanish, and French. To explore the colonial roots of your listings, it helps to know a little bit about America's early houses. Chances are, you will discover details drawn from one or more of these historic traditions.

Historic Colonials

  • Garrison Colonial. The first substantial homes constructed by New England settlers imitated the houses of medieval England. Many of these homes had steep gabled roofs, small diamond paned windows, and a second story overhang across the front facade. Garrison Colonials usually were sided in unpainted clapboard or wood shingles.
  • New England Colonial. By the late 1600s, New England's settlers were constructing what we now think of as the quintessential colonial. These homes were two stories high with gables on the side and an entry door at the center. To conserve heat, a massive chimney ran through the center. The siding was not painted.
  • Southern Colonial. The same symmetrical housing shapes were used in the southern colonies. The siding, however, was often brick and the chimneys were placed at the sides instead of in the center.
  • Saltbox Colonial. The easiest way for colonists to expand their homes was to add a one-story lean-to at the rear. The result was a long, sloping roofline that protected the home from the wind. This housing type was named after the shape of colonial-era salt containers. In the South, the term "catslide' was used.
  • Cape Cod Colonial. The original Cape Codshad one-story or one-and-a-half stories with no dormers. They usually were sided with shingles or unpainted clapboards.
  • Dutch Colonial. Eighteenth-century Dutch settlers in New York and New Jersey often built brick or stone homes with roofs that reflected their Flemish culture. Sometimes the eaves were flared and sometimes the roofs were slightly rounded into barn-like gambrel shapes.
  • French Colonial. French settlers in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi built stucco-sided homes with expansive two-story porches and narrow wooden pillars tucked under the roofline. The porch was an important passageway because traditional French Colonial homes did not have interior halls.
  • Spanish Colonial. In the Southwestern United States, Florida, and California, settlers drew upon Hispanic and Moorish building traditions. These homes were most commonly sided in adobe or stucco. The roofs were flat or slightly pitched and finished with red clay tiles. Some Spanish Colonial homes featured a Monterey-style, second-story porch.
  • Georgian Colonial. While King George reigned in England, colonists were building sophisticated brick and clapboard homes that imitated British architectural fashion. These Georgian-style homes were highly symmetrical with multi-pane windows evenly balanced on each side of a central front door. This façade was modestly ornamented with dentil moldings or decorative flat pilasters.
  • Federal. In the East, America's colonial period officially ended with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, homebuilders continued to expand on colonial ideas. The symmetrical, rectangular Georgian style evolved into the more highly ornamented Federal style. Palladian windows, oval rooms, and decorative garlands are hallmarks of Federal architecture.

New Colonials

  • Colonial Revival. During the late 1800s, builders mingled elaborate Victorian ideas with colonial building practices, creating an elegant but understated style known as Colonial Revival. Often painted crisp white with dark green or black shutters, Colonial Revival homes are known for their graceful symmetry and elegant center entry hall. The style remained popular throughout the 20th century.
  • Neo-Colonial. Today, builders are still inspired by colonial ideas, combining classical simplicity with modern materials. New Colonials, or "neo-Colonials,' are often sided in vinyl or brick veneer and may have decorative flourishes, such as pillars or faux shutters. Floor plans are adapted to accommodate contemporary lifestyles. However, if you examine these homes closely, you will find appealing colonial features that many prospective buyers find comforting and familiar.

Learn More

Colonial Revival Architecture
From This Old House, a look at how colonial ideas were recreated in nineteenth century housing styles.


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