Farmhouses Leave the Farm

The Farmhouse design; which evokes self-reliance, hard work, and homey comfort; isn't just found on farms anymore.

April 1, 2005

The American farmhouse symbolizes a safe retreat, a place to find loved ones, and the delight of good things cooking in the kitchen.

The oldest examples in the Northeast are prized by preservationists for their historical relevance, while the familiar characteristics of the Midwest's inviting farmhouses make them very appealing to homebuyers today.

Once you learn the characteristics of the Farmhouse style, you may be surprised to see some of the same comforting features in your listings.

Farmhouses of Early America

The earliest farm residences were small structures built during the 17th century to meet the demands of raw necessity: shelter and protection from intruders. Most shared these characteristics:

  • One or one-and-a-half stories tall
  • Boxy overall shape
  • Dominant fireplace
  • Loft attic over ground-level space
  • Thick walls
  • Few, small windows

Some homes began as cellar houses dug 6 feet to 7 feet into the earth. Most, though, featured a single room on ground-level that served as the kitchen, dining room, parlor, and bedroom.

Large families were essential to successful farming ventures and family growth was accommodated by adding a second room, followed by a loft with one or two rooms overhead, and then a lean-to at the rear. Eventually, the lean-to became a permanent component.

Rustic log and stone structures were gradually replaced by homes featuring wood siding, brick, or shingles. During the 18th century, farmhouses shed their primitive appearance and assumed details consistent with styles then sweeping the country: Federal, Greek Revival, and Victorian.

But the lean-to incorporated into the rear roofline defined the Saltbox style so prevalent in the Northeast, an enduring look that you'll find featured in new homes across the United States today. Even a large contemporary house rendered in Saltbox style exudes a cottage-like charm and a comforting ambiance.

Midwest Farmhouses Define Values

Whether nestled in the midst of barns and outbuildings, or standing apart on a hillside, the gleaming white farmhouse connotes protection, reassurance, and a no-nonsense lifestyle.

Traditional Midwestern farmhouses feature these characteristics:

  • Two stories
  • Simple, vertical lines
  • Gable roof
  • White wood siding
  • Front porch, often elaborate with decorative columns, railings, and other accents
  • Large kitchen
  • "Company" parlor and "family" sitting room

Most farmhouses were built without the assistance of an architect and, unless the farmer was wealthy, only the space actually needed was constructed. As fortunes increased and families expanded, more space was added. A wing might be built for a married son, or a new house constructed for the rest of the family so the newly married couple could take over the original residence.

Rooms tended to be small to make them easier to heat—a real consideration before stoves were readily available and central heating was introduced. The kitchen, however, commanded the first floor—a spacious area functioning as the heart of the home.

While simple farmhouses with white wood siding predominate, the home of a well-to-do farmer might feature brick and, if cost wasn't an issue, the family also might specify any of the design styles popular at the time of construction.

Farmhouse Style Goes to Town

As industries other than farming developed in the United States, people moved farther from the fields and into larger towns. When they did, they took the architectural characteristics of the farmhouse with them, which helps explain why so many rural enclaves look so similar.

No matter where you travel, it's common to see streets studded with compact, two-story homes painted white or a pale pastel, enhanced with modest exterior ornamentation and a welcoming front porch—all familiar farmhouse features. And because the simplicity of a farmhouse, the style still conveys so much about America's heritage, we see new suburban homes sometimes putting on a farm face, too.

Learn More

American Farmhouses: Country Style and Design by Leah Rosch (Simon & Schuster, 2002)

The Farmhouse: New Inspiration for the Classic American Home by Jean Rehkamp Larson (The Taunton Press, 2004)

freelance writer

Linda Legner is a freelance writer in Burr Ridge, Ill., who covers design, engineering, construction, and real estate topics for newspapers, magazines, and businesses. She can be reached at


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