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 LLwritebiz@aol.com.
The House That Romance Built
The Romantic styles that dominated residential architecture in the United States before 1860 remain popular today in houses old and new.
May 1, 2005
Because the Romantic styles cut such a broad geographic swath, you'll find a considerable inventory of older homes sought after by buyers who love the delightful decorative confections unique to these styles. Popular, too, are new houses built to replicate the older designs; look for them especially in markets where teardowns predominate or land is available for unified stylistic development.
Many architectural styles fall under the banner of Romanticism. The first wave in Romantic residential architecture brought Greek Revival, followed by Gothic Revival, Italianate, and even Egyptian and Oriental influences. When done well, these Romantic residential explorations capture the imagination and make the heart skip a beat.
Homes of this style can be recognized by these features:
- Low-pitched roof, gable or hipped
- Symmetrical, boxy shape
- A gable including a pediment
- Prominent cornice with wide trim band comprising frieze and architrave
- Pilasters (a rectangular column with a capital and base) at building corners
- Porch with columns
- Front door often includes transom window(s) and sidelights
- Rectangular windows with simple, built-up surrounds
This style first appeared in public buildings, then quickly became the chief residential motif everywhere settlement occurred in the United States from 1830 through the 1850s. Greek Revival was so prevalent that it was labeled the National style (no relation to the current National style).
What factors brought this style to the forefront? Enchantment with British architectural designs diminished significantly with the War of 1812. Archeological investigations cast emphasis on things Greek. And America, newly democratic herself, was empathetic with the struggle for independence going on in Greece.
With the introduction of Greek Revival, its signature front-gable arrangement became the standard for residential construction. The style truly had a national impact.
Look for these features to help identify the Gothic Revival style:
- Symmetrical and highly picturesque form with a decidedly vertical emphasis
- Steeply pitched roof with steep side gables, and one or more steep front cross gables
- Gables embellished with decorative verge boards or cross-bracing
- Single-story porch, often full width
- Windows and doors of pointed, arched, or squared shape, generally with elaborate surrounds
The Gothic Revival followed about 10 years after the introduction of the Greek Revival as a minor rebellion of sorts to the classicism and regularity of its predecessor. The first examples were large country manors detailed in the fashion of cathedrals or castles replete with battlements, turrets, and towers.
When built of masonry or stone, the style was often polychromed for depth of color and texture. Most frequently, though, Gothic Revival was executed in wood and took advantage of the decorative possibilities allowed by the scroll saw or jigsaw, a relatively new invention. Lacey and fanciful "cut out" ornament is a hallmark, appearing routinely at doors, windows, and roof/wall junctions.
The writings and pattern books published by American architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing popularized Gothic Revival across the country, although the style rarely appeared in dense urban settings. But elsewhere, the application of the Gothic Revival style transformed wood frame houses into storybook fantasies that could be either as quaint or imposing as the imagination allowed.
The features most frequently associated with this style include:
- Two or more stories
- Low-pitched roof
- Cornice line with wide overhanging eaves featuring decorative brackets
- Tower or cupola common
- Single-story porch at entry or across façade
- Porch commonly arcaded and surmounted by a balustraded balcony
- Rectangular or arched entry doors, often doubled, with elaborate surrounds
- Tall, narrow windows with ornamental crowns and surrounds, often arched and paired or tripled
So easily adapted to local materials and tastes, the Italianate spread across the United States and dominated residential design for about 30 years from 1850 to 1880. Taking inspiration from the informal villas of the Italian countryside, American Italianate developed into a truly indigenous style.
Homes can appear boxy or very three-dimensional, and almost always highly ornamental. In a most unusual fusion, the Italianate sometimes incorporates components of both the Greek and Gothic Revivals. But perhaps the most distinguishing and consistent identifier is the bracketed eaves.
Romantic Homes in Your Area
Now that you know how to identify the various architectural styles associated with Romanticism, you'll be able to locate Romantic styles in your own market area. Learn to point out these features in homes you're showing to clients, and you never know—they just may fall in love.
What Style Is It? A Guide to American Architecture, Revised Edition by John C. Poppeliers et al (John Wiley & Sons, 1983)