[10 on Tuesday] Buying a Historic Home: What’s Your Style? (Part 1)

Posted on: April 9th, 2013 by Sarah Heffern 5 Comments

Last week, we kicked off our series on buying a historic house with a toolkit focused on how to find the right new-to-you home, and this week, we’re moving on to the next step -- identifying the kinds of properties you might find.

Naturally, with the United States being as large as it is, there are a lot of architectural styles to cover. If you’re looking for a home built between approximately 1620 and 1890, today’s post is for you. Tune in next week for part two, which will get through the mid-20th century.

And because architecture, like preservation, comes with a lot of jargon, look for definitions and links throughout for more information.

1. Spanish Colonial. Located primarily in Florida and the Southwest, Spanish Colonial-style homes are built from adobe or stone covered in stucco and have low-pitched roofs. Most are only one or two stories; feature long, covered porches; and are L- or U-shaped.

2. Saltbox. Featuring a rectangular layout and rooms arranged around a central chimney, saltbox houses are most commonly found in New England and the Northeast. Look for asymmetrical, gabled roofs that join a two-story section with a single-story, and a front (two-story) façade decorated with pendants and brackets.

* Pendant: an elongated decoration hanging below a ceiling, usually in wood or plaster.
* Brackets: Small projecting pieces of wood, metal, or stone designed to support a projecting element.

3. Dutch Colonial. These houses, native to the Hudson Valley and parts of New Jersey and Delaware (and dating from 1625-1840), come in a variety of exteriors -- stone, clapboard, or brick. You can identify them by their steeply pitched gambrel or gabled roof and double-hung, multi-paned windows. On the inside, you’ll generally find the layout is rectangular, with rooms off a central stair hall.

Kenmore, a Georgian house in Fredericksburg, Va. Photo courtesy Dancing Tuna, Flickr
Kenmore, a Georgian house in Fredericksburg, Va.

4. Georgian. If you live east of the Appalachian Mountains, and are after a symmetrical floor plan, look for a Georgian. Its other key features are a gable, gambrel, or hipped roof with a decorative cornice and regularly spaced, double-hung windows.

* Cornice: Projecting portion at the top of a building façade.

5. Late Georgian. If a regular Georgian isn’t fancy enough, look for a Late Georgian, where the detailing takes over and elaborate cornices -- along with Palladian, semi-circular, and elliptical windows -- join the party.

Tip: Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site, is Georgian-Palladian in design and has many of the elements you should look for in this style.

6. Federal. Six-over-six windows (double-hung, with six panes each) are one of the defining elements of this common style of urban row house along the east coast from Maine to Georgia from 1780-1830. Brick or clapboard exteriors with a low-pitched gable, hipped, or flat roof accented with a balustrade or cornice are other details to look for in the Federal style.

* Balustrade: A series of short pillars supporting a rail.

7. Greek Revival. If you’re looking east of the Mississippi or in parts of Louisiana, Texas, and California, keep an eye out for Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian corner pilasters on the outside and Greek key moldings and interior columns to determine if you have a Greek Revival on your hands.

* Pilaster: A shallow rectangular column attached to a wall surface.
* Greek key: Geometric ornament of repeated horizontal and vertical lines.

The William J. Rotch Gothic Cottage in New Bedford, Mass., is one of the nation’s best known examples of Early Gothic Revival architecture. Photo courtesy Waterfront Historic Area League.
The William J. Rotch Gothic Cottage in New Bedford, Mass., is one of the nation’s best-known examples of Early Gothic Revival architecture.

8. Gothic Revival. Arched, oriel, and bay windows, along with decorative vergeboards, roof finials, and porch detailing make Gothic Revival houses stand out. You’re most likely to find them in the East, and in other locations settled before 1880.

* Vergeboard: The decorative gable end boards usually found on buildings of the Victorian period. Also known as a bargeboard.
* Finial: Ornament at the top of a gable, pinnacle, or tower, often of a fleur-de-lis design.

9. Italianate. Another style commonly seen in urban row houses (and also in 19th century “suburbs”), Italianate design is characterized by its asymmetrical layout, corner stair towers, and bracketed cornices. Like Gothic Revival, it’s found in communities established prior to 1880.

10. Vernacular/National/American Four-Square. Found in small towns and rural areas nationwide -- and called by a variety of names -- this style, popular from 1850-1890, features a rectangular or L-shaped layout, gabled roof, and limited detailing.

Do you have a favorite style or architectural detail? Tell us about it in the comments!

Content for this post is adapted from “Buyer’s Guide to Older and Historic Houses” by Richard Wagner, an out-of-print National Trust publication.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the social media strategist for the National Trust’s Public Affairs team. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter at @smheffern.

10 on Tuesday, Architecture, Real Estate, Tools

5 Responses

  1. Charlyn Bridges

    April 10, 2013

    Would love to see more on Raised Creole. Is that considered an architectural style or is that a climate adaptation? Love the Gothic Revival but that’s the Episcopalian in me.

  2. Melissa Garrett

    April 11, 2013

    https://www.facebook.com/615WestMainWatertownTN

  3. Katie’s Khronicles: A News Roundup: 4/8/13 – 4/14/13 | Something Old, Something New

    April 14, 2013

    [...] “Buying a Historic Home: What’s Your Style?” by Sarah Heffern on Preservation Nation – My good friend Madelyne (http://www.madelynerush.com) is very interested in the idea of buying a historic home and starting an event venue.  The article is all about identifying the kinds of properties people encounter when searching for a home. “Naturally, with the United States being as large as it is, there are a lot of architectural styles to cover. And because architecture, like preservation, comes with a lot of jargon, look for definitions and links throughout for more information.” [...]

  4. Michele Schiesser

    April 18, 2013

    Would love to see more classical revival and/or transition country houses with elements of both Federal and Greek Revival architectural styles. We have one in Spotsylvania County Virginia just outside Fredericksburg. It has classic six over six double hung windows, a low hip roof with flush end chimneys and a two story front porch originally with four fluted Tuscan columns on each porch level and pilasters on the house body. The house lacks the wide entablature found on most Greek Revival forms and has a two room plan around a center hall. The front door has side lights and 13 transom lights. This seems to be a popular house style in Central Virginia.

  5. Lisa Hassler - Historic Homes of Cape Cod

    April 26, 2013

    My favorite is a half cape, especially from the federal time period. The houses hug the ground and have a balanced facade with one door on one side and two windows tucked tightly under the steep roof. Every time I see one of these, I think “home”.