Homes through Time: How America’s History Shaped Its Architectural Styles
Our country has a vast history which is reflected in several aspects of our daily lives, including the unique architectural style of American homes. From the simple Cape Cod dwellings of our nation’s earliest settlers to the sprawling ranch style houses that marked a national migration to the suburbs, our history is tightly woven into the places we call home.
Here are a few of the key styles that mark unique turning points in our country’s still-evolving history.
Cape Cod Style
The dour Puritans who first settled in America were noted for their practicality. This was born both out of culture—they believed in living simply with few earthly pleasures—and necessity. With winter fast approaching, there was no time for added luxuries. They needed to quickly get food, warmth, and shelter.
The simple, rectangular homes they built reflected this practical nature. Roofs were steeply pitched to shed snow. Rooms were built with low ceilings around sturdy, central chimneys to conserve much-needed warmth. Extra adornments were virtually nonexistent.
Interestingly, it was the minimal nature of Cape Cod homes that led to their widespread popularity in later decades. The straightforward, easy-to-build floor plans were a perfect fit for a country on the move. Modern iterations can be found from Massachusetts all the way to California.
Greek Revival Style
By the early-19th Century, American businessmen and politicians were feeling increasingly confident about their place on the world stage. They began to turn away from British styles and toward new architectural movements they believed better reflected the spirit of American democracy.
The Greek Revival homes of this era reflect these cultural currents. They combine elements of American colonial architecture—hardwood siding, painted shutters, solid brick chimneys—with the decorative columns and symmetrical shapes of Ancient Greece, where Americans saw the roots of the own democracy. The style was popular everywhere from southern plantations to the most famed and illustrious home of them all, The White House.
Folk Victorian Style
By the late-19th Century, America’s earliest settlers would have hardly recognized the country. The Civil War gave way to a new age of wonder as railroads and factories spread throughout the country. In this new industrial age, factories could mass-produce decorative home features, making elegant woodwork and other fanciful elements accessible for the first time to everyday Americans.
Out of these trends came a new style, Folk Victorian. Popular in the growing frontier communities of the Midwest, these homes were characterized by multiple stories, jigsaw-cut trim, and an array of unique adornments reflecting a people on the rise. They currently remain central historic features of small towns throughout the country.
The early-20th Century saw the rise of the Modernist movement. Stodgy Victorian cultural mores were rejected in favor of open ideas, societies, and floor plans.
Prairie Style architecture, the movement famously founded by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, was the perfect embodiment of this era. Homes built in this style were designed to blend in with their surrounding environment. Low, horizontal rooflines built with natural materials blended seamlessly with surrounding landscapes. Numerous windows combined with open interior spaces allowed for ample natural light, a repudiation of what Wright saw as the stuffy interiors of Victorian-era houses.
Due to their expensive materials and custom features, true Prairie Style homes are somewhat rare today, but the open spaces and sprawling designs this architectural movement inspired still influence new home construction.
By the early 1950s, the average American reached a level of prosperity unheard of in history. A booming post-war economy, a young population eager to build families, and the rise of the automobile created a recipe for suburban growth that continues to shape American communities.
Struggling to keep up with demand, homebuilders pioneered new tract homes inspired by the minimal design aesthetic of Frank Lloyd Wright, but built with inexpensive, pre-fabricated materials. These homes, known today as Ranch or California Rambler, are characterized by low-pitched roofs, long, flat layouts, and minimal adornments.
A Return to Roots
While much of American history reflects a trend toward bigger and flashier homes, recent trends flipped the script. The smaller houses and bungalows being built today share more in common with the Cape Cod houses of our country’s first colonists than they do with the McMansions of the outer suburbs. Housing styles today reflect a renewed focus on simplicity, sustainability, and practicality.
Each of these styles have their own benefits and downfalls and it will be interesting to see where our country leads us to in the next design phase of our homes. Which style of home is your favorite?
Sarah Pike is a long-time apartment dweller and recent first-time home buyer. When she’s not writing or obsessively organizing her new home, she’s probably binge-watching RomComs on Netflix or reading home décor blogs. You can find Sarah on Twitter at @sarahzpike.