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Get the Look: Colonial-Style Architecture
Learn how to recognize and appreciate Colonial-style architecture in its many variations
What do you think of when you hear “Colonial-style architecture”? Do you imagine a rectangular facade with a steep, pointed roof? A central entry door with paired windows on either side? You would be right, but here’s something to consider: The term “Colonial” didn’t start out as the description of a specific architectural style.
Colonial Style’s Roots
“Colonial” originally referred to the houses of the 17th-century European colonists who settled in what would become the United States. Those long-ago settlers built houses that reminded them of home, though they adapted the structures to suit the regions where they lived. English settlers built cottages clustered around a commons, for example. Dutch settlers incorporated stone and brick into their homes, a technique they learned in Holland.
Early Colonial homes didn’t look exactly alike. What they had in common was their symmetrical designs, steep roofs, massive central chimneys, and small windows. That last feature wasn't a style statement. Glass simply wasn’t plentiful in the early colonies—and it was expensive. Colonists had to pay a tax on glass; only the wealthy could afford to have a home with many windows.
Pictured: This Cape Cod-style home (a variation of Colonial) was built in the late 1800s. The humble Cape Cod style links back stylistically to earlier English cottages; it’s built low to the ground and features a large roof and central chimney.
Most of the original Colonial houses are long gone, but their symmetrical forms and other classic details remain with us. Why? Because Colonial-style architecture has inspired multiple revivals. The first was kick-started by the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which helped Americans reconnect with their colonial past. Architects and builders are still putting up Colonial-inspired homes that offer a nod to earlier times. See the next four slides to better understand these homes’ defining characteristics.
Stately Front Entries
Colonial Revival style homes boast formal entries. Large paneled doors are typically centered on the front of the house and accented with a decorative crown (called a pediment) supported by pilasters. Sometimes the pediment is extended forward and supported by columns to form a covered porch.
Balanced Window Display
Colonial Revival exteriors typically feature windows placed symmetrically on both sides of a centered front door. Double-hung windows have multipane sashes and are framed with correctly proportioned shutters. (That means each shutter would cover half the window. If you could close both shutters, they would cover the whole window.)
By the way: The inclusion of bay windows or triple windows almost guarantees you’re looking at a Colonial Revival house rather than an example of original Colonial style.
Clapboard, Brick, or Shingle Siding
Clapboard siding and brick are the most common materials for Colonial Revival exteriors today. Shingle siding shows up on more informal examples, such as New England-style Cape Cods. Other exterior design elements may include dormers and dentil trim under the eaves (both of which are pictured here), as well as corner quoins made of stone.
Interior design: Gerald Pomeroy
Original or Revival?
How do you tell the difference between original Colonial-style architecture and Colonial Revival examples? Each original version of the style (Dutch Colonial, French Colonial, and so on) arose in a specific region of the United States. Outside those regions, any examples of Colonial-style architecture are probably the result of revival periods. Plus, original Colonial-style homes were built before the Industrial Revolution, so they feature handmade doors, windows, and siding. Such elements in Colonial Revival houses are typically machine-made.
Learn about Colonial style’s many variations in the next 11 slides.
- Gets its name from a succession of British kings named George, who ruled from 1714 to 1830
- Symmetrical boxes, two or three stories high
- Centered front door, often with columns and a decorative crown called a pediment
- Symmetrical arrangement of multipane windows
- Brick or clapboard siding
- Later versions include ornate embellishment
Georgian-Style Home, Chicago
Suzanne and Dan Kipp had no plans to move, but then they came across this classic example of Georgian style on a corner lot, and it cast a spell on them. They renovated it to preserve the home as a snapshot of architectural history while making it suitable for modern family life. “Instead of getting rid of this home and all of its classic elements, we brought it back to life,” Suzanne says.
Architects: Elissa Morgante and Fred Wilson
Builder: Rob Wickenkamp
Interior design: Suzanne Kipp
- Gets its name from Dutch settlers who built homes in the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania)
- One and a half or two stories
- Steeply pitched gambrel roofs; flared eaves with porch beneath
- Gable-end chimneys
- Double-hung multilight windows, sometimes with board-and-batten shutters
- Wood clapboard, shingle, brick, or stone siding
Dutch Colonial Home, Atlanta
This sweet—if somewhat loosely interpreted—Dutch Colonial home in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood seemed filled with possibilities to interior designer Debbie Cummins. Betting on the home’s strengths, Debbie and her husband, Beau, decided to renovate. “There was something about the scale of the rooms and the way light came into the house,” Debbie recalls. “It really did speak to us.”
Builder: Mike Hammersmith
Interior design: Debbie Cummins
Dutch Colonial Home, Newport Beach, California
This 1950s Dutch Colonial presented its buyers with a traditional exterior, and an interior stripped of earlier mistakes. “A designer had gutted it and then changed her mind about completing the remodeling,” says homeowner Ellen Small. “I knew I wanted to improve the exterior’s traditional Dutch Colonial style and then continue it on the inside, staying true to the architecture.”
Architectural and landscape design: Virgil W. McDowell
- Gets its name from French settlers who built homes in this style for flood-prone territories in Louisiana and Mississippi
- One or two stories
- Steeply pitched roofs, either hipped (shown) or side-gabled
- Main living areas built on raised foundations
- Extensive porches beneath extended roofs—often accessed via French doors
- Brick, stucco, or wood siding
Pictured: This newer French Colonial Revival home near Jackson, Mississippi, features exterior doors made of reclaimed cypress.
Architect: Ken Tate
French Colonial House, Houston
“I wanted it to feel as if you were transported back in time,” Texas homeowner Judy Smith says about the vibrant Creole-inspired gardens surrounding the French Colonial home she shares with her husband, Glenn. More than a dozen tall French doors provide a casually elegant transition from the home to the outdoors, where “ordered chaos” reigns, according to landscape designer Helen Grivich. “It’s both structured and lush,” she says, “with nice, trim little edges that surround looser, more flowing plantings.”
See the home’s French Colonial playhouse on the next slide.
Architect: Ken Tate
Landscape architect: Helen Grivich
French Colonial Playhouse
Among this Houston French Colonial home’s intriguing outbuildings is a playhouse—complete with a hipped roof, muntin windows, and shutters—that enjoys a garden of its own.
Architect: Ken Tate
Landscape architect: Helen Grivich
- Originated in Spanish territories, where settlers built homes using stucco, adobe brick, rocks, or coquina (a limestone composed of shell fragments)
- Red tile roofs, with wooden roof supports projecting over exterior walls
- Thick stucco or masonry walls that suit a hot climate
- Small open windows in earlier examples (originally sealed with wrought-iron or wooden bars rather than glass)
- Multiple exterior doors
- Enclosed courtyards, patios, or porches that extend living space outside
Spanish Colonial House, Austin
Kim Granger wanted her new house in Texas to resemble the Spanish Colonial architecture she had grown up around in California. “It seemed just right for the site,” says her architect, Paul Lamb. Lamb placed a courtyard at the center of the floor plan—a classic feature that keeps breezes moving from all directions. “With its Spanish accent, it’s pure Texas, too,” says Fern Santini, who designed the interiors.
Architect: Paul Lamb
Interior design: Fern Santini
Landscape design: Tait Moring Landscape Architects
Spanish Colonial House, Dallas
“When we moved from San Francisco, we wanted to bring the California look with us,” Dallas homeowner Ann Stordahl says. This 1924 Spanish Colonial offered appealing familiarity. Plus, it still had much of its original charm. Awkward details such as bright orange walls and contrasting moldings motivated Ann to bring in designer Julio Quiñones to update rooms and intersperse antiques from Ann’s travels.
Interior design: Julio Quiñones
Landscape architect: Boyd Heiderich Bargas Inc.
Colonial Revival House on Long Island Sound
This brick-and-frame Colonial Revival home enjoyed spectacular views of the water and the New York City skyline, but it hadn’t been updated in decades. The homeowner asked architect McKee Patterson and designer Ken Gemes to tackle structural issues, reconfigure spaces, and put back the historical character that had been stripped from the house in earlier remodels.
Architect: McKee Patterson
Interior design: Ken Gemes
Colonial Revival House, Chester County, Pennsylvania
This centuries-old farmhouse just 15 miles outside Philadelphia caught the eyes of Janice and Cortright Wetherill. Architect John Milner designed a three-level stone addition that honors the house’s historic past while creating a comfortable living space for its new inhabitants. Interior designers Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman mixed the couple’s collections of antiques and fine art with new furnishings throughout the house. “We discovered surprising connections,” Coleman says.
Architect: John D. Milner
Interior design: Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman
Colonial Revival Home, Wilmington, Delaware
A carefully planned addition helped this 1928 Colonial Revival home accommodate a modern family. “This place was built when houses were staffed,” homeowner Jennifer Abramczyks says. “And since I am the staff, a number of things had to change.” An addition gave the house an expansive kitchen plus a butler’s pantry for storing china, crystal, and serving pieces—perfect for the holidays, when Jennifer and husband John entertain frequently.
Architect for addition: John Milner
Interior design: Courtney Coleman and Bill Brockschmidt
Homeowner Glenn Hillman focused on the straight lines of traditional design when laying out this classic garden in Litchfield, Connecticut—where the Colonial Revival movement was born. “You follow the basic tenets, and everything falls into place,” Glenn says. “Good design never changes.”
Garden design: Glenn Hillman