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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Styles Of Houses Used In The United States

( Originally Published 1935 )

In a book on home furnishing it is well to consider houses, because the style, size, and construction materials of a house help to determine the type of furnishing to be used therein.

For the family with a small income, buying or building a house requires good planning and judgment in order that the available funds shall be used to meet the needs of the family in the best possible way. Financing and buying or building a home are matters requiring the advice of experienced persons who know the value of local property and the risks involved for the purchaser. A family that has paid one sixth of its income for rent should be able to use one fourth or more for buying a house. In normal times it is considered desirable for a family to borrow money to build a home, as this often induces a habit of saving, beside providing the many advantages of living in an owned home.

The person who can afford to hire an architect should do so by all means. The fee of 10 per cent or less for architectural service is often made up by the additional resale value of a welldesigned house. The architect fits the design to the owner's requirements, attends to specifications and contract documents, and supervises construction. For inexpensive houses it is well to have a single contractor responsible for everything, under a general contract. A standard contract form is obtainable from the American Institute of Architects or from any architectural supply shop.


Most architects believe that dwellings should be based on traditional styles. A style may be copied quite faithfully, and still provide for comfortable modern living, or it may be freely adapted.

The best use of traditional style occurs when the geographical location is considered and styles and materials indigenous to a section are used. For example, Dutch Colonial houses in the eastern United States and Spanish Colonial houses in the Southwest are highly appropriate. Architects, however, are less interested in copying period styles than they are in building comfortable houses that gain their beauty through fine relationships in form, color, and texture.

Some American books on home architecture ignore completely this matter of traditional and national style in dwellings. The decorator and home owner, however, can not disregard this point; the style of a house determines to a great extent the type of furnishing that may be used in it.

Home architecture in the United States has been influenced by the homes of England, Spain, Mexico, France, Italy, Holland, and other countries, and also by the international style of the twentieth century.

The English Contribution. England has influenced our residence architecture more than any other country. On the East Coast our earliest houses were English, these were followed by the English Georgian, and now we are again building a great many houses that are adaptations of the English style.

The seventeenth-century houses of the Colonists were modeled after simple Elizabethan and Jacobean houses in England, because our early settlers came from the provinces or from unpretentious old sections of the cities. A small low peasant cottage topped by a large chimney was built by the man from the country; a tall, high-gabled, steep-roofed house with overhanging eaves was built by the former city dweller. The early American buildings were crude and humble with mediaeval characteristics. The small casement windows were of oiled paper or glass, and the low foundations were of boulders. One central chimney was typical of these houses.

In the eighteenth century our Colonial houses followed the style of the Georgian houses of the same time in England. This style was classical in origin but came to the Colonies through the English, who got it from Italy, where the Classic orders were revived during the Renaissance. American carpenters learned how to build these houses from the many illustrated books of the time. The houses were symmetrical in plan, with a center hall flanked on each side by two rooms both upstairs and down. The front exterior was symmetrical, with emphasis on the door and the cornice. Chimneys were built at both ends of the houses.

The southern Colonial style is somewhat different from the northern, owing to the warmer climate and the wealth and leisure of the southern Colonists. Charleston, Baltimore, and Annapolis have some of the finest houses in the South, built in this and the following periods.

The Colonial style occupies an important place in our architecture because of its classic beauty. The American interpretation of this English-Italian style was simplified and modified by climate, materials, and different living conditions, so that it seems to be a legitimate American expression. It is generally appropriate, except in the West and Southwest.

The use of the modified English style which is called Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Cotswold, or English cottage is growing in the United States. The houses are built of masonry, cement, brick, stone, or wood, and sometimes partially of open timber filled in with masonry, with a steep gabled roof of stone, slate, flat tile, or imitation thatch. Some characteristics are emphasis on walls rather than eaves, off-center chimneys, deeply recessed entrance doors, casement windows, some roof lines brought near the ground, and gables that continue upward from the side walls. Quaintness, homeliness, and comfort are the qualities of this picturesque style.

The Spanish Contribution. The Spanish Colonial style of architecture has been inspired by the early Spanish missions in California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Florida. In the original buildings Indian labor made it necessary to simplify the Spanish style. Today the best houses in this style are plain and beautiful, with large empty wall spaces of fine proportions. Often mystery and romance are expressed in a Spanish type house, giving it charm such as no other house has. In his book "The Story of American Architecture" Thomas Tallmadge says: "The most brilliant of our schools [of American Architecture] has jewelled the cliffs of Monterey and Santa Barbara with villas which yield nothing in charm to those . . . of the Mediterranean Shore."

Some characteristic features of this style are thick walls, small windows, low-pitched tile roofs, colorful tiles, beautiful ironwork, patios, and the use of potted plants. Most of these features make the style suitable for a warm climate and unsuitable for a cold one, where snow is likely to pile up in the patio. The so-called Monterey house is a sturdy farmhouse type inspired by the work of the transplanted New England carpenters who combined Atlantic Coast styles with Pacific Coast materials, chiefly adobe.

The Mexican and Indian Contribution. Native Americans have contributed considerably to the domestic architecture of the southwestern United States. The early Mexican influence is the logical one to consider in certain parts of the Southwest. The Indian pueblo with its cubes and flat roofs is the natural sort of building to make out of adobe bricks. The Santa Fe style of dwelling is particularly interesting, for it is based on the Indian forms even more than on the Spanish. These houses suit their locations perfectly, since they are indigenous to the Southwest and are made of native materials.

The French Contribution. In New Orleans and on some of the old plantations in Louisiana, the French built houses in their traditional styles. Some had large porches, upon which opened French windows overlooking luxuriant gardens. Charming small formal French houses are seen here occasionally but the Norman cottage has been the most popular kind of French house built in America.

The Italian Contribution. Italy has given us directly the formal Italian villa suitable only for large homes, and a few provincial or farm houses of the simple variety. These are so much like certain Spanish and French houses that all three are often classed as Mediterranean.

The Dutch Contribution. Since the Dutch settlers in America created a style of their own, there must have been some influence from the home land in it, although certain writers deny this. The Dutch Colonial was largely a farmhouse style of architecture common around New York but found also in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. An intimate, homelike quality resulted from the low, broad proportions of the houses and from the absence of steps. Other characteristic features were the gambrel roof extending over the porch, dormer windows, casement windows usually grouped, and emphasis on the lines of the eaves. Different construction materials were often combined picturesquely.

The Twentieth-Century Style. In order to present a complete picture of twentieth-century furnishings in Chapter io, it was necessary to give the history and characteristics of modern architecture in that section.


Whether or not a traditional style is used as the basis for the design of a house, its beauty depends largely on its proportions and balance. These are qualities that a layman can understand if he will give his attention to them. A comparison of many houses develops discernment about them. As has been stated under proportion, the facade of a broad house is generally more pleasing in line than that of a square or a tall house, because it is better related to the line of the earth. The balance of the facade depends upon the arrangement of windows, doors, porches, steps, and even chimneys.

The color of a house should be neither too conspicuous nor so drab that it is not noticed. One that harmonizes with the colors of neighboring houses is necessary. The location of a house affects the colors that are used. In tropical and semi-tropical places yellow and salmon pink stucco houses are suitable because the intense sunlight makes color seem subdued even when it is not. The most commonly used colors are creamy white, buff, graygreen, and gray-brown. All houses should harmonize in color with green foliage. For the usual type of house it is well to paint the trimmings the same color as the body of the house because this adds to its look of solidity. If the windows and doors are poorly spaced, it is imperative that their frames be of the same color as the house.

Roofs of natural slate or tile sometimes have a fine variety of colors. But composition shingles showing such variety often produce extremely poor effects. If the color variation looks forced or unnatural, it is likely to be bad. Variety in color that comes naturally from the material itself, such as the gradations in bricks, is pleasing.

It has been predicted by architects that in the future more color will be used in building. It seems that this would be highly desirable, particularly in cities where there are few trees and flowers to counteract the general dinginess.

Floor Plans. A house of two stories is more economical to build than one that is spread out on one floor because the roof and the foundation costs will be nearly the same for two stories as for one. A rectangular house that is nearly square is more economical and convenient than any other kind. Where there is hot weather, a comfortable basement is necessary as a retreat, in a house without a cooling system. A garage under the same roof as the house saves yard space.

A builder should be aware that the relation of a house to the points of the compass, by architects called its orientation, is especially important in planning the location of the rooms. Every room should have direct sunshine sometime during the day; the living room should have sunshine all day except in warm climates. If possible the best view should also be given to the living room. The entries, halls, closets, furnace room and bathrooms could well be on the north.

In planning the relation of the rooms to one another, the purpose of each, and the movement of the occupants through them, should be considered. There should be passage sections and quiet sections that do not interfere with one another. On the first floor there should be large doorways so that light, air, and space promote a feeling of unity throughout. No room should have too many doors, however, or it will seem like a sieve. Most of the decisions concerning the floor plan should be made by the woman who is to live in the house. However, a few suggestions are general enough to be made here. A house should be as compact as possible so that no space is wasted. The proportions of individual rooms should be carefully planned, as square rooms and long rooms are far less pleasant than those that have good proportions, such as two to three.

The living room should be as large as possible and should have many large windows. It should have a wood-burning fireplace, as that adds cheer and is a source of economy in the spring and fall. In a small house it is well to omit the dining room proper and to have instead a dining alcove in the living room and an attractive breakfast nook in the kitchen. The hall should be as small as convenience permits. In a two-story house a convenient arrangement of bedrooms is possible if the stairway ends near the middle of the second floor. Bedrooms need not be large but should have plenty of light and air. Cross-ventilation is necessary unless there is one entire wall of windows. Two bathrooms are needed for three bedrooms, if the resale value of a house is to be considered. It is important, however, to decide whether more actual comfort is not obtained from a lavatory on the first floor than from an additional bathroom on the second floor. Adequate closet and cupboard space is worth fighting for, against the architect, the contractor, and the men of the family.

A feature of importance in a one-story house is a hall leading both to kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen should be placed on a corner if possible, with cross-ventilation. It is convenient to have the sink, stove, cupboards, and refrigerator very close together in a U-shaped arrangement at one end of the room, with the breakfast nook at the other end. A section on the planning of houses should include mention of the regrettable fact that so few architects are women. Indeed, all dwellings should be planned by women, even when the construction problems are solved by men.


Some of the most delightful houses are old ones that have been remodeled, for a definite charm results from their age and peculiarities. They are often superior in construction to houses that have been newly built to sell. Sometimes they are within the means of families that could not afford to build a new house.

When considering the purchase of an old house it is essential to have a reliable builder examine it to see whether it is strongly built. It is also necessary to consider whether or not it can be made presentable without too much expense. Sometimes the exterior of a house is so ugly in proportion that it is not worth improving. Interiors can nearly always be made livable and pleasing. Old partitions can be removed, and new ones built to make closets and bathrooms. New floors can be laid over old ones, and the walls can be replastered or covered with wall board. Kitchens and bathrooms can be completely modernized by the use of new equipment units.

A careful estimate of cost should be made when remodeling is being considered and an explicit contract should be executed with the builder or contractor before any work is done. Building restrictions of the locality must be carefully considered in determining the cost of remodeling, because an owner is not free to proceed as he wishes. Even such a small matter as the substitution of floor lamps for light fixtures in a living room usually requires a new electric circuit.


It has been said that one third of all American families have annual incomes of less than $1,000; one third have incomes between $1,000 and $2,000; and the upper third have incomes of more than $2,000. It is generally believed that a family should not pay more than two years' income for a house, nor more than 20 per cent of its income for rent. Therefore it is evident that only the upper third of American families can afford to own their homes at present prices. Very simple houses should be produced to supply the middle third of America's families. If private industry can not produce them cheaply enough, the federal government should do it.

Mass Production Houses. There seems no way in which houses can be made available at a low price except through standardization and the manufacture of enormous quantities in the same manner as automobiles are made. The sameness of the houses would be more than balanced by their low cost, convenience, and low upkeep. Few persons object to having an automobile like thousands of others, and it would probably not take long to develop a similar attitude about houses, particularly in families that have been living in discomfort in poor rented homes. Before sensible Americans of the middle third can be expected to take much interest in home ownership, some necessary reforms will have to be made. The unjust law which requires real estate to pay heavy taxes while much other wealth goes untaxed will have to be changed. It is also necessary that state help be given the small home owner in financing his home. It seems quite certain that the government will have to take charge of the land required for sites for low-priced houses. The workers' homes have to be as near the city as possible, and yet practically all our cities are surrounded with plotted land priced far above its worth, because of the profits In it for land speculators. With assistance it is possible that the family earning between $1,000 and $2,000 a year might be able to afford a home of its own.

As for the lower third of our population, those families with less than $1,000 annual income, their housing is a social problem of great importance. Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect, has a chapter in his book "Towards a New Architecture" entitled "Architecture or Revolution." He refers to the hideous tenement homes of the poor, and states that the family itself is in danger of destruction because of these homes, and that society depends upon the family to uphold it.

Some housing experts say that the United States has the worst slums in the civilized world. Twelve persons living in one room, rooms without windows, foul outdoor toilets, and buildings without water, bathrooms, or fire escapes are common in the slums of American cities. Such conditions breed disease and crime which cost the state more than proper housing would. It is definitely a government responsibility to provide decent homes for the lowest income level of American families. Private enterprise will not do it, because there can be no profit in it. Housing projects planned on rentals of more than $4 per room are without benefit to the lowest-income group. The unemployed who can not hope to obtain work again because of age or ill health should be assisted in procuring homes with garden space. European nations have been attending to the housing of their poor since the World War. England has expended enormous sums for housing, building both tenement apartments and suburban cottages. In Belgium all the important cities have garden suburbs with low-cost buildings, Brussels having about twelve. In Holland municipal authorities control housing for the poor and make it almost self-supporting, charging $3 to $9 a room each month. In Germany, the finest housing is at Frankfort, where the city assumes responsibility. Cologne has many housing projects which are in the hands of co-operative societies but financed by the city; mass production lowers the cost of these buildings. Ninety-five per cent of the small homes built in Germany since the war have had government help. While organized as a socialist state, Austria required only that the rents of the municipal quarters should pay for the upkeep of the buildings, and so the rental was something between $1 and $a a month for an apartment, usually of two rooms. A special tax on wealth, called the housing tax, paid for the apartment buildings.

France lends 60 per cent of the cost of the buildings to industrial companies that house their employees. She also erects dwellings when it is necessary. Even before the War, Italy encouraged co-operative societies to build cheap dwellings by lending them money and exempting the houses from taxation. In 1898 Denmark started to work out a program of housing. Unhealthy houses were condemned and removed, and homes were then built in the suburbs. Sweden has had its "Own Your Own Home" campaign in which the government has made concessions to the builders of small homes. The United States seems to be the laggard in recognizing responsibility for providing homes for the poor.

The housing problem for the city family with an income between $3,000 and $5,000 is also a difficult one. Because of the fictitious value put on city land, rents are often exorbitant.

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