The colonial approach to architecture is as uniquely unified as it is varied. What on Earth does that mean? Let me explain. Colonial homes are unified in that they generally share the same basic appearance. To a modern eye that appearance would be “old” (among others). A basic rule of thumb is if a house looks old, really really old, then it’s probably a colonial. Beyond that are many differing styles, influenced by the heritage of the architects. These varying styles are what we will examine today.
The first recognized colonial era houses emerged in the early 1700’s as a direct result of early American prosperity. Although these structures vary greatly in details, they all share the same two discerning features. 1. They have many, many windows. 2. They have broad walls, and are imposing in appearance. That’s it—after all, it was a simpler time. Now let’s get into the stylistic details.
The English Colonial: English Colonials are homes that are basically carbon copies of the housing styles of England at the time. These homes feature sloping roofs and often showcase Grecian pillars at their facade, not as a mark of democracy (which developed after the American revolution), but because pillars simply look good; a truism accurate in ancient times as well as today.
The Dutch Colonial: These incorporated a steeply pitched gambrel roof (think barn), batten doors, and paired chimneys—all details common to their homeland (and barns). This style was very popular in the New York region of the colonies.
The French Colonial: French colonials feature tall, narrow doors and windows. Roofs were hipped or side gabled and windows often had paired shutters, as was the style of French architecture at the time.
Spanish Colonial: These homes were one story, low roof structures. They have a number of external doors but few windows, differing from the standard of most colonial homes. An easy way to identify a Spanish colonial house is their trademark red shingled roofs and arched entryways.
Georgian Colonial: Towards the end of the colonial period, a fresh trend emerged from England. That was the Georgian style. Georgian homes were designed to be high-class dwellings for social gatherings and small-scale balls (if the estate was large enough). These houses almost always have pillars at their façade and are symmetrical. The most famous example of a Georgian colonial house is the White House, probably the most famous house in America.
So as you can see, there is much diversity in American colonial homes, and this is just a sampling. There are also Pennsylvania colonials, Mexican colonials (arches galore), German Colonials and the list goes on. Evidently, the term “Colonial” refers to more of a historical era of architecture than any specific style (unlike the bungalow, which is definitely a style). Remember: if it looks old, has more windows than square feet and enormous, imposing broad walls, then it’s a colonial.