Construction and Home Building
CONSTRUCTION AND HOME BUILDING
The domestic architecture of colonial elites was predominantly Georgian and highly influenced by English design and building materials imported from Britain. Georgian homes were stark one- or two-story boxes with symmetrical fenestrations. Roofs included gabled, gambrelled, and hipped styles. Embellishments were usually limited to dentiled cornices.
Structures in the North were wood frame construction with central chimneys, reminiscent of the English postmedieval style or the European Gothic characteristic of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England. With the emergence of a settled population, southern architecture increasingly took on a more permanent appearance. Substantially built brick residences began to replace the earlier makeshift wooden plank construction fastened together by wooden pegs. Brick homes often included outbuildings and raised foundations with wings spreading from the main block. After independence, architecture reflected the idealism of the new Republic. American builders rejected the English-inspired baroque-rococo designs of the late eighteenth century. In their place, Americans chose forms more reminiscent of the Greek and Roman
classical periods. This era in American building style was known as the early classical revival period characterized by the Federalist or Adam style.
Adam style designs were common not only in housing but could also be found among the new constructions of commercial and government buildings in such cities as Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. Prominent architects of the time included Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), Peter Charles L'Enfant (1754–1825), and Robert Adam (1728–1792); their largely designed grand public buildings along with their residential housing displayed an eclectic mix of traditional Georgian and classical styles.
One striking example of this idealism in style and planning was the layout and construction of the capital of the new Republic, Washington, D.C. The presidential residence is early classical revival with a squat, Palladian central block, one-story attached wings, and a protruding central bay as its most prominent embellishment. The traditionally Georgian wings of the Capitol building, joined by a Roman dome and dominated by a heavy columned entry, also show classical influences.
Variants within this style include the decorative, full-height entry porches replete with Doric or Ionic columns and Palladian-style doors (including fanlights and sidelights). Heights of this style include one- and two-stories and the two-story gabled front with one-story wings. Building materials ranged from wood to brick, stucco, and stone. This style appeared mostly in Virginia, as it was the style favored by Thomas Jefferson. Examples were rarely found north of Delaware and Philadelphia.
Individual dwellings within the urban centers were stark and cubic, with a central entrance and hall, wooden clapboard walls, and large pilasters replacing quoins. Porticos with slender columns and carved-wood details emerged as a feature of the Federalist or Adam style as opposed to the often-unadorned entrances of Georgian homes. Adam style architecture is typically Georgian yet characterized by elaborate door surrounds including fanlights, sidelights, and small porches. Cornices often contain dentils similar to the Georgian style.
In New Orleans and the Southwest, French and Spanish colonial influences were apparent. Basic French colonial style is one story, distinguished by numerous shuttered, narrow windows and doors, steeply pitched hipped or side-gabled roofs, and half-timbered frames. Urban styles differ from the rural in a preponderance of townhouses and cottages whose porchless entrances open directly onto public sidewalks. Rural homes feature tall brick foundations under large porches with simple wooden posts supporting steeply pitched hipped roofs.
Spanish colonial houses were designed and constructed in harmony with the harsh desert environment and incorporated Mexican, Spanish, and Native American influences. Mexican and Spanish masons constructed single-story buildings with thick, adobe brick or stone-covered stucco walls. Small windows were covered with wooden or iron grillwork to admit less heat in summer and keep warmth in during winter. Roof style was the most significant feature of these buildings. Pitched, gabled roofs were covered with thatch or clay tiles, while flat roofs were embedded with large timbers to support the thick walls and covered with dirt or mortar.
A shift in American architecture occurred during the period immediately prior to the Revolutionary War and into the 1830s. It closely followed the transition of the culture from the styles of the Georgianinfluenced, English-dominated colonies to styles reflective of the nation's struggle for independence, sprinkled with a mix of older colonial French and Spanish architectural trends.
McAlester, Lee, and Virginia McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Mullins, Lisa C., ed. Colonial Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic. Harrisburg, Pa.: National Historical Society, 1987.
Roth, Leland M. A Concise History of American Architecture. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.