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House Architecture: Styles & Designs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

A great amount of the architecture being built on a daily basis is not for towering skyscrapers but for private homes. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the common styles of domestic architecture and see where they fit in American history.

Domestic Architecture

We all need a place to live, right? Since we need homes anyway, we might as well make them interesting. This basic sentiment has driven architects over the centuries to put some serious effort into domestic architecture, also called residential architecture. Now, there are literally as many styles of domestic architecture as there are styles of architecture, and most of them were designed for the wealthy and privileged. However, in the United States the ability to own private property was, historically, much more available to average citizens. As a result, the USA has some of the most defined styles of residential architecture utilized on a broad scale. That's what we'll be focusing on today. This is just a basic guide to a very select few of the common styles of American domestic architecture, listed in order of when they first became popular. But keep your eyes open; most of them can still be found across the nation today.

Colonial

Let's start with the Colonial style which, believe it or not, first became popularized in America's colonial period. Colonial architecture included a wide range of subsets, but generally included rectangular, symmetrical homes. Colonial-style homes contain two stories, with the bedrooms on the top floor and dining/entertaining rooms on the bottom floor. Although this style was first really developed in the 18th century, Colonial Revival styles became popular in the 19th century, and are still commonly found in the USA today. One of the most common versions of the Colonial Revival includes white houses with clapboard siding and characteristically green shutters.

Colonial Revival
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Gothic Revival

The 19th century was defined by many revival movements in architecture, some of which became popularized in private residences. A great example is the Gothic Revival, modeled (very) loosely on the ornate and spiraling Gothic cathedrals and castles of Europe. Gothic Revival domestic architecture tend to share a taste for the extravagant, including spires, verandas, or towers, as well as intricate and elaborate wood detailing around windows and doors. One of the most defining traits, however, is the Gothic window, featuring a pointed arch. Although the Gothic Revival style was really only popular in the mid-19th century, the Gothic window lived on in other styles. In fact, the famous Grant Wood painting entitled American Gothic is so named after a window of this style in the background.

Gothic Revival
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Victorian

Victorian architecture appeared during the reign of Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, who set the international standards for taste and class. Victorian-style homes emphasized taste and social refinement through the wide porches, a focus on vertical orientation and towered roofs, but also the modernity and progress of the 19th-centruy industrial revolutions. They are typically made of mass-produced materials and mass-produced ornamentations, demonstrating their connection to the industrial era. Many of America's wealthiest citizens in the late 19th century built elaborate Victorian-style mansions throughout the newly-settled West.

Victorian style
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Prairie Style

The styles we've discussed so far were popular in the USA, but largely influenced by European designs. The USA lacked a definitively American style. Then along came Frank Lloyd Wright. In the 1890s, this Chicago architect developed the Prairie style of domestic architecture. Modeled on the wide-open aesthetic of the Great Plains, Prairie style homes had low-pitched roofs, lots of open, interior space, and a penchant for stained-glass windows that filtered plenty of natural light into the house. This style was also connected to the Arts and Crafts Movement of the time, and featured a preference for hand-made decorations and local materials, a rejection of many elements of the Victorian style.

Prairie style
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