American Foursquare Style

Photo Credit: timrodpark.com

Photo Credit: timrodpark.com

The American Foursquare, sometimes called the “Prairie Box” was a hugely popular architectural style in almost every part of the country. It is one of the consumate American house styles.

Though not technically an architectural style on its own (it’s a subtype of The Prairie Style) the American Foursquare is so prevalent that I thought it deserved its own page.

Simple, efficient and affordable, the American Foursquare could be fit onto any small city lot. Popular from the 1890s into the 1930s the American Foursquare, like the American Craftsman of the same time, was a return to simpler design in reaction to the Victorian styles that preceded it.

History

Born in the time of Sear’s & Roebuck’s massively popular mail order catalogue and during the Industrial Revolution’s heyday, the American Foursquare was an everyman’s house.

Its efficient layout fit perfectly onto the compact lots of growing city neighborhoods of the time as Americans moved from rural areas to cities for the new manufacturing jobs of the time. Mail-order Foursquares were plentiful across these first-rung neighborhoods.

 

The Details

Very unique 21-over-1 windows with porte-cochère

Very unique 21-over-1 windows with porte-cochère

The American Foursquare is almost exclusively a 2 1/2 story house built in a perfect square shape. The roof is either a hipped or pyramidical shape with very rare exceptions. A central dormer that matches the roofline is another tell tale sign that you’re looking at an American Foursquare.

It’s square shape not only gave it its name but also it’s remarkably standardized layout. The downstairs typically had a living room and dining room on one side and the foyer, kitchen and stairway on the other. The upstairs usually consisted of two bedrooms and a bathroom on one side and a third bedroom and stairway on the other side. Four rooms on each floor, thus the name.

A full front porch with either greek or craftsman inspired boxed columns is another typical feature. Though often without the intricate detailing of the Queen Anne style these porches were a prominent part of almost every Foursquare.

A small Foursquare with off-center entrance

A small Foursquare with off-center entrance

The Foursquare also has some of the most eclectic variations of any style. Brick, stone, stucco, shingle, clapboard siding, none are more prevalent than the others. Some are simple folk versions and others are high-style with delicate Italianate rafter tails or Mission style tile roofs.

The interiors are just as varied. Often they were finished with earthy colors and natural woodwork like its contemporary the American Craftsman, but some were just as ornate as the Victorians they shared a street with. Plaster walls and wood floors were of course the norm for the period as well.

The Foursquare is an infinitely adaptable and changeable house. Built to suit the needs and wants of its occupants or the whims of the architect, it can become almost anything. Just like the Americans who created it, the American Foursquare is the melting pot of architectural style.

 

Wondering what style your old house is?
Try our Old House Architectural Guide

 

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by Scott Sidler

I'm a historic preservationist and author. I help old house lovers understand & restore their homes so they can enjoy the history and character that surrounds them more everyday! When not working, writing or teaching about old houses I spend most of my time fixing up my own 1929 bungalow with my wife Delores and son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

6 comments

  1. Toni on said:

    The American Foursquare Style is one of my favorites!! I love the porches and dormer windows, and even though back in their day, they were considered ordinary homes, I think they look so grand on tree lined streets nowadays.

    I was reading through your style lists, but I’m still not sure what “style” of home the one we are buying is. I think it might be Colonial Revival, but it has some Craftsman characteristics too. Would you have time to see a photo of it to help classify? Thanks and still enjoying the posts! :)

  2. Hi Scott, I’ve been doing a lot of internet research about restoration products and came across your blog. I grew-up in an American foursquare and she is a really beauty!

    I thought you may be interested in checking out Allback organic linseed oil products. The Allback family is reintroducing traditional non-solvent based paints, oils, and waxes for interior and exterior use. They’ve cleaned and processed organic linseed oil as a base, creating truly beautiful oil that you cannot find in an American hardware store. It’s a small Swedish company but you can find their products at http://www.solventfreepaint.com for the North American market. You may be interested in trying this stuff out. We’ve been using it on our foursquare and the results are like no other paint/oil we’ve ever worked with. Thanks for your post!

    • I know the products well and have had colleagues use them in our humid environment down here in Florida with frustrating results. Mildew mainly causing large problems in our wet climate.

  3. C. Rodgers on said:

    I bought a 1928 foursquare fixer upper last June for a steal. Not only is the house framed with cedar, the oak floors are so sturdy and well crafted that there is not a single creak anywhere to be found anywhere in the home. If those materials and craftsmanship where used to build a new house of that size now, the wood and labor would cost more than we paid for our foursquare plus renovations. I’d choose an old foursquare with great bones over a slapped together mcmansion any day. And I seriously doubt many of these newer, cheaply constructed wood framed homes will age as gracefully or even still be standing firm when they reach their 90 year mark.

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