Colonial Revival Style

The Colonial Revival Style is the most dominate domestic building style of the first half of this century and possibly one of the most diverse of all residential architecture. There are so many subtypes and variations that most of them are unrecognizable as belonging to this style.

Not only is it a diverse style but it was extremely long-lived, ranging from about 1884 to 1955! Covering such a long span of time the examples of Colonial Revivals vary greatly depending on the period they belong to.

In 1876 America celebrated its 100th birthday and the nation became interested, arguably for the first time, in its own history and origin. Never a country to dwell on the past, Americans are typically a forward looking nation of doers and their architecture reflects this.

But in 1876 the whole country became fascinated with the colonial period including a group of leading architects named McKim, Mead, White and Bigelow. This group took a centennial tour of New England to study the colonial architecture that dominates the landscape of that region and went back to work with some new ideas for home designs that paid tribute to America’s beginnings. And in 1884, they built the 1st of the Colonial Revival Style.

Early Years

The start of this style occurred during the reign of the fanciful Queen Anne and Victorian styles which rubbed off on Colonial Revivals built before 1900. The first examples are not very close to the originals they were mean to represent. Original Colonials were a simple house with a rather plain facade, but the earliest examples of the revival are often so dressed up that they are easy to mistake for a Queen Anne.

When the 20th century started the revival became more similar to the original style it was meant to revive. The ornamentation typical of the Victorian age Colonial Revival gave way to a simpler form. The Classic Box was a prominent form of the style popular in this time (1900-1915) which is probably the form the differs the most from the typical. The Classic Box was so popular that it accounts for nearly 50% of all Colonial Revivals! Also during this time, gambrel roofed versions came into popularity which give a nod to the country’s earliest Dutch colonial beginnings. A gambrel roof is a roof which has two differing degrees of slope to it.

Later Years

The style continued into the 1920s when you start to find more masonry versions instead of the more typical wood sided type as veneering techniques became more widespread. The later years of this style were dominated by the style most readily recognized as a Colonial Revival.

The side-gabled version is one of the most simple and efficient building styles in existence. Its shape is a simple rectangle and this results in quick construction, the most usable square footage, a simple and low maintenance roof due to the lack of any valleys (the weakest part of any roof), and the least amount of exterior wall exposed to the elements (which cuts down on maintenance and heating/cooling costs). And the final version of the style to appear was the Split-level or Overhang in which the 2nd story overhangs the 1st by a few feet.

The Details

It’s all in the details when it comes to distinguishing some Colonial Revivals from the originals, but if you know what to look for then the tells are pretty simple to spot.

Windows - A true Colonial always had either 6 over 6, 8 over 8, 9 over 9, or 12 over 12 windows. Paired, tripled or bay windows never existed in the originals but are prevalent in revivals. Also common in the revival are multi-paned top sashes with single paned bottom sashes which were never found in originals either.

Entrances – The biggest tell that a house is a revival and not an original is the entrances. Originals rarely had broken or segmented pediments (see brick colonial revival picture above) whereas revivals usually contain this element. Also door surrounds are typically made of thinner material on revivals than on the originals which were carved out of thicker wood by hand tools and therefore also show a slightly irregular profile when compared to their machine milled revival cousins.

There are Colonial Revivals placed across the country representing various time periods in our nation’s history. From the ornate Victorianesque early revivals to the plain one-story versions that appeared during the Depression years, the Colonial Revival is one style that has stood the test of time. Even today it is still a popular house style for new construction due to its efficiencies, simple construction, and sense of heritage that Americans feel about their country and their homes.

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

 

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by Scott Sidler

Scott is the owner of Austin Home Restorations, a company that specializes in renovating and restoring historic homes in Orlando, FL and the creator of The Craftsman Blog. When not working on, teaching about or writing about old houses he spends time fixing up his own old bungalow with his wife Delores and son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

21 comments

  1. diana Kaeding on said:

    Very interesting site you have. I’ve been looking for ways to repair some wood rot on my colonial revival double hung window frames including looking for same size window frames in salvage yards without luck so far.

    • Diana, for wood rot on window sashes try Abatron LiquidWood and WoodEpox. I’ll be posting something soon on how to repair wood rot.

  2. Sarah on said:

    This is very helpful. I’m considering buying an overhang with a symmetrical front door. It also has columns– I believe they call it neo-colonial. All in all, it looks quite outdated, and I was wondering how I would go about modernizing it. Any tips you can provide would be helpful.

    • Sarah, updating an old house really depends on the specifics of the house. If you’d like email me some photos and I’ll see if I can give you some ideas. Scott@austinhomerestorations@gmail.com

  3. Lisa on said:

    Hi, I am looking into purchasing an old farmhouse that seems to be of a colonial revival style. I would be doing a lot of remodeling and am curious how I would go about finding a contractor with experience with these types of homes.

    • Lisa, if you have a local historic preservation board or historic districts they might be a good resource. Also, search for companies that specialize in restoration or preservation. Google can be a huge help!

      • Lisa on said:

        Thank you Scott! I sat down and did some more searching because there were some things about it that didn’t scream colonial. After browsing the internet for historic homes for sale the style that it seems to most resemble is Italianate. There seems to be a lot of versions of this style, the house I am looking at has the low pitch roof and the large overhang wil the nice detailing. When I google the style it seems to direct me to the more Italian villa version. I was wondering if you were aware of a site that has the more simple version.
        Thanks again.

        • Lisa, why don’t you send me a picture of the house and I’ll take a look for you.

          • Lisa on said:

            That sounds great, I am working off of my IPad and cannot seem to attach pictures to this thread. Is there an email address I could send them to?

  4. Jen on said:

    Hi Scott. I’ve been trying to identify the style of my house, which was built in 1937. It has some Colonial Revival features, but then it has an original red tile roof and covered front porch. I can’t seem to pin the style down.

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