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Architecture in Early America

Digital History TOPIC ID 33

The very first buildings in colonial New England and Virginia were crude, temporary structures, often little more than lean-tos covered with branches or cloth. The roofs were covered with thatch--rushes or branches woven into mats--or with sod or plastered with mud. The earliest dwellings were called "cellars" since they resembled the simple structures that farmers in England used to store vegetables. Subsequently, houses were made out of split logs.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, buildings in New England increasingly consisted of a stone foundation and a wooden frame covered with clapboard--thin, narrow boards that overlap the ones below, so that joints aren't exposed to the weather. The structures were painted in "sadd" cololrs, usually dark greys or browns or reds.

These houses were quite small, often no more than 500 square feet, with a very low ceiling. There was usually just one or two rooms, with a massive chimney at one end or in the center. There was little specialization of space; the same rooms were used as kitchen, living room, dining room, and bedroom.

In many seventeenth-century New England houses, the roofs generally had a short, steep front slope and a long, shallow rear slope--a design that today is termed "saltbox." To provide protection from the harsh New England winters, windows and doors were recessed and the house, barn, and shed were often attached to the main house. In two story houses, the second story often overhanged the first.

There was no glass in the windows of the earliest structures. Instead, wooden shutters covered these windows. Only later did the New Englands cover their windows with oilskins or glass; given the cost of glass, these windows were small and might contain as many as twelve small panes of glass. A house's metalwork--its hinges, handles and nails--were made of hand-forged iron.

There were noticeable regional differences in seventeenth-century colonial architecture. In the Spanish borderlands and in New England, dwellings and public buildings were grouped closely together, while in the Southern colonies, structures were more widely dispersed. Structures in early New England were especially likely to be built of wood. Only eight New England houses are known to have been built out of brick and four out of stone prior to the eighteenth century. In the Middle and Southern colonies, houses were more likely to be built out of stone or brick and in the Spanish borderlands, out of adobe, baked clay.

During the eighteenth century, architecture and furniture in British North America increasingly mimicked popular English styles. Drawing upon English design books, carpenters reproduced, in somewhat simplified form, the Georgian style that was popular in eighteenth century England. Based on the ideas of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, the Georgian style of architecture was popular during the reigns of George I, II, and III (1714-1820).

Georgian houses were much larger than their seventeenth century counterparts. Rectangular in shape, and two or even three stories in height, Georgian houses were highly symmetrical in design. Roofs were less steep than in the seventeenthc century. Specialized rooms--kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and a sitting room--began to appear among the more well-to-do.

In New England, the earliest Georgian structures were built out of wood and painted blue, green, pink, or yellow. Later buildings used brick, carved wooden trim, brass hardware, and larger window panes. Chimneys were often placed at both ends of the house.

Ornamentation became more elaborate. The front door was more conspicuous than in the past. The front entrance was often flanked by columns supporting a pediment, with steps leading up to the door. Windows were often topped by arches or other designs.

Following the American Revolution, new architectural styles became more common. The federal style, like the Georgian style, emphasized symmetry and balance, but placed an even higher premium on elegance. Roofs were less steeply pitched and were sometimes surrounded by a low, ornamental railing known as a balustrade. Windows were larger, and were often topped by an arch. Many federal style houses included bay windows, which projected outward from the houses walls. Glass often surrounded the front doorway, which was also topped with an arched window. Other symbols of refinement and affluence included curved staircases and detailed moldings.

Another architectural style that became popular after 1820 was known as the Greek Revival, which incorporated elements of classical design. Greek Revival houses, usually two stories in size and white in color, featured design elements borrowed from Greek temples. These included doorways or front porches flanked by fluted classical columns, and windows topped with prominent lintels (horizontal beams). Inspired in part by the Greek war of independence, Greek Revival architecture also represented a reaction against British styles in the wake of the War of 1812 and a desire to associate American democracy with the Greek and Roman republics. Neo-classical designs, many felt, might promote civic virtue.

After 1840, Victorian styles, including the Gothic Revival and the Italianate, became more common. The Gothic Revival represented a reaction against neo-classical architecture's emphasis on symmetry and balance. Inspired by the romantic movement in literature, the Gothic Revival celebrated the medieval past. Features of this architecutral styles included steeply gabled roofs, pointed arches, picturesque silhouette, towers and battlements, bay windows, and leaded stained glass. Intalianate architecture featured flat roofs, round arches, heavily decorated, bracketed cornices and eaves, tall windows at first floor hood moldings at windows, porches, and cupolas, ornamental structures on the roof.

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