When we look at the word “colonial” it screams the historical reference to the original 13 colonies. Though the word has taken on a somewhat negative context in the 21st century, when it comes to the architecture of a home it hearkens back to the days when European settlers first came to the North American continent. As we look into the characteristics that define a colonial house we will see that there are several types of designs, each constructed for a specific purpose.
The Five Basic Types of Colonial Homes
The first settlers landed in what is currently known as the New England geographical segment of the United States, and those Colonial houses were designed to withstand the four climate seasons. The earliest ones were built between 1600 and 1700, and the influence of their design can be seen in urban and suburban areas today. Described as “box-like,” these New England Colonial homes were a simple square or rectangular structure with steep a roof and small windows. The rectangular structure made for quick construction with a minimum of tools, and the steep roof prevented the snow from piling up on the house during the snowy times of the year. Windows were necessary for light, but because of the tremendous heal loss during the winter they had to be smallish.
Next is the Dutch Colonial design, found primarily in today’s states of New York and New Jersey. They were similar in design to the New England style and built between 1600 and 1730, taking the New England architecture and improving upon it. Instead of wood, the Dutch Colonial will be made of brick or stone, and have a distinctive Gambrel roof. This is a roof with two slopes, the top slope being significantly steeper than the second. This allowed for more interior space while keeping the structural integrity of the roof during the snowy season.
Southern Colonial homes are very similar in structure to the New England types, except they usually are only one room deep. Their brick construction was purposeful to minimize the emphasis on heat and maximize the need for ventilation throughout the home to keep it cool during the hot summer months. Often, chimneys can be found at either end, taking advantage of the ventilation needed to keep the home warm and cool throughout the year.
Moving westward, there are the French Colonial homes found along the Mississippi River and, more specifically, in the state of Louisiana. Despite their name, there is not much in the way of architecture or design that identify a French Colonial as French. They had a structure similar to the New England designs. There is a French phrase you should remember that distinguishes the home from other Colonials: poteaux-sur-sole. The literal translation is “posts on a sill” where there are posts or pillars that rest on a sill that is an extension of the foundation. The roof will overhang the exterior walls of the house, creating a shelter for the porch.
Finally there is the Spanish Colonial, which is found in the state of Texas and the general Southwest region of the United States. These houses date from the early 1600’s to as late as the late 1840’s. No higher than a single story, they were much longer than the Eastern and Southern types of Colonials. The rear end of the house would be looking at a patio or garden, typical of the Spanish design and an element of economic status.
The General Appearance of the Colonial House
Regardless of the type of Colonial, the exterior walls will be plain looking and the windows will be in a simple pattern. The reason is more practical than anything else, and if you come across a Colonial that has a garish appearance, you can expect that it has been remodeled. This remodeling is due in part to the fact that the modern home has accessibility to electricity and heating systems unknown during those early years. However, if you are looking to maintain the Colonial look you will want to keep the chimney structures intact.
Another distinguishing characteristic of the Colonial is its symmetrical exterior design. This can most obviously be seen in Colonials with two chimneys. When looking at the front ore side of the house you will see the windows in symmetrical patterns, and even the roofs will accentuate the need for symmetry to define the home as a Colonial.
Exterior color is another characteristic of the design. Brick and stone designs are usually left untouched, but every 300+ year old home will need a paint job every now and then. To stay true to the historic element of the architecture, the color choice will be plain – white or perhaps gray. For some people that may be too plain, but if the goal is to retain the historic looks and feel of the house then being ultra-conservative in color is the way to go.
Despite all the emphasis on symmetry and keeping things simple, there is one structure of the house that has been known to get a lot of leeway when it comes to a Colonial’s appearance – the front entranceway. Notice it is not simply the front door. You may find a pediment, a triangular structure that either appears above the doorway or is an extension of the front part of the home that leads to and shelters the entranceway. The space leading to and surrounding the entranceway will be rectangular (as opposed to circular and triangular) in order to maintain the basic rectangular architecture of the home.
This break from the ordinary has a number of purposes associated with the culture and society of the times. The entranceway can be decorated during festivals and holiday seasons as way of celebration. A distinct entranceway will make the house easily identifiable, and also serves as a way of visually welcoming guests and friends. There may also be pillars found as support structures that extend the pediment to several feet beyond the front door.
The Interior of the Colonial House
Thus far, only a brief reference to the interior of the Colonial has been mentioned. What can be depended on is that the symmetry of the exterior will carry over to the interior layout. As you walk into a Colonial you can expect to see a hallway with an equal number of rooms on either side of the hallway. Access to the second floor will be found directly ahead of the entranceway by a set of stairs. Straight lines and symmetry are hallmarks of a Colonial interior.
Because of the symmetry, you will find the living room and dining room, both areas of family and social congregation, located towards the front of the house. In the rear you will find the kitchen and storage areas, the space primarily being used as work areas. The bedrooms will be found upstairs on the second floor, though you might also find a rest or recreation area as part of the attic.
Low ceilings can be interpreted as having a social or functional purpose – or both. In the case of the Colonial the low ceilings are largely functional as the need to keep the heat inside the house during the coldest months of the year was essential. This reality is most obvious with the steep roof design which significantly limits the amount of interior space beneath it. Many modern homes that are based on the Colonial style have their owners constantly dealing with the hot attic spaces in the summertime when trying to keep the house cool. The design works well; sometimes too well.
In the attic structure you will often find large wooden beams that act as a support structure for the roof. When looking at older Colonial homes you will find these beams to be rather large and take up more space than may make you comfortable. What has to be kept in mind is that a key feature of the Colonial is symmetry, but also functionality. Modern building materials were unavailable during the time, and a collapsed roof was equivalent to a home that was almost impossible to live in. Many architects and experienced homeowners know the value of old wood that has not been significantly affected by aging or weathering. If you come across an old Colonial home of any type with the attic beams largely intact, sacrifice the space and avoid replacing the beams.
Colonials will always have at least one fireplace, often two. The practical value of this is obvious, but from a 21st century perspective it is a feature that can be used for many purposes. Fireplaces can be decorative but also can continue to serve as an alternative source of heat should your electric or gas infrastructure fail. Originally designed to keep the entire house warm, they are a design structure that makes perfect sense when combined with the low ceilings and small windows.
Older Colonial interior walls were covered with wallpaper, and if you are able to compare a Colonial with painted walls with one that has opted for wallpaper, you will see that Colonials seem to be ideal for a wallpaper décor. The rectangular design of the rooms, doorways, and floor plan make applying wallpaper easy and allows for a variety of creative designs. Paint is generally considered to be more of a low maintenance alternative, and an unkempt house can turn wallpaper into an interior disaster.
The Overall Perspective
Many of today’s modern homes are based on the design and functionality of the Colonial. There are many reasons for this – some functional, some practical. Low ceilings can be functional but not practical in certain parts of the country. The sacrifice of interior space as a result of the steep rooftops is not always needed with today’s modern technology, and this design often conflicts with the need for a family to have additional space for small dens or another bedroom. The simple, rectangular shape makes for a great prefab structure, but is not always the preference of new home buyers who want their house to have a more distinctive appearance than four walls and a roof.
The advantages of a Colonial house have withstood the test of time. Whether you choose a Spanish Colonial or a New England Colonial, you are maximizing the use of your interior space while minimizing the costs of heating (and cooling) that space. Adequate ventilation throughout the house is essential for the Southern and Spanish designs because of their warmer climates, and the poteaux-sur-sole approach to the French architecture can be said to be functional due to the likelihood of flooding or high waters that have the potential to damage the interior of the house. Variations of the poteaux-sur-sole design shored up the original intention by grounding the house into the actual foundation through extended posts.
Reflecting on the historical times of the early Colonial homes, there was a necessity for any living structure to be sturdy, yet low maintenance. Much of the day was spent on doing things that were necessary for basic survival, such as the planting and maintaining of gardens and fields of food. Clothing had to be made and hand washed, while the wood for the fireplace needed to be cut and prepared ahead of the harsh winters. What many people take for granted in the United States as a matter of everyday life required a large part of the day for the early colonists.
Perhaps what makes the Colonial a revered piece of architecture that has been modified to bring it into modern times is that it is an unspoken reminder of the country’s early days that were more focused on necessity than luxury. It also is reflective of American society, where most people prefer to get things done in the simplest and fastest way possible.