Characteristics of Colonial Architecture

True colonial architecture is typically recognized by a saltbox design, a centered front door with windows centered on either side of the house and a centrally located chimney. Colonial homes don't offer the wild design of Gothic Revival or Victorian dwellings, but they have a simple and enduring charm.

Matching Design to Needs
The first Colonial homes had a single story. By the 1700s, however, colonial homes had evolved to accommodate growing families and  designers looked more closely at the basic living areas. Rather than creating a sprawling home, which would have been exceedingly hard to heat during cold New England winters, they looked upward. Two-story homes became the norm, with bedrooms located in the upper areas and living spaces at the front of the house.

The salt-box design also often included a lean-to at the back of the home, where the kitchen was located. The lean-to design served two purposes: it kept the heat from the kitchen from getting into living spaces, and it provided stability against strong Atlantic winds.

Colonial Furniture
Different architectural styles can be seen in the furniture of the Colonial era. Early settlers brought a few pieces of furniture to the New World on ships. Wealthy merchants and captains who worked the trans-Atlantic routes would often have English or European furniture in their homes. Several pieces of period furniture have been carbon dated to the period before America was settled. Perhaps the most fragile and interesting piece is an original wicker cradle that is of Dutch origin and is believed to have held the first baby born in Plymouth.

Colonial House Design
The Colonial home is a simple home; it is the symmetry that is striking. An original Colonial has approximately four rooms, with a staircase in the center of the building that leads to the bedrooms above. Inside and out, the house is symmetrical. Usually nine windows grace the front of the house, four on each side of the front door, with two on the bottom floor and two on the top floor and one directly over the door.

Decorative crown molding is often seen above the front door. Pillars may stand as sentinels on either side of a the front door, guarding a small but significant front porch. The door opens up to an entryway that leads to the main room. The staircase is central and all rooms branch off from the main room.

Each culture added its own individualized touch to what has become a very popular style of dwelling:

  • English Colonial homes were built using techniques brought by settlers from England. The basic designs were the Saltbox style and the Cape Cod style.
  • Dutch Colonial homes added steeply pitched gambrel roofs, split doors or batten doors and chimneys on either side of the house.
  • French Colonial homes reflected the artistic French culture, with tall, narrow windows and doors, hipped or gabled roofs and shutters.
  • Spanish Colonial homes are generally made of stucco with smooth adobe walls and chimneys and red-tiled roofs.
  • Georgian Colonial homes added paneled doors with intricately carved crowns and columns, supported by hipped roofs and adorned with double-hung windows, crisscrossed into 9 to 12 small panes of glass.

The design of a true Colonial home is strong, with straight lines and a medium-pitched roof that is generally placed parallel to the road. While early homes often lacked great detail, colonial homes built today tend to offer crown molding throughout and intricately carved banisters that add a dash of design elegance to these practical structures.

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Learn about Colonial architecture, including Dutch Colonial architecture, French Colonial architecture and Spanish Colonial homes.

Learn about Colonial architecture, including Dutch Colonial architecture, French Colonial architecture and Spanish Colonial homes.

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