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North American Architecture of the 19th Century

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A 'Pink Lady' Queen Anne style house.

The American architecture of the 19th Century showed a large number of different styles, mostly revivals of earlier European epochs. This Entry can never manage to describe all of them but tries to give an overview of the most important styles and the overall development of architecture at that time.

Very often the different styles were published in magazines and design books from which they could be copied by architects and craftsmen. Additionally travelers brought new ideas from Europe and architecture slowly became an elite profession. As a result, different styles were not bound to separate regions anymore but spread over all of northern America.

Greek Revival

Drawing of a Greek Revival style house.

The Greek Revival came into being in the 1820s because to the American people Greeks symbolized democracy. Houses looked like Greek temples or were just decorated with Greek columns. The three Greek orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – were strictly used and all buildings were painted white1.

The first example of the Greek Revival style is the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia by Benjamin Latrobe. Illustrated building plans and other publications helped to spread the style all over America, although it took until the 1840s until it had reached all places in the south. Every part of the country had their own version of Greek Revival, depending on climate and culture.

Columns were added to the gable sides of houses, to make them look like Greek temples. This meant that unlike before, the entrance also had to be at the gable side.

Spanish Colonial Style

In the 1820s farmers were given land in the Spanish Colonies which led to the garrisons becoming wealthy trading posts by the 1840s. Just like the presidios of the 18th Century both town and country houses were built from bricks, clay and wood. They also had a four-sided courtyard but buildings were only on three of the sides, while one was closed by a wall with a gate. All rooms of the one-storey house had a door to the porch which was the connection to the courtyard. In this cool, shady place people spent a big part of the day and it served as the only connection between the rooms, there was no corridor inside the house.

Early Gothic Revival

The Gothic Revival had its beginnings in England in the 1840s to oppose the strict shapes of Classicism. The influence of this style also reached eastern America and was first used for churches and universities. The main difference was a change in the layout of the house. While until now rooms were always rectangular and layouts often even symmetrical, the Gothic Revival developed ground plans from inside out to suit the needs of the owner of the house, creating complicated shapes.

The first houses of Gothic Revival were built of stone, but soon wood was used instead, because it was cheaper. They had very steep roofs and high chimneys, the gables were decorated with wooden ornaments. Windows had different sizes and various shapes. Asymmetry was absolutely preferred.

Balloon Frame

Sketch showing balloon frame construction method.

In the middle of the 19th Century a new skeleton construction for wooden buildings was invented, the so called 'balloon frame'. It was used for many buildings until the 1940s. Unlike timber-frame constructions, the balloon frames only need nails to fix them together. The rather thin wooden pillars were two storeys high and had to be very close together. They were only stable when wooden planks were added at the inside and outside of the construction. Floor beams were nailed to the side of the pillars. This system made it easy for everyone to build their own house. It was cheap and fast. Even whole cities could be built very quickly this way.

Carpenter Gothic

Drawing of a carpenter Gothic style house.

At about 1850 the Gothic Revival in England was at its peak. The balloon frame and steam-powered saws made it easier for carpenters to build houses with only a few helpers. Their buildings always had many wooden decorations which they copied from books. The steep shingle roof was of course also decorated at the gables, one of the most popular motifs being that of a sun. The outer walls were covered with vertical boards and were painted in a single color.

While the layout of the rooms was at first simply rectangular in most cases, more complicated layouts were used in later times. Because of the irregular layout new rooms could easily be added if the family grew.

Italian Villa Style

Drawing of an Italian Villa style house.

This style again came from England (here known as Italianate Architecture), where the asymmetrical Italian country houses became popular at around 1800. In America it was used from the middle of the 19th Century – when Queen Victoria's Osborne House was finished in England – because this style allowed a very free layout of rooms and later additions, while at the same time looking attractive.

Most of the houses had a small tower and vaulted windows. To make the houses look even more Italian, the rather flat roofs were covered with red tiles. The walls were either covered with vertical boards or, if it was affordable, built out of bricks and covered with plaster.

Second French Empire

Drawing of a Second French Empire style house.

The style of the second French Empire was named after the time in which Napoleon III reigned in France (1852-1871), which means it was not a revival but a style used in Europe at the same time. It was a style that was popular in all of the western world of that time but it had its biggest influence in Northern America, where it was used from about 1860 to 1880.

The houses in the Second French Empire style had high, steep curb roofs, tiled with slate of various colors. These high roofs made the attic more usable for living. Windows in the roofs had dormers of various shapes while the lower floors had tall windows. The lower end of the roof was supported by small wooden constructions that stuck vertically out of the wall while the top of the roof was made up of cast iron cresting. Small towers with curb roofs and chimneys were used as ornamentation. The whole house was usually built on a brick base.

At the end of the Second French Empire period, the style was mixed with the Italian Villa and Carpenter Gothic style, adding the popular bay windows, patios and decorations of these styles to the houses.

High Victorian Gothic

Drawing of a High Victorian Gothic style house.

All 'Victorian' styles were built during the time of reign of Queen Victoria in England (1837-1901). The High Victorian Gothic in Northern America was used just like the Second French Empire from 1860 to about 1880 and was not only inspired by English but also French and northern Italian archetypes. It was inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, who thought that color should come from the materials that are used for building and not from paint. This resulted in the use of various stones, ornamented bricks and other materials of different colors and textures. This style was mostly used for public buildings.

Buildings of High Victorian Gothic make a more massive impression than those of the earlier Gothic Revival. The same style that was usually built in stone was also directly transformed to wood, imitating the works of the stone cutters.

Stick Style

In the 1870s to 1890s a style was used in the east, that made the technology of balloon frames visible on the outside. The 'sticks' are part of the construction that stand out of the façade. Houses of the stick style are high and slender, with steep roofs. The façades often resemble half-timbered walls. The big patios are carried by wooden pillars with diagonal beams.

Richardsonian Romanesque

Drawing of a Richardsonian Romanesque style house.

The American architect Henry Hobson Richardson created this style that was inspired by the Romanesque architecture of the European Middle Ages. It was used from the 1870s to 1890s.

Walls made of natural stones with round arches and massive stone columns were the most obvious elements of this style. Quite often the houses were also divided into different horizontal zones, windows were usually smaller at the upper floors. Relatively squat towers at the corners of the house brought variety to the roofs and arches often connected different parts of a house.

Queen Anne Style

Drawing of a Queen Anne style house.

The English Queen Anne style is based on the buildings of the period of Queen Anne's reign in the early 18th Century but is also influenced by the Stick Style. Craftmanship was seen as very important. As the houses were made of wood they were easier to build and affordable not only for rich people, contrary to stone houses. This style was the peak of the Victorian styles from about 1875 to 1910. Building plans, interiors and even garden plans were copied from books.

Buildings of the Queen Anne Style had irregular floor plans and façades which made the houses easy to extend. The gable end roofs had various shapes and often showed ornamentation and half-timbered gables, often with wooden ornamentations of a sun motif. The base of the house was built of bricks and the ground floor often had horizontal boards on the outside while upper floors were covered in wooden shingles. The walls were painted in various colors. Stairs and corridors often had windows with colored glass, in the living rooms bay windows were popular. Small round, square or eight-cornered towers were popular in later years of the style. The entrance of the house is usually covered by a porch which is accessed over a staircase.

A huge staircase was one of the dominating features of the house. Different rooms were often separated by sliding doors for more flexibility. Details in ornamentation were partly taken from oriental archetypes, like oval or round shapes and onion-shaped domes. In later years the Queen Anne style was influenced by Shingle Style and Richardsonian Romanesque.

Shingle Style

The Shingle Style, invented in the 1880s at the eastern coast, was the first American style that was not based on a European period. It was rooted in the colonial architecture of New England and Richardsonian Romanesque. Expensive natural stones were replaced by wooden shingles, a concept supported by Richardson himself. The gray weathered shingles could indeed give the houses an impression similar to stone and often this effect was even encouraged by treating the shingles so they had patina even if they were new.

The horizontal aspect of the houses was accentuated, the whole buildings looked rather squat. The glass of windows was divided into smaller sections. The rooms of the houses were more open than before, which was possible because of better heating. A big living room with a fireplace in the middle became the center of social life.


Inspired by French castles of the early 16th Century, the Châteauesque was a style for rich Americans of the late 19th Century. Its most prominent use was Canadian grand hotels. It connects elements of the French Gothic style and the early Italian Renaissance. Buildings of the Châteauesque are made of bricks or stone and have asymmetrical floor plans. The very steep roofs have many decorated chimneys, dormers and small towers.

Chicago School

Drawing of a Chicago School style building.

After the Great Chicago Fire (1871) destroyed a big part of the city of Chicago, much space was left for new ideas and new concepts of architecture. The Chicago School or Commercial Style is a new style for a new kind of buildings: office blocks. Steel-frame constructions and modern elevators made it possible to have buildings of up to 16 storeys – the very first skyscrapers. The simple cubic buildings had no ornamentation but usually simple, geometric façades with brick claddings and the typical 'Chicago Windows': three-part windows with two sliding windows at the side and a fixed part in the middle. The outer walls did not carry any weight, which was a whole new technology. Quite often the whole building was vertically structured like a Greek column with a base (shops), a high middle part (offices) and a capital at the top (building equipment).

1Most people still think that Greek temples were white, but in reality they were painted in many colors.

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