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Yankee Classic: Guide to House Styles in New England

1780-1820, locally to 1840

If Georgian houses are soldiers, Federal houses are burghers and princes. The two styles are closely related, but Federal houses can usually be distinguished by their freer, more elaborate detailing. For quick identification, look at the arrangement of glass below the crown of the front doorway: if there is a row of small rectangular windows, the house is almost certainly Georgian; if there’s an elliptical or semicircular fanlight, it’s probably Federal.

On closer inspection, the entire facade is more “glassy.” Vertical sidelights often flank the entrance, making the doorway larger. To balance it, a large, tripartite Venetian or Palladian window sometimes appears above the door on the second story. The panes in all windows are now bigger, sometimes as large as a foot across, and often number six per sash instead of the usual nine or 12 in Georgian’ houses.

To draw attention to this generous glasswork, Federalist builders sometimes crowned their windows with lintels or recessed them in arches. They also dropped the top-story windows down from the eaves, where they had crowded against the roof in Georgian houses, thus freeing space for more decorative cornices. Dentil moldings remain popular, but now friezes are sometimes added. These friezes commonly depict free-flowing garlands or swags or a stylized pattern of urns, lotus buds, sheaves of wheat, or medallions. Similar decoration may also appear on doorway surrounds.

These Adam-style design elements signal a break from the flat planes and resolute squareness of older Georgian houses. The earlier bas-relief doorway surround becomes elaborated into a small porch in Federal houses, and for the first time bays, bows, and balconies appear on the facade, especially in later high-style examples and in the brick and stone town houses on Boston’s Beacon Hill.

Dignified, imposing, sophisticated, and sure, Federal houses have an air of self-satisfaction well suited to a people who had but recently won their freedom and intended to make the most of it.

The Nathanial Lord Thompson house in Kennebunk, Maine is an example of Greek Revival architecture.
Photo/Art by Brenda Darroch
The Nathanial Lord Thompson house in Kennebunk, Maine is an example of Greek Revival architecture.


Driving into a sleepy New England town, the traveler may suddenly find himself confronted with the Parthenon. This happens frequently, for in the first half of the 19th century, Americans’ enthusiasm for things democratic spawned a radical backward turn in architecture, all the way back to the public buildings of the original democracy of ancient Greece. The resulting Greek Revival houses are the easiest of all New England house styles to identify because they look so utterly out of place.

By 1850 New England’s admiration for the bold, clean lines of classical architecture had waned, but one common feature of Greek Revival houses, especially the high-style ones, endured: the transformation of the old side-gabled house into a front-gabled house. By rotating the house 90 degrees, Greek Revival builders faced the peak of the roof on the street, where the cornice detailing could be shown to better advantage. Later builders, caught up in the craze for Victorian houses, made extravagant use of this simple change of house plan.


The Victorians may have been straitlaced in their corsets and tight in their collars, but they were joyous and free in their houses. “Victorian” is not one style but several. It is often described as eclectic, meaning that the houses can look like just about anything. But what it means in this case is that Victorian houses look almost nothing like any of the houses that came before.

Gone are the pediments, pilasters, and porticoes. Gone are the fanlights and transom lights. Gone are 200 years of straight lines, plain faces, and unbending squareness. Weary of balance and symmetry, Victorian houses prefer to show off.

There is so much going on in Victorian architecture, and so much unabashed borrowing, that it is difficult to sort out the individual house styles. But there are some common elements. Steep, many-gabled roofs, irregular floor plans, and an asymmetrical arrangement of windows and doors give Victorian houses their characteristically excited look. Patterned roofs and multi-textured walls show off the builders’ experimentation with curves, arches, hexagons, and other complex shapes. Porches appear everywhere, along with the profusion of fanciful detailing familiarly known as “gingerbread.”

Some Victorian house styles can be distinguished by their “feel,” others by characteristic features.

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