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Yankee Classic: Guide to House Styles in New England

Yankee Classic: Guide to House Styles in New England
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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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