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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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1830-1850 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.

Second Empire houses are queenly. The diagnostic feature is the mansard roof carried like a crown on decorative brackets. With their projecting central pavilions, very tall windows, and iron roof cresting, these are the most stately of the Victorians. Queen Anne houses often look pointy and sometimes higgledy-piggledy, for it is in this type that the roofs are steepest and building most asymmetrical; corner bays and towers accentuate this effect. Spindlework porches, patterned shingling, and stained glass make this the archetypical gingerbread house.

Shingle houses are covered with shingles from top to toe and have less fancy trim work. With their smooth walls, multi-eaved roofline, and intersecting gables, they give the impression of a ship under full sail.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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