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Colonial houses can trace their roots back to the U.S. Colonial Era. Though true Colonial homes stopped being built after the American Revolution, their basic framework—simple, symmetrical, and at least two stories tall—has remained an extremely popular influence in residential architecture for over 200 years.
Colonial architecture had an enormous impact on Indigenous communities and systems of oppression. As the colonists re-settled in the U.S., Indigenous communities were displaced and many of their traditions, including their own architecture, were destroyed to make room for colonial homes.
These homes commonly feature upscale crown molding, detailed fireplaces, and formal entryways. The layout of modern Colonial homes creates plenty of space for large families to reside in, often with four upstairs bedrooms and finished basements that offer additional space to host guests and recreational rooms. Their main living areas, like many other homes from the era, are laid out to largely focus around the kitchen and den.
Colonial houses are built in a traditional style of architecture that dates back to the U.S. Colonial era. They are designed to comfortably serve as a family home, and typically feature a rectangular shape with gabled roofs, symmetrical windows, neutral color schemes, and flat exterior walls.
What Makes a House Colonial-Style?
Over centuries, the Colonial house was adapted and reinvented around new materials, technologies, and building techniques. By the late 1800s, it had organically evolved into a style called “Colonial Revival” that has yet to fall out of fashion.
Symmetry is the most defining aspect of a Colonial-style home, made immediately evident by the front door, which is located smack-dab in the center of the house and flanked with windows. Upon entering, you’ll find a central staircase with access to large, ground-floor rooms on either side. On the second story, the staircase opens into a hallway that runs across the middle of the floor, connecting the bedrooms and at least one bathroom.
The original design of traditional Colonial homes was almost as simple as simple can be, which makes it the perfect starting point for additions, alterations, and reinvention. The core of these houses is the centrally-positioned front door, which is crowned with a small pediment or columned portico, with tall windows positioned on either side.
Double-hung sash windows are arranged around the house symmetrically (of course) and are normally installed in pairs. Colonials have sloping, medium-pitched gabled roofs with shingles and gutters, and older homes will have a pair of chimneys in the center of the roof leading down to twin first-floor fireplaces. Modern Colonials may have them just for show.
Here are a few defining characteristics of Colonial homes:
- Rectangular shape
- Gabled roof
- Symmetrical windows
- Wood, brick, or modern vinyl siding
- Four-square layout
- Central fireplace (moved to exterior walls in later eras)
- Natural hardwood floors
The History of Colonial-Style Homes
During the Colonial Era, America was home to Spanish, French, Dutch, and British colonists, all of whom incorporated the motifs and methods of their homeland into their architecture. Though many styles are still popular in certain parts of the U.S., the standard British Colonial style has become the basis of many Colonial-influenced popular home styles, like the Cape Cod and Saltbox styles.
Like many homes from this era, Colonial houses have adapted and changed over the years. The first designs began with two simple rooms—one downstairs, one up—that always had a central fireplace to keep the home warm during harsh winters before the invention of electricity. Early homes were typically built in a simplified British Colonial style, as colonists built with the architectural layouts they were familiar with.
For a brief period in U.S. history, Colonial homes were built significantly less as the Queen Anne style became popular (with Victorian-influenced architecture that featured wrap-around front porches, ornamental colors, conical roof towers, and detailed, patterned trim). But the late 1800s brought the Colonial Revival: A resurgence in Colonial-style architecture that laid the foundation for modern Colonial homes being built today.
This revival is commonly credited to the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876—the first World's Fair to be held in America, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
If you were to purchase a newly-constructed Colonial home in America today, it's likely to be designed in the New Traditional style. With modern influences, these homes often feature open-concept layouts with large primary bedrooms, on-suite bathrooms, and roomy kitchen and living spaces.
The Different Types of Colonial Homes
Since this simple design is so adaptable, many different variations of standard Colonial homes exist in America. From the early colonists to today's modern architects, home builders have created new takes on the traditional style for generations.
Early American Colonial
When Colonial homes were first built in America, they typically followed the early British Colonial floorplan. They were characterized by a large central fireplace (and central chimney on the roof), steep roofs to weather harsh winters, and exterior wood shingles or plank siding.
These were the original structures used to create the first Saltbox homes, and their layouts were also the foundation for Cape Cods. These original U.S. Colonials were constructed with rustic wood frames and often had features like diamond-pane windows.
Georgian Colonial homes are named after four British monarchs, King George I-IV. This architectural style became popular during their reign, which lasted from 1714 to 1830. These houses are similar to other Colonial styles, but often include a small, covered front porch over the door with columns extending from the main structure. They are usually framed in brick on the exterior with white columns.
Georgian Colonials also typically feature second-story balconies above these porches, which can either be small and round or wide and rectangular. It's also common to see twin chimneys and dormer windows built into Georgian styles (similar to the classic windows on a Cape Cod).
French Colonial homes are most often found in the southern United States and are classic examples of architecture in cities like New Orleans. What makes French Colonials stand out from their simple, unassuming counterparts in the North is their signature two-story front porches and vibrant exterior colors.
Similar to the rocking-chair porches of the Southeast, these homes make a point of having ample outdoor space in the front of the home—but their layered second story makes them all the more extravagant. French Colonials may also feature dormer windows on the roof.
You've likely seen a Dutch Colonial at some point, but they can be hard to identify if you're not familiar with the architectural style. This design features dormer windows, matching chimneys on each end of the house, and a rounded gambrel roof shape that comes to a central point at the top (best viewed from the side of the home). Some Dutch Colonials also have columns and round windows on the front-facing side of the home, though these features aren't always present.
Colonial Revival architecture set the stage for New Traditional Colonials to become popular today. But unlike modern homes, this style was defined by many smaller, closed-off rooms rather than today's open-concept living areas.
In traditional Colonials and Colonial Revivals, there are firm divisions between rooms, which are separated with doors or other defining architectural elements like archways. The exterior of the home hasn't changed much over time, though Colonial Revival homes were often finished with brick or vinyl siding.
Colonial Revivals tend to be the most neutral of the various Colonial home styles, but you can upgrade the exterior of yours by trying out current paint trends, landscaping, and window treatments to give off a modern appearance.
In modern interpretations of early U.S. architecture, open layouts are becoming more and more common, with spacious living spaces flowing directly into large kitchens and dining areas. Upper levels no longer follow the strict symmetry of earlier Colonial homes, eschewing small, boxy bedrooms in favor of large primary suites, walk-in closets, private bathrooms, and other modern amenities.
Extending from the centralized core of the house, New Traditional Colonials can branch off and have any number of floor plans or outlines. Modern Colonials usually have attached, multi-car garages. Other popular home extensions include in-law suites, guest rooms, office spaces, and mudrooms. Their exteriors are clad in modern vinyl siding, brick, or stone (for more upscale models).
Novelli, Chris et al. "Classic Commonwealth: Virginia Architecture From The Colonial Era To 1940". The Virginia Department Of Historic Resources, 2015, https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/pdf_files/Classic_Commonwealth_Style_Guide.pdf.