Author Archives: Mary O'Neil

Know Your House Styles

In the United States, a dizzying number and array of house styles are to be found.

House Styles, Types of Houses


Today, we choose from house plans that have the same basic house forms. Preservation specialist Mary O’Neil has outlined the most popular types of house styles, in chronological order, for those who wish to define their style or stylize their home.

Cape Cod
Among the earliest and most common building types, this house is characterized by its one-story eaves and front five-bay central entry plan. Typically these houses are two rooms deep, sometimes with a series of smaller rooms along the back. Original Capes had massive central chimneys. Roofs are usually low to moderately pitched, beginning just above windows. Variations may include half plans (three bays wide with the door placed far left or far right) or three-quarter plans (four bays wide with the door in the third or four bay). Early Capes required significant labor and hand tooling of materials, so these homes were characteristically modest in interior space. Their low ceilings and few rooms, however, made them easier to heat. Dormers are commonly added to increase space.

Classic Cottage
Similar to the Cape Cod, the Classic Cottage has a slightly higher eaves-front wall that can accommodate small windows in the upstairs knee wall. Roofs are proportionately shallower. Chimneys may appear in the middle or at either end. Windows are usually multi-paned double-hung sash, while the main entry is centrally located. This evolution of the basic Cape came when builders learned that a minor modification brought more usable space and light to the upper floor, increasing space and utility.

Historically this style refers to a rather broad time period architecturally, a Colonial house is regarded as a one- or two-story, rectangular, eaves-front symmetrical building with a central entrance. In a Georgian Plan, this is sometimes referred to as “five-over-four and a door,” and may have roof dormers. The entry is frequently decorated in a classical style with pediments, pilasters, fanlights, or columns. A Colonial is always two rooms deep, but variations may place the staircase in the center or to either side. Common cladding is wood clapboard or brick. Windows are usually multi-paned double-hung sash. Deviations here may also include a half-plan, with the main entry at the far right or left of a three-bay facade.

I House
Two stories high but only one room deep, these modest houses earned their name when it was determined that many of the original builders hailed from Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana. Usually built eaves-front, these gable-roofed homes made humble demands on small lots and pocketbooks.

Found primarily in Southern states, these one-story, one-room wide houses maximized potential on narrow building lots by construction that maintained a front-to-back alignment, theoretically allowing a shotgun blast to go from the front door out the back. When grouped, there are no side windows, but Southern front porches are common. Two to three rooms deep, this form is believed to have descended from West African and Caribbean dwellings.

This is the shape of a Colonial or I House when a one-story lean-to addition, or linhay, is added to the rear. The name is derived from the similarity to the shape of eighteenth-century salt containers. The sharply sloping roof was sometimes oriented to the north to act as a windbreak. In the South, this form is referred to as a “Cat’s Slide.”

Side Hall Plan
From one- to two-stories high, these gable-front houses were popular in mid-nineteenth century America. Constructed of masonry or wood frame, they were frequently ornamented in period style with wide, divided bands of trim in the gable end that gave them a temple-like appearance, or with corner pilasters, columns, porches, or sidelights.

Gable and Ell
Widely popular across the United States after the arrival of the railroad, these one- or two-story wood-frame homes featured a central, gable-front mass with an intersecting, perpendicular wing of the same height, effectively making the building “L” shaped. If a wing appears on both sides of the gable block, it becomes a Tri-Gable Ell. Porches are common where the two blocks intersect. These homes typically have wood-clapboard siding and double-hung sash windows. They may display a wide array of stylistic ornament.

Four Square
Economical to build, these two-story square homes with hipped or gable roofs saw great popularity in the U.S. in the years after 1900. A simplistic reaction to the irregular shapes and high ornament of the Victorian era, these boxy, four-room-over-four-room homes frequently had a dormered attic and a wide front porch. The clean styling and simple design met with quick favor, appearing in every small town across the country and becoming an American classic.

Part of a modern design movement, Split Levels were intended to separate living activities within a home by removing them to different planes. Sleeping quarters are separate and raised from dining and communing areas, which are themselves separate from other levels, which might include vehicle storage. Many of these homes assumed characteristics of the Craftsman movement, with widely overhanging eaves and ribbons of windows at different living levels.

By definition only a one-story house, these low, yet broad dwellings typically have large porches with substantial overhanging eaves and a roof dormer set in a gable, hip, or jerkinhead (clipped gable) roof. Variations may include an additional half or full story with tapered columns, particularly associated with the signature Craftsman style.

Suburban Ranch
These homes are characteristically one story with a low, pitched gable or hipped roof with limited detailing. Their low-to-the-ground, horizontal appearance was a reference to homes of the Southwest; but their nascence stems from the crushing demand for affordable housing at the close of World War II. Young families settled into newly developed “suburbs,” their modest-yet-efficient homes designed with either double-hung sash or the newly engineered metal casement, awning, or slide windows. Picture windows were a popular central feature of the 1950s Suburban Ranch, as was the integral garage.

Raised Ranch
A stylistic variation of the Suburban Ranch, the elevation of the upper floor over a raised foundation gave the advantage of full-size windows and additional finished living space in the lower level. This adaptation saw its greatest popularity during the 1970s.

Ms. O’Neil holds a Master’s degree in historic preservation and is a specialist in American vernacular architecture. She currently works as a consultant and researcher on issues of preservation and building.

Historic Home Buying 101

The pros, cons, and everything you need to know about buying a registered, historic home.

Perhaps you have been searching for several months or even years, and now you have found the perfect home. Your dream comes with elaborately detailed scrollwork, a hand-carved newel post, or stately white columns. It is also listed as a contributing resource to a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. What does that mean? What things should you consider before determining that this house is for you?

Part of Something Larger
Pacific Union senior sales agent Tom Zannelli of San Francisco indicates that a listing on the National Register is a particular, upscale amenity that attracts a specific group of homebuyers. Others may fall into this possibility during a house hunt. Tom and Lynn Wood, architects and principals of Timeline Architecture, consciously chose to live in their neighborhood of redeveloped military housing at Fort Ethan Allen in Essex, VT. Both the surroundings and the house encouraged residential re-use, while the space offered uncommon design, craftsmanship, and materials. “It was a chance to be part of something larger and unique,” said Lynn.

Return on the Investment
A National Register citation confirms a home’s historic significance, but the real worth may be realized in the stability and strength of the property’s value. A 2000 study of South Carolina home sales showed that homes in Columbia’s historic districts sold 26 percent faster than the overall market; while historic Beauport owners saw a whopping 21 percent greater sale price. In Rome, GA, properties in designated historic neighborhoods increased in value 10 percent more than similar properties without historic designation between 1980 and 1996. Studies in Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania corroborate the positive effect an historic district designation has on property values, with overall increases between 5 percent and 20 percent. The stability of property value appears to extend to owner tenure as well: There is a reportedly lower owner turnover within historic districts than in neighborhoods lacking that distinction.

Playing By the Code
National Register inclusion is an acknowledgment of a property’s importance to its community, state, or the nation. Some homebuyers may be anxious about this designation from the National Park Service, fearing infringement of their property rights. These concerns are unfounded, as long as the work receives no federal money, and requires no federal license or permit. Owners are under no obligation to restore their property, or to open their doors to the public.

Many municipalities, however, have designated design control districts in areas that have been identified as having particular historic, architectural, scenic, cultural, or visual significance. Buildings in these areas may be subject to review for any proposed alteration, addition, or demolition. A prospective homebuyer of a property within an established historic district would be well advised to visit the local planning and zoning office to determine what guidelines may apply to them. Preservation ordinances help homeowners protect their investment by preserving the historic character of their neighborhoods. Review of any project may run the gamut from a cursory evaluation by a zoning administrator to review by a secondary commission that advises specifically on questions of historic sensitivity and architectural compatibility.

For certain types of work, homeowners may need to secure a permit called a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA), or Permit for Minor Work from their planning office or historic review board. Communities that rely on heritage tourism frequently have more stringent review procedures: Historic Savannah requires review for alterations as minor as changing awnings. In New York City’s Row House District, a COA is necessary before changing exterior shutters. Review only applies to the exterior of any structure in a historic district, and does not affect any interior changes.

Some historic district commissions may require replacement of damaged materials in kind, that is, with material or design features original to the building. While the alteration of an historic home may require specific or expensive materials or craftsmanship, it will be balanced with the likelihood that the investment will hold. Additionally, your neighbor’s protected property is also less likely to be altered in a manner that might reduce your property value.

Preservation Resources
In some instances buildings listed as contributing resources on the National Register may be eligible for limited financial aid through grants, loans, or tax incentives. Georgia has provided an eight-year freeze on property-tax assessments on designated historic properties. The federal government currently limits tax credit opportunities to structures that are income-producing (rather than strictly residential). Preservation organizations are another resource for modest financial assistance. Preservation easements may also be arranged through local governments or private organizations like Historic New England (formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities). These arrangements can lessen the property-tax burden while providing for the preservation, protection, and maintenance of your historic property. Programs differ from one state to another, so check with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), local planning agency, or community historical society.

Thousands of historic districts have been listed by the federal government on the National Register, ranging from the landmark homes of Newport to modest mill housing of New England. Owning property within a historic district offers you the unique opportunity to interpret and share the history of your home, as steward of a recognized contributor to our nation’s past.

For further information, contact the National Register of Historic Places or your local State Historic Preservation Office.