Category: Historic Homes & More

Hudson Passive Project

New York State's first Certified Passive House sets the benchmark for energy efficiency.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

For Dennis Wedlick, the conservation-minded architect who masterminded the Hudson Passive Project—New York State’s first certified passive house—passive building is nothing short of revolutionary. Based on design models established by Germany’s Passivhaus Institut, passive dwellings basically heat and cool themselves, often slashing typical heating bills by upwards of 90%. Although more than 30,000 of these ‘zero-energy’ buildings have been erected in countries like Austria and Germany, passive houses remain rare in the United States, says Wedlick, whose residence in Claverack, New York, is one of only 11 U.S. projects to be awarded certification from the Passive House Institute, the American arm of Passivhaus Institut.

Not to be confused with passive solar, which requires architects to calibrate their designs to maximize solar energy, passive houses focus on minimizing the amount of energy used to heat, cool, and operate a dwelling. Unlike more traditional green residential designs, which often rely on technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, passive houses come close to achieving near-zero energy consumption by being super-insulated and airtight. To achieve this, builders insulate the entire envelope, including the walls, roof, even the foundation, and meticulously caulk, seal, and tape every possible gap or opening in the house so that the structure is so airtight it could literally hold water.

Related: House Tour—Hudson Passive Project

In addition to eschewing structural elements that might serve as thermal bridges (allowing hot or cold air to escape), passive design also relies on strategically placed windows to ensure the home gains more heat than it loses. Last but not least, passive houses tap into the energy and residual heat (from, say, a clothes dryer or a pot of pasta cooking on the stove) that exist in the house through an advanced heat-recovery system. “I call it a magic box,” says Wedlick. “It’s the only mechanical equipment required in a passive house. It brings fresh air in and exhausts stale air and brings fresh air in, all the while transferring the heat to the new air coming in.” And ‘airtight’ doesn’t mean you can’t open the windows, notes the architect. “Passive houses operate like any other house. They’re just a lot more efficient.”

Photo: Elliott Kaufman

Although Wedlick spent several years refining the eco-specifications of his design using thermal modeling and precise climatic information provided by Passivhaus Institut, the Hudson Passive Project took only about six months to construct once actual building got underway. Wedlick received grant money from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority, and tapped Chatham, New York, custom builder Bill Stratton to oversee construction.

Although high performance and energy efficiency motivated the project, Wedlick was equally attentive to the look and feel of the three-bedroom, two-bath home. With its exterior stonework, timber frame, and pitched roof, the house, which is situated on seven acres in the Hudson River Valley, pays tribute to the Dutch barns that were once common in the region. “The aesthetics of the structure have a lot to do with the message of the house,” says Wedlick, who wanted the residence to have a strong connection to nature and give the impression that the house is as healthy indoors as out. To this end, Wedlick opted for a striking two-story wall of triple-paned windows on the structure’s southern exposure as well as soaring, cathedral-like ceilings with bow-arch beams, which give the open, loft-like interior a roominess that belies its compact 1,650 footprint.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

When it came time to outfit the interior, Wedlick cleverly proved that energy efficiency and luxury aren’t mutually exclusive. He relied on eco-friendly lines from companies such as Baldwin Hardware and Waterworks, focusing on products made to last (yet another important measure of sustainability). In the kitchen, Wedlick installed beechwood cabinets, marble countertops, and premium, energy-efficient GE appliances suited for a passive house. “We wanted to reduce penetration and the number of openings we’d need to make airtight, so we opted for an induction range with no hood,” notes Wedlick. Any exhaust fumes get funneled through the ventilation system.

Hudson Passive House Air Flow System Dennis WedlickThe bathrooms, which feature low-flow Waterworks faucets and fixtures, are outfitted in marble and recycled glass tiles. For increased energy efficiency, the bathrooms and kitchen were ganged together, back-to-back, in order to share the hot water provided by the home’s single on-demand water heater. Situated on the north end of the ground floor, the master bedroom features sliding barn doors that can be pulled shut for privacy. Tucked under the eaves on the second level, two bedrooms and a study occupy the open loft; skylight windows let in sunlight and provide a sense of spaciousness.

Passive house technology isn’t just for new construction, says Wedlick. “If you’re remodeling to the point that you’re working on the foundation, insulate it. You’ll see a big difference in energy usage.” Replacing windows? Consider high-performance models that eliminate thermal bridging. And if you feel a draft, do something about it. “If you had a leaky faucet in the bathroom, it would be foolish not to fix it, right? It’s the same thing with drafts,” says Wedlick. “It’s a shame that energy-efficient homes have this geeky, hard-to-maintain reputation because they’re actually easy to manage. Any good hardware store can show you what to do to make your house more airtight.”

If the house’s first winter is any indication, the Hudson Passive Project is working exactly as planned. The current owners of the home never turned the heat on last winter, says Wedlick. “In my mind this is a true breakthrough. It reminds us that good building techniques can really be the answer.”

©Elliott Kaufman

For more images of the project, check out our House Tour slideshow. For additional information on the standards and techniques used to build passive houses, visit Passive House Institute US. To learn more about the Hudson Passive Project, click here.

The Bungalow

From California to Maine, the bungalow has long been an American favorite.

Photo: Flickr

The name is Indian, adapted by the British in India to describe a one-story house with a porch. The Bungalow may have begun as an unpretentious house for travelers in India, but in America it swept across the suburban landscape, reaching from California to the New England seacoast with a Prairie-style variation found in between.

The basic Bungalow is a one-story house with a broad gently sloping hip or gable roof, often with rafter tails at the eave that are left exposed and decorated. Dormers are common. Typically there’s a porch at the front or back supported by square posts that taper to the top. The walling may be clapboard, shingles, brick, or stucco.

Casements are common, but so are double-hung windows. Decorative windows with stained glass lights are often found in earlier examples; doorways typically have small openings for glass.

Entering the home, the open floor plan is usually evident the moment you step in the front door. It looks directly into the living room in most Bungalows. The main design element is a fireplace, typically of rough brick or stone, or even cobblestone. Unpainted wood trim was the rule at time of construction, though many Bungalows have had their trim painted in the intervening years.

The Bungalow has proved to be a rugged, adaptable, and economical design. Many early twentieth-century suburbs, from Washington to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Florida, derive much of their character from these houses, which settle nicely into narrow suburban lots.

In California, there’s an upscale variation of this house, with the somewhat misleading name of “Western Stick.” Typically it presents a pair of gables to the street, one offset to one side and to the rear of the first, which usually has a porch across the front gable. In other regional variations, the Bungalow is found with Colonial, Swiss Chalet, or Tudor detailing while retaining its basic shape. The earliest Bungalows were built before the turn of the century, and the years before World War I were the heyday for the style. It went out of vogue during the years of the Depression.

REMODELER’S NOTES. Like the Cape Cod House, many Bungalows were constructed with unfinished attic spaces. These were typically low-ceiling spaces wedged into the eaves and lit by a dormer or gable windows. They may (or may not) have been finished as well as the spaces on the main floor. Renovation possibilities often offer themselves there, especially with the addition of more dormers (shed dormers being an especially practical approach to add space and light).

Many homeowners have found it rewarding to invest their own time in stripping and restoring the original unpainted surfaces of interior woodwork, but precautions should be taken to ensure that any lead paint is properly handled. Your local health department can provide guidance for testing and disposal procedures.

The Twentieth-Century House

Drawing from the past and looking to the future.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Looking back a hundred years, we can see the magnitude of the changes that occurred in the opening decades of the twentieth century. In 1900, few houses had electricity; twenty-five years later, nearly two-thirds of all homes were illuminated by electric light. The horseless carriage was merely a rumor to most people in 1900; by the mid-1920s, Henry Ford had sold fifteen million Model Ts. With the growth of the industrial economy, Americans had more money and became increasingly concentrated in urban centers—by the 1920s, the majority of Americans lived in cities for the first time.

Given the rate of change, it’s hardly surprising that so many Americans embraced an eclectic variety of homes that shared a common theme: They indulged in a bit of nostalgia, looking backward to the pre-machine age.

The Arts and Crafts movement actually began in England, initiated by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris as a reaction to an increasingly mechanized world. In the building arts, the traditional joiner-builder no longer had to shape or make anything on site—he assembled parts that had come off the end of a production line. And much of that was surface ornament, such as gingerbread, brackets, and other decorations that had no structural purpose. They were, in a favored term of the day, “dishonest.”

In contrast, the Arts and Crafts movement put the emphasis on goods that were simple, inexpensive, comfortable, and produced by hand. Two gifted California builders, the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, were present at the creation of the Craftsman-style house, building beautifully detailed bungalows of large scale in and around Pasadena. The movement in America was also led by Gustav Stickley, a furniture maker who published an influential magazine called The Craftsman. In its pages, he promoted his philosophy of using natural materials, like unpainted wood, ceramic tile, and wrought iron. He himself made furniture, much of it oak, that today is highly prized. But The Craftsman also featured simple houses like the Bungalow that reflected his philosophy.

Stanford White also helped initiate another historicist movement that has ever since played an important role in American house design. White and some of his colleagues examined a number of important early American houses along the New England coast. Some of the flavor of those dwellings informed the Shingle Style, but there was a larger cultural phenomenon that resulted from the work at McKim, Mead, and White and a confluence of other events. Called the Colonial Revival, this movement reinvigorated the taste for things colonial. The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia helped build interest; the growing economic health and power of the country gave Americans the luxury to look back into the country’s past. Furniture, household goods, clothing, and houses in early American styles became broadly popular in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Consider the Cape Cod house—it’s a Basic House of the sort we talked about earlier but during the Colonial Revival it was reborn. The same is true with the Classic Colonial: In its original guise it was Georgian, later Federal, and still later was decorated with a range of Victorian details, but it, too, had a new incarnation during the Colonial Revival. While the Cape and the Classic Colonial have remained popular ever since, two other revivals, the Spanish Colonial and the Dutch Revival Styles, found a briefer popularity at the turn of the twentieth century and after; all are manifestations of the Colonial Revival. Still more revival styles, like the Tudor Revival of the twenties with its English precedents and half-timbered exterior, had important periods of popularity, too.

Not all new houses in our century looked backward. Thanks in part to Frank Lloyd Wright, a style evolved in the Midwest called the Prairie School. The lines of these houses paralleled the prairie itself, sitting long and low with broad roof overhangs and horizontal bands of windows. Wright, like Stickley, decried the de-humanizing effects of the machine age, but he recognized its inevitable importance.

The Prairie Style house is truly American and truly original. Yet perhaps the most popular house design to emerge from drafting boards of the Prairie Style designers was the Foursquare. Unlike many of Wright’s inimitable Prairie School houses, this was hardly a revolutionary house. It’s a cube with wide eaves and dormers that peer out of a pyramidal roof. But it’s a very efficient design whose simplicity, honesty, and practicality helped it make its way into the pages of Stickley’s magazine, The Craftsman.

The Shingle Style House

As an owner of a Shingle Style House, I have a great affection for the style.

Photo: Neff Architecture

As an owner of a Shingle Style House, I obviously have a great affection for the style. While they never attained the popularity of their contemporary, the Queen Anne House, these shingle-clad and usually coastal (though sometimes suburban) homes occupy a pivotal place in the time line of American architecture.

Earlier styles in the United States tended to echo European idioms. They were variations of well known themes, adapted to American materials, sites, and tastes. The Shingle Style is a bit different: it, too, alludes to the past but to an American past.

In the two decades before 1900, several of America’s greatest architects, including H. H. Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White designed buildings in the Shingle Style. They referred back to early American houses in their designs. They emphasized grace and simplicity; they used what seems like acres of plain, unpainted shingles to clad these large houses in a way that was a stark contrast to the ornate busyness of the prevailing Queen Anne Style. Men like Stanford White and Charles Follen McKim had visited the Colonial coastal towns of Salem, Massachusetts, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In their partner Mead’s words, “All of us had a great interest in Colonial architecture, and … we made sketches and measured drawings of many of the important Colonial houses.”

They produced a truly American style that came from here and, for that matter, never went anywhere else. It didn’t travel abroad, but it worked on the seascapes of the East Coast and even on the streetscapes of New England and, surprisingly, the Middle West.

These houses were typically two or three stories high with tall gabled roofs. Porches and dormers were usual. As in the Early House, the windows tended to be of modest size with numerous small lights but, unlike earlier precedents, multiple window units were grouped together into horizontal bands. Palladian and bay windows were also incorporated into some Shingle Style Houses. The shingle cladding of these houses allowed for rounded contours and for a continuous, flowing look. The Shingle Style house has a simple, graceful, organic feel.

Inside the Shingle Style house, another leap of the imagination took place. The open plan was being developed, in which interior spaces, previously neatly separated by doors and partitions, were open to one another. In the same way, the bands of windows and French doors tended to connect the wide verandas to the house, mingling the indoors and out. The result is a less compartmentalized feel to the living spaces of many of these gracious homes.

REMODELER’S NOTES. The average Shingle Style House was constructed with wooden shingles on the roof as well as on the walls. Over the years, the original roofs were often replaced with less expensive asphalt or other materials. If you’re restoring or renovating a Shingle Style, consider returning the roof surface to wood shingles. The texture and color of the wooden surface will add to the character of the house.

The Foursquare was truly a national house, found in Colorado and California, in Maryland and Missouri, and all the other states in the then forty-eight-state Union. Its boxy practicality was rarely the work of architects, but these sturdy houses worked as well as rural farms as on suburban streets.

The Stick Style House

Drawing from European Gothic, the Stick-Style House is best known for its decorative geometry.

Griswold House, Newport, Rhode Island.

The origins of the Stick Style are European Gothic, but an American architect named Richard Morris Hunt actually developed the style in America. Hunt had studied in France at a time when a revival of half-timbered architecture began, inspired by the restoration of Medieval German towns. The exterior walls of those houses consisted of an exposed frame of horizontal and vertical timbers, with an in-fill of stucco or masonry in between. The Stick Style House didn’t replicate the Medieval half-timbered house (the later Tudor Style came closer), but reinvented the decorative geometry and adapted it to commonplace American materials.

In three dimensions, the shape of the Stick Style House is relatively uncomplicated, with plain gable roofs, perhaps with a second cross gable, and occasionally with a tower. In keeping with Gothic precedents, the roof pitch tended to be steep. Yet it is the two-dimensional wall surface that truly distinguishes the Stick Style House.

The exterior walls of these houses were an opportunity for their builders to display both their skills and their excitement at the proliferation of building materials. A variety of economically priced factory-made materials was suddenly put on display all at once—the growing network of railroads, which delivered precut architectural details all across the country, deserves some of the credit for making this highly decorated style possible.

The inverted-V of the gable typically has a decorative truss. The walls are crisscrossed with patterns of wooden bands (the “sticks” from which the name of the style is derived) that divided the wall surfaces into separate areas. These are in-filled with clapboards and shingling, which were often painted in a range of colors to draw attention to the display of materials. When the materials changed, often the colors did, too. Porches had decorated galleries and posts; windows were tall; double doors at the entrance were the rule.

The Stick Style House is an exuberant expression of building energy. San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies” are perhaps the most famous examples of the Stick Style and of the related Queen Anne style that was to follow (see below).

REMODELER’S NOTES. These durable wood-frame houses look their best when polychrome paint jobs draw attention to the variety of elements. Painting in multiple colors can be prohibitively expensive when contractors do the work, but the energetic homeowner who brings a little painting skill and a lot of enthusiasm can greatly enhance the look of one of these houses.

The Second Empire House

The dual-pitched, hipped roof is the hallmark of Second Empire residential architecture.

Second Empire House


A single characteristic distinguishes the Second Empire house: its dual-pitched hipped roof. From the eaves, the roof rises steeply, then becomes almost flat (and invisible from below) as it extends to the center of the building. The steeper pitch of the roof typically has multiple dormers so that the attic of the house is essentially a third floor.

This configuration is known as a Mansard roof, getting its name from the seventeenth-century French designer Francois Mansard. Its nineteenth-century popularity, however, owes its occurrence to the Mansard-roofed wings added to the Louvre in the 1850s when Napoleon III was Emperor of France. That brings us back to where we started, as his reign was known as the Second Empire. In America, the design, although based on earlier prototypes, was regarded as a very contemporary echo of a modern Parisian style, rather than an allusion to an earlier one.

The Mansard roof is most often found on two-story houses. The footprint is usually square or rectangular, although some examples are L-shaped and others have a tower at center front. Brackets typically support the eave overhangs and other details resemble those of the Italianate House. The entrance usually features a double door and the windows are tall and narrow, typically two-over-twos.

The Second Empire house became particularly popular in towns and cities. The two main floors plus a tall attic floor produced a surprising amount of living space for the size of the footprint, an efficient design that made the style well suited to narrow in-town lots with limited light and space. These houses were popular in emerging manufacturing cities in the decades after the Civil War. In fact, for some years these houses were referred to as having been built in the “General Grant Style” because of their popularity during U. S. Grant’s presidency, when many administrative buildings in Washington, D.C., were built in the Second Empire style.

REMODELER’S NOTES: The typical Second Empire home is large and comfortable, reflecting the growing wealth of the American nation in the years after the Civil War. The roof of a Second Empire house distinguishes it, but that same roof is often an expensive challenge to its owner. Frequently, the roofs were originally covered with multicolored slates or tin plates, both of which are expensive to maintain or replace. Any roof work on a Second Empire House is likely to be expensive. Yet maintaining the original character is important—replacement of an original polychrome roof with asphalt shingles does not do justice to the building, especially if the steeper slope of the roof either flares or curves, as many Mansard roofs do.

At the height of the popularity of the Second Empire house in the 1860s and 1870s, Mansard roofs were also a popular choice for renovating earlier houses. The spaces beneath the tall roof line provided useful living space, so framing a new Mansard roof atop an existing home could add considerable living space to the home.

The Octagon House

The shape of the Octagon House makes it unmistakable.

Photo: The Octagon House, Genesee Country Village and Museum

Octagons are not the most common Victorian style, although following the publication of A House for All in 1848, as many as several thousand were built over the next ten years. These unique houses are a pleasant surprise when spotted on an older streetscape. Their appearance and the philosophy of the man who wrote the book distinguish them from other homes of the era.

For once, no European style figures into the inspiration for these homes. The author of A House for All, Orson Squire Fowler, believed that the circle was nature’s most perfect building form. He pointed out that the circle encloses the greatest amount of interior space with the least exterior wall. This apparent efficiency also presented a problem, however, because the building materials of the day tended to be straight rather than curved. But Fowler thought the problem through and devised a flat- sided shape that remained essentially circular but that could be built with rectilinear materials. The Octagon House, with its eight flat sides, was born.

The Victorians had a great confidence in progress and a belief in America’s Manifest Destiny. Fowler argued that his circular form of building was the most healthy and efficient, that it enhanced airflow and natural lighting. His thinking suited the optimism of the time and many communities that prospered at the middle of the last century have at least one octagonal house to attest to the persuasiveness of Fowler’s argument.

The shape of the house makes it unmistakable, with its eight equal sides. Typically two stories tall, many examples also have cupolas on top and one or more porches. Fowler was more interested in theory than in alluding to architectural history, so he did not dictate stylistic details. As a result, those found on octagonal houses vary greatly. Some octagons are decorated with the classical pilasters and frieze boards of the Greek Revival House, others with the brackets usually found on Italianate Houses. Still others have details more characteristic of the Gothic Revival House.

REMODELER’S NOTES. The Octagonal House had a brief vogue, and “Fowler’s Folly” (as his own house was also known) fell out of favor by the beginning of the Civil War. However, there was a second brief octagonal fad in the 1970s: If you live in an octagon, open-plan interiors with few partitions and modern methods of construction (two-by-four framing, plasterboard walls, and other contemporary materials) will immediately distinguish a twentieth-century octagon from those of Fowler’s era.

In the Octagon Houses, some rooms will have triangular shapes, with corners at acute or oblique angles. This can make furniture placement difficult, although most layouts tended to divide the floor plan into rectangular major spaces, leaving oddly shaped secondary rooms like pantries and closets built into the acute angles.

Putting an addition onto the Octagon House is usually difficult. From the start, Fowler envisioned his design as being regular in shape with eight equal sides. Adding a boxy wing that would jut out from one or more of those sides is in conflict with that conception. One solution to space limitations that was adopted on the seventies revival was pairing two octagons, but that in most cases is neither practical nor a visually satisfying solution. A low wing off the rear of the house, however, can be an effective answer, particularly if it shares the detailing of the main house.

The Italianate House

Sometimes referred to as an American Bracket house, the Italianate style is distinguished by brackets that decorate the eaves.

Photo: Cape May, N.J.

Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing, the men who helped launch the Gothic Revival, also did their bit in developing the Italianate House. Beginning in the 1850s and extending into the 1870s, this style was used in all sorts of buildings across America. The Gothic Revival never quite rivaled its contemporary, the Grecian Style, in popularity. But the Italianate House succeeded the Greek as the most popular style of its day

Houses described as Italianate are actually a diverse mix of shapes and sizes. Most were tall, typically two or three stories (one-story examples are rare). As with the Gothic Revival and later Victorian styles, there’s more of a sense of upward thrust about Italianate houses. Yet there’s also an attempt to emphasize a solid, massive quality consistent with the houses that inspired them, those being stone-and-stucco villas back in the Old World countryside, especially in the Italian province of Tuscany. In wood examples, the walls were sometimes painted or scored to resemble masonry; brownstone came to be commonplace on Italianate houses built on cityscapes. Stucco was also used to give the feel and character of stone.

An alternative and perhaps more immediately descriptive name for the several varieties of Italianate house is “American Bracket.” This designation derives from one of the key architectural elements typical of the American Italianate House, the brackets that decorate the eaves. Deep overhangs distinguish all Italianate houses, and the supports for those eaves are brackets that came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The brackets are consistently found in the Italianate house, though the overall shapes of different Italianate houses vary considerably.

The type usually called “Italianate Villas” have octagonal or square towers attached to them. Other Italianates, essentially cubes with cupolas protruding from the centers of their roofs, are usually referred to as simply “Italianate.” But American Bracket houses are found in other configurations, too, with their brackets applied to the familiar volumes of the Basic House and the Classic Colonial.

A gentle roof pitch is typical of the Italianate House. Tall, narrow windows with only two panes of glass per sash (2/2s) are usual. Arch-topped windows are also common, typically with molded crowns. The entrance ceased to be the dominant element and often was recessed slightly into the volume of the house. But it was still decorated with handsome trim and often featured a double door. For the first time, some of the doors had panes of glass in them. Many Italianate houses were asymmetrical, featuring towers, ells, bay windows, balconies with balustrades, and verandas. Virtually all Italianate houses were built with porches.

REMODELER’S NOTES. As Downing himself wrote, the Italian style “… has the very great merit of allowing additions to be made in almost any direction, without injuring the effect of the original structure; indeed such is the variety of sizes and forms, which the different parts of the Italian villa may take, in perfect accordance with architectural propriety, that the original edifice frequently gains in beauty by additions of this description.” That’s a good rule of thumb, though in the case of Italianates that are basic symmetrical boxes, a bow to symmetry is still in order.

The tall windows and high ceilings of Italianate houses make them gracious homes, though in northern areas they are more expensive to heat than their lower-slung predecessors. That’s one reason dropped ceilings were once commonly inserted into Italianates. But that was a bad idea, and is best undone. Added insulation, tightening up the windows, and other energy efficiencies can help compensate without sacrificing the style and grace of the taller room spaces.

These houses often have fine old woodwork: handsome staircases of imported woods like mahogany or native cherry and walnut. Moldings tend to be large and bold, and heavy plaster cornices are common. These are elements to be valued and preserved.

The Gothic Revival House

The Gothic Revival was primarily a rural house style.

Photo: The Bowen House

The Gothic Revival began in England and was the result of new investigations of antique buildings. The Gothic had been overshadowed for more than two centuries by Renaissance and classical styles, but in Britain countless spectacular Gothic buildings survived. Westminster Abbey was among them, yet even a national monument like the Abbey remained a mystery, with little hard knowledge about the evolution of the Gothic style or what portions of the building had been built when.

Decades were required for researchers to sort it all out and, in the meantime, a not-so-scholarly but highly popular variation on the Gothic theme came into vogue. A writer named Horace Walpole published one of the first Gothic romances and proceeded to Gothicize his country house, Strawberry Hill. The domestic style he and his advisers pioneered became an overnight sensation in England but, initially, it didn’t travel to the United States. When it did, it was thanks to an architect named Alexander Jackson Davis and a landscape designer named Andrew Jackson Downing.

When it comes to popular taste, timing is everything and the arrival of the Gothic is no exception. The Gothic was primarily a rural style, as is suggested by the titles of Davis’s 1837 book Rural Residences and Downing’s immensely popular Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). These books illustrated not only parts of houses, as Asher Benjamin’s had done, but added floor plans and even atmospheric perspective drawings of the houses set amid verdant settings. These books were popular among homeowners as well as builders, and led to the appearance of Gothic “cottages” from Maine to California.

Technology played an important role in the emergence of American Gothic, as the decade of the 1830s was a time when the steam-powered scroll saw was developed. Early versions of this saw look like a large sewing machine, though the device had a reciprocating blade rather than a needle. It was this tool that made the Gothic Revival possible in the United States and gave it a character different from its English forebear.

While most English Gothic homes had been built of stone, in America the material of choice, as usual, was wood. The scroll saw made it possible to cut elaborate wooden trim into curved patterns that echoed the tracery work on Medieval Gothic windows. The bargeboards or vergeboards that decorated the rooflines, along with the porch, window, and doorway trim, came to be known as gingerbread. Downing didn’t like the term because, as he put it, “gingerbread” made the decorations sound as if they were “flimsy and meager decorations which have a pasteboard effect.” Despite his objections, however, the name stuck and, though this and other Victorian decorations were for many years dismissed as grotesque and even ugly, more recently homeowners have come to admire the elaborate detailing that often decorates the roof line of the Gothic Revival House.

Earlier house designs tend to sit solidly on their sites, as if a low center of gravity was basic to their design. In contrast, the Gothic house seems to reach for the sky. Verticality is the word architecture critics like to use to describe the effect of buildings that direct the eye upward. The spires of Medieval Gothic cathedrals convey this sense very directly, but there is a similar effect in American Gothic houses. The steep inverted-V of the gable ends are frequently topped by finials. Window trim and even the windows themselves may have the characteristic pointed top of the Gothic arch. American Gothic buildings aren’t especially tall, however, usually one and a half or two stories in height.

Another innovation found in the American Gothic house is an asymmetrical floor plan. Like many of the Greek Revival houses built in the same era—these styles overlapped in the United States—the Gothic Revival house often had an L-shaped floor plan.

REMODELER’S NOTES. Gingerbread is back—more than a few new developments across the country have reintroduced Victorian styling and put elaborately sawn trim to effective use. Conserve the original gingerbread where possible, replicate it where necessary, and use its shape to unify new additions to older structures.

Symmetry is no longer a watchword: In fact, Downing himself characterized the ideal rural residence as having “… a style marked by irregularity of form and outlines, a variety of effect and boldness of composition.”

In earlier houses, clapboards were the rule, but the American Gothic house popularized board-and-batten siding. This siding method used vertical boards, nailed to the frame of the house, with narrow boards (called battens) applied over the joints between the boards. One good strategy is to use the detailing of the original house when remodeling.

The Greek Revival House

Uniquely America, the Greek Revival House is proudly linked to great historic tradition.

James L. Kemper Residence, Madison, Virginia. Photo: Flickr

The Greek Revival captured the American spirit as no other style had done. To visit an unspoiled town that prospered in the years between 1820 and 1860 is to see democracy at work. There are grand Grecian houses with freestanding columns that frame gracious front porches (some people think of such places, in a small simplification of architectural history, as “Gone-with-the-Wind” houses). But there are also simpler dwellings for workers. Take one of these plain structures, strip it of its Greek Revival details, and what would emerge would be the Basic House, perhaps a Cape Cod in disguise, that highly adaptable eighteenth-century design. And these Greek-inspired buildings were found all over the nation, moving from the East Coast in the 1820s westward where, as late as the 1860s, Californians were still building Greek Revival houses.

The same writer-carpenter, Asher Benjamin, who helped get the word out about the Federal House, lived long enough to play a role with the Grecian style, too. His later pattern books reached builders who would never travel to American cultural centers like Boston, Philadelphia, or New York and see the major Greek Revival buildings in those cities, much less go abroad to visit the Parthenon. They didn’t have to, thanks to Benjamin’s careful prescription for Grecian proportions, window detailing, staircase construction, and much else. The Grecian mode had patriotism going for it, too. Just as the Greek Revival Style was gaining popularity in the United States in the 1820s, the Greeks themselves were fighting for independence. Perhaps that parallel to their own revolutionary history was part of the appeal to Americans of Greek architecture.

For a lot of reasons, the Grecian style appeared on streetscapes from Connecticut to California. The single most apparent characteristic of the Greek Revival House is its exterior trim work. A generation earlier, wide expanses of trim would have required much hand planing, but new planing machinery produced wide smooth boards at reasonable cost. Suddenly even people of modest means could afford homes that replicated the appearance of a Greek temple. There were pilasters or wide corner boards defining the corners of the structure. Above, a broad horizontal frieze board with molded trim separated the wall of the Grecian house from the overhanging cornice of the roof. Bold moldings added shadows and scale. The effect was to create a style that was at once uniquely American yet proudly linked to a great historical tradition.

The classic Greek Revival House has a main facade with a gable that faces the street. On top of a boxy base sits the triangular roof, supported either by columns or pilasters. The roof isn’t steeply sloped. Greek trimmings were also applied to houses of many different shapes and sizes, including the compact, single-story Basic House and the larger Classic Colonial with its two stories.

While its designer might have wanted to allude to the ancient Greek ideals of democracy, the Grecian style house had a distinctly practical bent. Symmetry was quickly abandoned—an ever-popular configuration of gable-front Greek has the entrance not in the central bay but on one side. Known by the rather misleading name of “side-hall colonial” (the colonies having long since won their independence and become a republic), this proved an enduring formula. Often Greek Revival houses had an ell that extended from one side, fronted by a porch.

Porches were new in this era, but the tradition of the front door being a bold statement remained, and doorways on Greek Revival homes generally have heavy pilasters or columns, as well as rectangular sidelights and transoms. The scale of the moldings in general may seem to a student of Federal design very heavy and even clumsy, but in a sense they were a celebration of the lumberman’s new ability to produce wide, machine-planed boards.

REMODELER’S NOTES. Where there were farms in the nineteenth century, you’ll probably find Grecian farmhouses. Most are sturdy, practical homes. The details aren’t fussy, and these houses are easily restored and repaired. Greek Revival houses often have been added on to over the years, and adding on again is easier than with earlier symmetrical houses. If you plan to add on, try to replicate the moldings, frieze, corner boards, and other trim to unify the whole. The Greek Revival House has less of the handmade charm of earlier homes, but these are practical, sturdy houses that speak honestly for their time.