House Style: Foursquare

Here's how to spot this basic house with room for living.

Foursquare House in Melrose, MA. Photo: from Bob Vila

How to Recognize a Foursquare House
It’s easy to tell if you’re in a Foursquare house, if you can count to four.  Four is the number of equal-sized rooms on the first and second floors.  Beginning in the 1890s, the Foursquare was a popular American house.  Stroll through any century-old neighborhood and you’ll find they’re easy to spot.  From the sidewalk, you will see a cube-shaped structure with a pyramidal roof and central dormer.  There is often a wide one-story porch, too.

How Did They Get So Popular?
The Foursquare was a reaction against the exuberance of the Queen Anne style.  Rectilinear was in and rambling asymmetry was out. Because they could be sited on small lots they were a favorite with the budget-conscious.  Another reason for their ubiquity: Sears Roebuck and other mail order retailers sold pre-fabricated houses in the Foursquare style.  Between 1908 and 1940, Sears Roebuck sold 75,000 pre-fabricated houses in 370 designs.  Foursquare designs were in the company’s 20 best-selling house designs.

Variations on a Theme
Not all Foursquares are alike.  The basic four-plus-four floor plan was often modified.  In some cases, the living room occupied half of the ground floor.  In others, the ground floor was extended to accommodate the kitchen and pantry.  The bathroom was located on the second floor—assuming, of course, the owner wanted one. In one early Sears plan, the space was labeled “toilet or store room.”

There are also stylistic differences. Homeowners wanted some frills to enliven the functional and efficient floor plan. The Colonial Revival Foursquare has a portico or pediment while the Craftsman version is identifiable by the exposed rafters and beamed ceiling. Sears sold a Mission-style Foursquare, the “Alhambra,” which had stucco siding and curvilinear parapets.  On the ground floor was the “solarium,” a room that in less exotic Sears Foursquares was designated the “parlor.”

Foursquare Houses Today
By 1930, Foursquares were no longer being built.  Plenty remain, though, to tempt the amateur restorer. Whether it’s made of wood, brick, or stucco, the Foursquare has an important place in the history of American domestic architecture.