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An Overview of 20th Century House Styles

A little House building history

1928 Home Builder's Catalog - The ChaffeeSo many wonderful home styles evolved during the first half of the 20th century, it seems like a good idea to put them into some kind of context. The following is not intended to be comprehensive ... it's just an outline of the many styles and some of our thoughts about them.

House styles in 1900

In 1900, American homes were, on average, about 1000 square feet of living space. The most common styles included:

In addition, people built rowhouses, apartments, and duplexes or triplexes incorporating these styles. Boarding houses were another common type, often found in neighborhoods where immigrants tended to land.

Regional interpretations of these prevailing styles created a huge subgroup of what might best be called eclectic.

The Progressive Era and the Simplicity Movement

At the end of the 19th century, there were a number of progressive social movements. Labor, which had been working tirelessly since the Civil War, continued pressing for worker rights, women were working hard for suffrage, and socialists, artists, and intellectuals supported causes that celebrated the value of the craftsman and the high quality of the handmade product.

The Industrial Revolution spawned a powerful backlash in England, which has come to be called the Arts & Crafts Movement. Philosopher-artists like William Morris and Walter Crane worked hard to develop a new style that drew on natural materials worked according to the traditions of the artisanal past. The fear at the time was that these crafts would be lost as a tide of low-quality, poorly designed and executed goods flooded the market. Unfortunately for the entrepreneurs of the English movement, the costs associated with production and labor often restricted their goods to the upper-middle and upper classes. Handcraftsmanship was unaffordable for the workers who produced the goods.

Concurrent with the English A&C movement was the Art Nouveau design movement in Continental Europe. Rather than being as socially progressive, it was more focused on Nature as a source of design inspiration. Other international influences included the opening of Japan to the West as well as early Modern design ideas in Europe.

Many American architects, designers, and builders were profoundly influenced by the English Arts & Crafts Movement. Men like Elbert Hubbert, Gustav Stickley, and Frank Lloyd Wright went to England and Europe and came home bursting with fresh inspiration.

In the United States, this design and social fermentation process yielded a broad spectrum of innovation and radical social ideas. One of the most potent was that everyone should have a home. A home was the cradle of happy humanity. It was the place children were reared, families communed, and health and social benefits were born. Land was relatively cheap and raw materials stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

A home would not need to be big or ostentatious to serve its purpose. All it needed to do was be well-built, tidy, and functional. Coming at the Americans, from East and West, was the small Asian-influenced house of the Indians and its adaptation by the English. The tea houses of the Japanese, shown at the Chicago Exposition, were low and elegant in their simplicity; they strongly influenced many young architects including Wright and the Greene brothers, who later became famous for the Prairie style and early Craftsman homes.

Little houses for simple living were the order of the day. Such houses were shown in the earliest years of the 20th century as summer cottages or bungalows. It wasn't until 1907, that Gustav Stickley declared them suitable for year-around living.

Through assiduous marketing efforts, Stickley, Elbert Hubbard, Henry Wilson, and many others got the bungalow bandwagon moving. By 1910, hundreds of companies were publishing plans and building bungalows from sea to shining sea.

Modern vs. Traditional Styles

The public was split roughly in half with respect to house design preferences. Traditional folks preferred the symmetry of the Colonial styles, which included the very attractive Dutch Colonial with its characteristic gambrel roof. The modern progressive loved the bungalow in all its permutations from the high style of the Greene & Greene hand-crafted bungalows to the tiny kit homes offered by Sears, Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, Gordon Van Tine, and many others.

Modern House Styles from 1905 to 1920

The two most prominent modern styles during this period were the bungalow and the Prairie Style that is most closely associated with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Though Wright is the most prominent (because of his design genius and astute self-promotion) there were many others of substantial talent and design skill like George G. Elmslie, William Purcell, George Maher, Robert C. Spencer, and Francis Barry Byrne.

The Prairie Style often shares characteristics of the bungalow including the open floor plan with long interior views unbroken by walls and doors, and an easy flow between interior and exterior spaces. Lots of light and cross ventilation were considered essential to healthy living for both styles.

Though both styles could be considered "modern" for the period, the bungalow is now considered homey, artistic, quaint, and comfortable. The Prairie style, however, continues to evoke a sense of timelessness by virtue of its modernity and often remains startlingly contemporary.

A word about the Foursquare

A contemporary style that evolved from multiple sources during this period is the ubiquitous Foursquare. Depending on the source, some writers think they evolved from the Prairie style, while others claim that they were a Colonial subtype. I tend to think they were a vernacular style: there is almost nothing exotic about them.

The most common Foursquare is a cube with a pyramidal roof. They have a large front porch; the most common expression is the full width of the façade. The main floor comprises the living room, dining room, and kitchen. The stairway leads to the second floor with the bedrooms and a bathroom. Each floor is roughly divided into quarters. The Foursquare was easy to build and provided a plenty of living space for the money.

Beyond this, the Foursquare lent itself to innumerable variations ... not surprising considering the simplicity of the style. Colonial Revival Foursquares had classical elements like Ionic columns, six-over-one double hung windows, and dentil moldings or modillons at the eaves. The floor plan was often more traditional too. Instead of the "open" style, rooms could be closed off with French or pocket doors. The entry was often more formal opening into a hall with the stairway to the second floor and a doorway leading to the living room.

A Prairie Box, so-called for its broad eaves and bands of windows, has a more modern character. Like it's bungalow counterpart, it often opened directly into an entry that flowed into the living room from which the dining room was visible. The stairway to the second floor is a prominent architectural detail for the interior, not merely a necessity.

The Craftsman-style Foursquare has "artistic" details that may include exposed rafters, knee brackets for service porches, clinker brick fireplaces, and craftsman-style windows, for example. Though the pyramidal roof is a definitive characteristic of the Foursquare, the Craftsman-style subtype may have a gabled roof, knee brackets, and exposed rafters. (Arguably, some people describe them as two-story bungalows.)

The Revival Styles

Revival or Romantic styles were built throughout the US from the late 1800s to the 1950s, but the peak of their popularity was from just after WWI to WWII.

American architects and builders took their inspiration where ever they found it. Many looked to the past styles of Europe or the Western US for ideas. The range of revival styles include:

The styles listed above were the most common; however, there were other styles built though in much smaller numbers.

Most revival-style homes have the open floor plan that characterized the bungalow style and they were often referred to as bungalows back in the day — for example, an "English-style bungalow." In this context the reference would have been to a small English-style cottage with an open floor plan, not to a bungalow as we typically think of them now.

One interesting aspect of the Revival styles — indeed of most styles during the 1920s — was that people were interested and knew what style their house was. Magazines of the period including American Home, American Builder, and House & Garden ran many articles about specific styles with lots of design details and illustrations. One publication that had a huge reach into the middle-class market was Ladies Home Journal and as a consequence probably did more to popularize the bungalow than any other single media source.

House Styles from the 1920s to the 40s

Modern was defined as the Prairie or Craftsman bungalow during the first two decades of the 20th century. From the 1920s to 1940, homeowners were influenced by a brand new concept of modernity.

World War I fundamentally changed the way Americans looked at the world. The colonial past was over and new, international influences were taking over. Technology was changing the way Americans lived. In 1900, more than 70% of the nation's population lived on farms and in rural communities. By the 1920s, the younger generation was leaving the farm for life in the big city. Electricity and automobiles lengthened the day and extended peoples' reach to far away counties and states.

Residential architecture expressed that change. After 1920, almost all house plans featured a bathroom, central heating system, and electricity. Ice boxes were replaced with refrigerators, and homemakers coveted toasters, vacuum cleaners, and dishwashers.

The bungalow style of the 'Teens was replaced by a new "modern" style with cleaner lines. Revival styles fused with traditional elements and simplified forms to create a new category of Modern American homes. Many were small but grew in average size throughout the 1920s with amenities that were undreamed of twenty years earlier.

These simple forms were easily decorated, if not outside, then inside with textiles and wallpapers that captured Art Deco themes. Egyptian motifs tended to fit in well too. Design details during the 1920s went from practical to ornate with gilt, exotic tile and wood, and expensive fabrics by the end of the decade.

As the Jazz Age limped to a close with the onset of the Great Depression, much of that design ebullience fell by the wayside. The middle- and working-classes felt the pain more acutely and homes became simpler and smaller.

During the 1930s, Art Deco themes changed from complex motifs to the cleaner Streamline forms as espoused by the Art Moderne, Bauhaus, and Industrial Design practitioners like Raymond Lowy. Art Moderne style homes took advantage of new materials and technologies like glass block and aluminum and stripped away virtually all ornamentation.

Extremely modern styles were greeted with skepticism by the general public however if the number of articles explaining that, really, it wasn't a "fad" were to be believed. Much more popular were the small, but "modern" influenced cottages that often had their roots in one revival style or another.

The result was the Minimal Traditional style home. These were derived from the traditional shapes of the Colonial Revival and fused with the forward gables of the small English Revivals of the 1920s. The design details were modest, eaves were narrow with a medium roof pitch. For twenty-some years, until the mid-50s, this was about as "modern" as many people were willing to go. The size of such homes was typically quite small, often under 1000 square feet. Most had two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, and living room. They might have an eat-in kitchen, a dining alcove, or a small dining room.

Homes of the Mid Century — 1940 to 1960

Though we typically think of the Mid Century as very modern, that "modern" era really didn't begin to take off until after 1955. The most common styles included:

From 1940 to the end of 1941, homes were still typical of the 1930s ... they were often small cottages in either a Minimal Traditional or Colonial style, including the increasingly popular Cape Cod. Pronounced Revival styles tended to be hinted at without the amount of definition common during the 1920s. Modern homes were usually architect-designed and built by those with deeper than average pockets.

During the War years from 1942 through 1945, materials became scarce and new construction ground to a halt as everything from copper to rubber was diverted to the war effort. Architects, engineers, and designers of the masculine persuasion either joined or were drafted for service in the military; their feminine counterparts contributed to the defense industries at home.

The combination of economic depression followed by war served to whet the appetite of an entire generation used to making do or doing without. Within months of the War's end, magazines were running articles touting the benefits of products that would soon be on the market. Women who had tasted the benefits of earning a paycheck were eager to spend their War Bonds. Service men and women, enabled by the GI Bill, were able to go to college and buy homes. Though the years immediately after the War were tough because of the transition, they did set the stage for the rollicking optimism of the 1950s and 60s.

Homes built immediately after the War tended to be small. It wasn't unusual to rework pre-war plans and add a second small house to a large lot. Tract, pre-fab, and kit homes each fulfilled a need for a population bent on marrying and reproducing at a prodigious rate.

Innovations included contemporary styles, which were typically modern and often included things we think of now as "green-building" technologies including passive solar and radiant heating. Large windows with dual (thermal) panes, extra insulation, indoor-outdoor living rooms were not unusual.

Ranch-style homes were first seen during the 1930s and designers like Cliff May were instrumental in their evolution. They first began to appear in small versions that were low to the ground and lengthened versions of some of the later Minimal Traditionals. They incorporated a variety of different elements from the modern California Ranch of Eichler to the Storybook Ranch with it's exposed rafters and Dutch doors. Ranches were not considered by many architects to be great style, but the public loved them and by the mid-50s were one of the most popular home styles.

Though not generally categorized as ranch style per se, split- or tri-level style homes have many of the characteristics seen in ranches.

Modern style continued to be the favored style of architects and designers. Clean lines and classic forms made for some spectacular houses. That said, the majority of home buyers continued to prefer more traditional styles that lent themselves more to comfort than cutting edge architectural style.

And the Winner is ...

Of the many styles seen during the first sixty years of the 20th century, the one style with the most staying power and greatest popularity was beyond a doubt the Colonial and its several subtypes. From the early traditional symmetry of the Salt Box to the Cape Cod, the Colonial has proven to be remarkably resilient.

From 1900 to 1960, after the bungalow, minimal traditional, and various modern styles had ebbed, the Colonials continued to be popular.

The Colonial Revival subtypes include:



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