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One popular way to approach American architecture is to distinguish between form and style. Form, the thinking goes, involves the large-scale arrangement of elements within a building, whereas style is inherent in applied ornamentation. The placement and sizing of rooms, the positioning of door and window openings, the divisions of a structure’s facade — all these are elements of form. Of course, form can be related to style, as in the case of hip-roofed Italianate buildings designed to resemble the country houses of northern Italy, but the connection isn’t an absolute one. For readers’ sake, I’ll assume that the dichotomy makes sense, and I’ll devote most of this piece to the subject of form. The conversation on style will have to wait for another day.
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Suppose I asked you to sketch the floor plan of a house. Not any house in particular; just a house. You might draw a garage. You might connect the garage to a kitchen and a laundry room. You might label one of the rooms “great room,” and you might envision its twenty-foot ceiling and equally tall (and uncleanable) windows. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to separate the garage from the house entirely, and it certainly wouldn’t occur to you to place the kitchen on the second floor and the bedrooms on the first. Out of the infinite number of possible room arrangements, you’d probably choose a well-worn one. In other words, you’d make assumptions about the way your would-be home ought to be laid out. You’d default to what you know. People in the past made similar assumptions, and they, too, often defaulted to what they knew. This, I think, can account for the persistent (though not inevitable) formal differences between regional building traditions in the United States.
So, just what are those regional differences? I wish I could gather them into a nice, neat list, but life is never so simple. I’ll settle for a few generalizations, and then I’ll give some examples of common forms used in American residential architecture before World War I.
First, a few meta-differences. People in various parts of the country seemed to have varied ideas about form and proportion. To the trained eye, the architectural tradition in the Upper South, for example, has a definite je ne sais quoi, as does the New England one, and so on. One has the sense that builders in the Upper South, states like Kentucky and Tennessee, constructed their residences from components of standard size and shape.** Accordingly, it’s often easy to divine interior room arrangements from exterior appearances. Things tend to be more complicated, though, in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. Germans and Quakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere had a habit of shoehorning unpredictable assortments of rooms into their creations, as did some New Englanders.
Time also matters. Before the Civil War, houses tended to be formally simple based fundamentally on the rectangle, maybe with an ell or wing appended. But the mid-century picturesque movements introduced asymmetry and irregularity as ideals,* and improved building technology made more complex plans feasible for more people. Soon, Americans, especially Americans living west of the former colonies, started diverging from the traditions of their forebears. Jutting bays and oriels of all shapes and sizes started sprouting from walls, and the trusty rectangle disintegrated into a multitude of impossible-to-describe shapes. Many houses, and especially urban houses, of the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s made use of what I like to call “foyer” plans — irregular clusters of rooms spiraling out from a foyer or stair hall, itself often placed at the front corner. (One good, though humble, an example is Ronald Reagan’s childhood home in Dixon, Illinois.) In the twentieth century, plans became even more complicated even as exteriors re-simplified. Take a look at a Sears kit-home catalog from the 1920s, and you’ll notice the breakdown of almost all predictability in space planning. Still, traditional plans persisted. In the 1910s, people in parts of rural Virginia were building things that looked as if they might date from the 1850s or 1860s. Older forms also made occasional resurgences under the guise of revivalism, though rarely were revivalist buildings academic enough to be indistinguishable from their sources of inspiration.
. . .
In colonial America, most housing was modest and impermanent. A typical residence might consist of a single room topped by a sleeping loft. In areas inhabited by English settlers, more complex dwellings used arrangements like the hall-and-parlor plan (two rooms, often unequal in size, placed side-by-side) or the central-chimney plan common in New England, where the cold climate necessitated an internal source of warmth. By the eighteenth century, among the elite, “open” plans based around formal stair passages and hallways had started to replace earlier “closed” plans, in which rooms led directly into other rooms. As neoclassical influences seeped in from mainland England, the so-called Georgian plan, four rooms arranged around a central passage or hallway, became the gold standard for home design. The full Georgian plan was especially popular in the Mid-Atlantic, New England, and parts of the coastal South, whereas people in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Scots-Irish-settled areas of southwestern Pennsylvania often lopped off the rear chambers, instead of placing two rooms on either side of a central passage. In general, builders in these parts of the country preferred linear plans, multiple rooms wide, but only one room in-depth, though Pennsylvania’s Scots-Irish had the odd habit of Georgianizing their houses as they moved westward. But that’s a tangent, so never mind. Universally popular, especially in dense urban neighborhoods, were side-passage plans, which featured either one or two rooms placed on one side of a stair passage.
As New Englanders moved into upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania, they developed what might have been the most persistent of the nineteenth-century residential building types, characterized by its use of intersecting perpendicular wings. In its typical incarnation, this plan features a front-gabled section and a wing jutting from one side. The resulting house usually has a T- or L-shaped footprint. But, sometimes, two wings project from the front-gabled block, giving the building a cross-shaped plan. After the Civil War, pattern books and architectural periodicals picked up versions of these plans, and they became nationally popular, though especially in the Upper Midwest. At the same time, the more irregular forms I’ve discussed elsewhere gained a foothold. All the while, older and simpler plans held on, particularly in poorer parts of the country.
Of course, the story is more complicated than this. (I could go on about two-story porches and three-part Palladian plans, but I’ll spare you those details.) Germans in southeastern Pennsylvania had their own idiosyncratic building tradition, and so did the Dutch in New York. Nineteenth-century foreign immigration from Germany and Scandinavia brought new plans and forms into the United States. As populations moved westward, they carried their architectural norms with them, but they also abandoned those norms to varying degrees. As time passed, and as populations mingled, ethnic and regional architectural traditions lost their distinctiveness. Pay a visit to an antebellum city in Ohio or Indiana, and the connections to earlier east-coast building traditions are obvious. But try to divine the ethnic or regional identity of an Iowa town’s settlers from their architecture, and you’ll risk failure.
In any case, I’ve rambled quite enough. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You might just be a masochist.
* Irregularity and asymmetry have always been part of architecture. But they weren’t explicitly aestheticized until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when English philosophers began developing a theory of the picturesque. Before then, irregularity was associated with folk architecture, whereas professional architecture tended to follow the neoclassical ideals of symmetry and order.
** In the 1970s, a group of folklorists and historians, inspired by structuralism and Chomsky’s work on linguistics, even tried to develop quasi-mathematical formulas to describe the ways builders in particular parts of the country designed their homes. A good example of this kind of study is Henry Glassie’s Folk Housing in Middle Virginia, which contains sentences like, “[T]he ability to design the Georgian type 17 . . . required the addition of only rules I.C.2b and c; III.C.1c.1, C.2a.1, D.1e.1b, D.1f, and D.2a; IV; V; and VIII.B.2b.” Riveting! What does it mean? Don’t ask me! Glassie may have overdone things, but he has a point: By virtue of their practical training — and by virtue of the fact that carpentry involves mathematics — builders tended to follow certain geometric rules, and these rules varied over time and from place to place.Published in