Whilst very few houses represent a “pure” style, there were basically seven types of structures:


Style Period
Log Cabin up to 1850’s
Colonial 1690 -1760
Salt Box 1610 – 1770
Cape Cod 1710 – 1830
Early Georgian 1714 – 1769
High Georgian 1760 – 1780
Federal 1780 – 1820
Gothic Revival 1830 – 1860
Greek Revival 1840 – 1880


Today you’re likely to find Colonial houses with Victorian additions and Victorians houses with Colonial Revival additions. Once having mastered a few basic principles, however, your eye will begin to discern what is original to a house, and what has been added or removed in keeping with the latest fashion.

Log Cabin up to 1850

Lincoln Log Cabin

Log cabin construction came to North America in the 1600s when Swedish settlers brought building customs from their home country. Log cabins are examples of building with local materials. When pioneers encounter trees, they cut them down and built shelter.

Colonial 1690 -1760

Jonathan Root House Front

Colonial architecture reigned supreme for about 200 years, from 1690 to 1760. Since the earliest colonists were European, the Colonial style was influenced by European architecture, especially the architecture of England. The primary colonial style is called Georgian, popular during the reigns of King George II and King George III of England. Most Georgian homes were built out of the materials most accessible to the colonists: wood in some areas, and brick or stone in others.

Windows had numerous small panes, frequently 12. Few have survived without addition of wings, walls and lean-to’s, and other changes in details.

Eventually, Colonial houses grew into the four-over-four, two-story homes that are synonymous with Colonial architecture. Four-over-four refers to the number of rooms on each floor: four rooms on first floor and four rooms on the second floor. Colonial architecture is symmetrical, with the entry door in the middle of the facade, or front of the building, and an even number of windows flanking each side. The second floor has the same window arrangement with an additional window directly over the front door.

Saltbox 1700 -1770

The roof line defines the saltbox. It evolved from the practice of adding a lean-to on the back of a house in order to gain extra space. Sometimes a change in the angle of the back roof shows where the lean-to was added. The design became so popular that some houses were built with the long back roof as part of the original structure.

A Cape Cod style house

Cape Cod 1710 -1830

The frame structure was one and one half stories high. It had a low-pitched roof, a large central chimney, and no dormers. Light for the attic came from windows in the gable ends. To increase attic headroom, builders sometimes used a bowed (“ship’s bottom”) roof. Originally the Colonial house and roof were covered on all sides with wood shingles that weathered gray. Later houses used clapboard. There are three basic designs:

  • The Half House: two windows to side of front door
  • The Three-Quarters House: no windows to one side of door and one window to the other
  • The Full Cape: two windows to each side of door.

Early Georgian 1714 -1760

The Early Georgian structure had a symmetrical design based on Roman classicism. There was an emphasis on an entrance bay in middle of house. The front wide panelled doors had a row of rectangular lights in the door, to transform the light above. Columns or pilasters frequently framed the door with pediment above. Plain colonial eaves were replaced with cornices, often with classical features such as dentils.

When dormers were used, they had triangular or arched pediments and were spaced symmetrically. Usually the structure had a pitched roof, although sometimes the roof was hipped. The Early Georgian was built in brick or wood.

High Georgian 1760 -1780

The High Georgian structure used heavy classical details. The front doorway were surrounded with pilasters or columns, surmounted by cornice or pediment, or both. Also there was a semi-circular fanlight over the front door. Palladian (triple) windows were built on the second floor in the front centre of the house. There were cornices on window caps.

More elaborate houses would have a projected entrance pavilion topped by a pedimented gable. Use of columns and pilasters became more lavish. Corners on masonry houses often had stone quoins, and on wood houses the quoins were often simulated in wood.

Federal Architecture style

Federal 1780 -1820

The Federal, (also sometimes refered to as Adam, style dominated the American architectural landscape from roughly 1780 to 1840, having evolved from Georgian. After the Revolution, house designers used the classical decoration of the Late Georgian, but attenuated the detail. The result is often hard to distinguish from Early Georgian. Doorways retained the early pilasters and columns and were usually topped with a flat entablature. Elliptical fanlights over doors were popular. Simple frames existed around windows, and corners were unmarked by quoins or pilasters. Hipped roofs became more common, sometimes rimmed by a balustrade. Flat boarding was sometimes used on the exterior for a more classical effect.

Gothic Revival 1830 – 1860

Gothic Revival House

The Gothic Revival style is part of the mid-19th century picturesque and romantic movement in architecture, reflecting the public’s taste for buildings inspired by medieval design. The Gothic Revival style in America was advanced by architects Alexander Jackson Davis and especially Andrew Jackson Downing. The most commonly identifiable feature of the Gothic Revival style is the pointed arch, used for windows, doors, and decorative elements like porches, dormers, or roof gables. Other characteristic details include steeply pitched roofs and front facing gables with delicate wooden trim called vergeboards or bargeboards.

The Gothic Revival style was popular for churches, where high style elements such as castle-like towers, parapets, and tracery windows were common, as well as the pointed Gothic arched windows and entries. The Carpenter Gothic style is a distinctive variation of the Gothic Revival style featuring vertical board and batten wooden siding, pointed arches and incised wooden trim.

Greek Revival 1815 -1840

Greek Revival architecture

Greek Revival is a style of architecture inspired by the symmetry, proportion, simplicity, and elegance of the ancient Greek temples of the 5th century B.C. In the United States, Greek Revival reached peak popularity from about 1825 to 1860, which was the start of the Civil War. It became the first dominant national style of architecture in the U.S. as it spread from the East Coast across the country to the West Coast. Builders emphasized the columns (or pilasters), capitals, and low triangular gabled pediment – all to create the effect of a Greek temple. Focus shifted from the long side of the house to the gabled end. A pedimented gable appears to rest on classical entablature, which is in turn supported by columns. Windows are strongly vertical, with six-over-six panes. Lines are simpler and cleaner than the Roman-influenced Georgian. Some Greek Revival style buildings have true temple form with massive, bold columns across the entire front facade. The columns may be rounded and topped with classical order capitals, or they may be square paneled posts. This temple form is more common on high style mansions or public buildings like banks, schools or government offices.

It is British architect James Stuart who is said to have first introduced Greek Revival to the United Kingdom. Stuart was captivated by the classical beauty of the architecture he discovered on a trip to Greece in 1758. Stuart documented his discoveries and published Antiquities of Athens in 1762, producing the world’s first reference book detailing Classical Greek architecture. While Stuart died in 1788 before it became a full-blown trend in England and Europe in the 1820s and 30s, he is widely credited with helping to spread the Greek Revival style outside of its country of origin.