What style is it anyway?

September 30, 2001|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,Special to the Sun

"I have a darling Colonial for you to see," said the real estate agent to her clients, a husband and wife who both happened to be architects.

When they went out to the house, they discovered it was actually a "shingle style" house built in 1897, well over a hundred years after America's Colonial period.

There's been a wealth of architectural styles in the 225 years of this country's history, but for some reason the description -- "Colonial" -- seems to be a catch-all for many lesser-known home styles.

"If a real estate agent can possibly call a house Colonial, they'll do it," said Jim Wollen, head of the Dead Architects' Society, a local architectural research group.

Why care what style a house is? Aside from just being curious, a house is usually a person's biggest investment, and as with all investments, you want to know everything you can about it.

In some cases, a house's unique architectural style can increase its value.

Every historic house has certain clues that tell you what style it is. Architectural styles come and go exactly like clothing fashions because people, especially architects, simply get tired of the same old thing. Most of America's styles originated in England and took as many as 20 years to make it across the Atlantic.

There are no hard and fast cut-off dates for styles. In some places, they persisted for years before they faded away. Many styles were contemporaneous of each other and overlapped.

But what makes a Colonial home a Colonial home? Or a Four Square, a Four Square?

The answers can be found in a number historically accurate homes in the Baltimore and Annapolis areas. On Page 8L are 13 of some of the most popular styles and a description of what makes them unique.

Colonial Revival: 1890 to 1935

A Colonial Revival house is not the same as a Georgian or vernacular colonial house.

In the 1890s, America's nostalgia for the Colonial shifted from the relatively unadorned Shingle Style for a house that had historically accurate Georgian details. This home in Guilford is an excellent example with a broken pediment entry, water tables, string courses and end chimneys.

These houses are usually far larger and more ornate than their Georgian ancestors and were constructed until the middle of the Depression. The style was then simplified after World War II. In the recent real estate boom of the 1990s, the Colonial Revival made a come back but should never be mistaken for the highly crafted homes of the kind that were built in Guilford and Homeland.

Vernacular Colonial: 1634 to 1820

A Colonial house is one that was actually built in America's Colonial period and into the early years of the 19th century.

When the English colonists first came to Maryland and America, they followed the English medieval building tradition and built simple one- and two-story, wood or brick houses with steep wood shingled roofs with centered brick chimneys like this house in downtown Annapolis from the 1720s.

These houses, which have almost no ornamentation, usually have double-hung windows with six to 12 small panes (the technology to make glass in large sheets did not yet exist), usually flanked by wood shutters . The door is paneled with a transom above, and the foundation is usually stone or brick.

The second story overhang seen on some Colonial houses comes from this medieval tradition as does the framing, which is not wood studs (this doesn't come until the 1830s), but post-and-beam construction using logs shaved down to 8-by-10-inch sizes and pegged at the corners.

But building with post-and-beam required great carpentry skills so the colonists picked up a far simpler building method, one the Swedes brought to Delaware in the 1630s -- log construction. Once a log house was built, it was covered in clapboard or shingles or whitewashed until the owner could afford to clad it.

Gothic Revival: 1840 to 1860

This is the first of the Victorian styles. When a building is just called Victorian (after the 1837-1901 reign of Queen Victoria), the description is incomplete. It would be similar to saying a car is a Ford, but what model of Ford? This and the next four styles come under the heading of Victorian.

The Gothic Revival began in England in 1749 when a wealthy aristocrat remodeled his country home in a medieval castle-like style with pointed arch windows, turrets and battlements. Over the next century, country houses in England followed this fashion and in the late 1830s and 1840s, two American architects, Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing, published plan books that popularized the Gothic Revival style.

The Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland in Bolton Hill contains many of the style's trademark features, including a steep roof with a cross gable, at least one pointed Gothic arch window (a transom over the front door windows - large panes of glass could be made now) with a drip mold above and elaborate wood trim called bargeboards (woodworking machines could now mass produce such intricate ornament).

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