How to learn house styles
Identifying styles of house architecture can add to your fun as you explore your city or suburb on foot, by bicycle, or by car.
It requires just a little time and effort to train your eye to notice details and construction features that characterize each style.
You might begin your research by getting two books. The handy-size paperback, ''Identifying American Architecture,'' by John Blumenson, published by the American Association for State and Local History ($6.75), includes photos and labels architecture parts as well as giving brief descriptions of the styles.
A more comprehensive sourcebook, Marcus Whiffen's ''American Architecture Since 1780'' (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press), is available at most public libraries.
Most house buffs don't have to start at ground zero because they are usually familiar with at least some of the more common styles. But they often can't identify the less-common styles, or they may confuse generally similar styles.
That's where research and observation are necessary.
Before the establishment of architecture as a profession, many homes were built by carpenters. By the mid-19th century, house builders were using pattern books produced by authors such as Andrew Jackson Dowling.
After the Civil War the well-to-do commissioned architects to design their mansions. By the early years of the 20th century, architects also were designing houses for the middle-class market and adapting the more-popular styles to meet the booming demand for houses.
American house styles run the gamut from simple frame cottages with little detailing to imposing mansions inspired by European castles and manor houses.
It's a good idea to start taking photographs or color slides from the start. You can also branch out and include churches, public buildings, and multifamily dwellings.
Here are some of the most popular house styles you're apt to find in your city or suburb and their general characteristics:
Federal (or Adam). Dating to the mid-1770s, the Federal style is light and graceful with narrow windows, porches with slender columns, doorway fanlights and sidelights, a low roofline, tall chimneys, and shutters on several floor levels.
Carved ornamentation is geometric and delicate and the houses are box- or rectangle-shaped. The style is named for the three Adam brothers who were architects in England from 1760 to 1780.
Georgian Colonial. Popular from about 1730 to 1780, the style is most easily recognized by the two-story symmetry of windows, center doorway with ornate semicircular hood, steep roof with several dormers, and brick or frame construction.
More elegant Georgian houses had two-story front porticos and balustrades. Chimneys are large and rise high above the roof.
Greek Revival. This style of architecture began around 1800 and perhaps the first example was Benjamin Henry Latrobe's Philadelphia Bank of Pennsylvania.
The style imitates classical Greek buildings and temples with several columns supporting the front entrance, triangular-shaped roof, doorway detailing, and a simple, rectangular shape.
The style became popular again after the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and lasted until after World War I.
Victorian Gothic. The style was a reaction against the formal Greek Revival with detailing under the eaves, steep-pitched roofs, wooden-clapboard or board-and-batten construction, wide front porches, and a front entrance on one side.
Houses have large bay windows, while the windows have arched wooden hoods. The style was popular from the end of the Civil War until the late 1880s.
Italianate architecture was inspired by the Italian Tuscany country house. Popular at the same time as Victorian Gothic, the style features ornate wood detailing with two-story bay windows, wide eaves with rows of large brackets, windows with ornate pediments often rounded, and balconies with large balustrades, rooftop cupolas, and massive, tall chimneys.
Queen Anne houses originated during the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition, when the British brought the style from England to build two houses for the commissioner and staff.
The style follows a very irregular plan, mixing textures and materials. It includes tall corner turrets with cone-shaped roofs, the use of many gables, a steep roofline, different shapes and sizes of windows, two-story bays, tall chimneys, and design patterns on vertical surfaces.
Shingle-style houses originated in New England and were in vogue in the Midwest in the 1880s and 1890s. Houses are sheathed with shingles, often dark brown, and roofs are often gambrel or hipped.
There is little decoration or detailing, and windows are small and set in rows along the sides.
Chateauesque houses, popular from the early 1890s to about 1910, borrowed their style from English and French chateaus.The style is recognized by the tall chimneys, steep hipped roofs, wall dormers, round turrets, arched windows, and ornate railings.
Construction is of masonry, stone, brick, or a combination, and roofs are topped with metal railings or openwork crests. The elegant style is also called Francis I after the French King who ruled during the early 1500s.
Bungalow houses, popular throughout the US from 1900 to about 1930, originated in colonial India in the homes of British colonial officials. Bungalows are a story and a half with wide, low roofs. They are built of brick or wood, and have low, wide gables in the front. There are usually enclosed porches or sunrooms, projecting doorway roofs, and brackets under the entryway roofs.
Prairie School style. This form of architecture is typically and by origin Midwestern and was popular from the late 1890s until after World War I. The style was a complete and determined break with the older styles, which were borrowed from Europe. Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples created the style to make their houses flow with the landscape.
Prairie houses are two or three stories high and have strong horizontal lines. They are characterized by wide roof overhangs; low, wide hipped roofs; end porches or carports; and tall, narrow windows that often have geometric-patterned leaded glass.
Details are scarce and houses are wood frame and plastic with massive chimneys.
Spanish colonial houses copy the early Southwest homes of the 17th and 18th centuries. They have red tile roofs, white brick or plastered walls, arched doorways, balconies with wrought-iron railings and window grills, and side walls with arched doorways.
Other house styles found almost everywhere in the nation include the Dutch Colonial with gambrel roof and large central dormer; the New England Colonial with projecting second story and gabled roof; the Eastlake with extensive carved-wood ornamentation under the eaves and wide porches and verandas; the starkly modern International house with flat roof and cantilevered upper floors; and the Contemporary style, both ranch and split level, developed from the Prairie School.
A word of caution: You'll find that many houses do not fit any recognized style. Accept the fact that they can't be categorized and appreciate them for their independence and often imaginative combination of the best features of several styles.