The colonial style is an architectural style that first emerged under colonial rule in the United States in the 1600s and 1700s. It remains one of the most popular architectural home styles throughout the United States. Today, the term "colonial" is generally shorthand for the historical building style introduced by British colonists in New England, as well as the Colonial Revival style that increased in the 20th century.
Colonial architecture is a broad-based, umbrella term including several architectural styles that reflect the multicultural influence of early settlers to the United States, such as saltbox-style homes, Georgian, Cape Cod, French Colonial, Spanish Colonial, and Dutch Colonial, among others.
Key Characteristics of Colonial-Style Homes
- Simple, traditional design
- Plain exteriors with minimal embellishments
- Built with wood, brick or stone according to the region and time period
- Rectangular and symmetrical in shape
- Central door
- Often features symmetrical front entrance columns
- Use of double sash windows
- Variations may include dormer windows
- Imposing central wood staircase with formal entry
- Small multi-pane windows on original styles, larger windows on Colonial Revival and Neo-Colonial or New Traditional styles
- Same number of windows on each side of the door
- Decorative window shutters
- Generally two and sometimes three stories tall
- Common living spaces located on the ground floor
- Bedrooms on second and/or third floors
- Steeply pitched roofs with side gables
- Central chimney or double chimneys with one located at each end
- One room deep, two or three rooms wide
- Colonial Revival may include a garage that creates a more asymmetrical facade
- Generally painted in muted neutral colors
Types of Colonial-Style Homes
The Saltbox building style has a steeply pitched, asymmetrical roof on one side, often with clapboard siding. These simple, clean-lined structures were built by early settlers who used local timber and post-and-beam construction. They were built around a central chimney that provided heating throughout the house. They are one of the oldest examples of Colonial-style architecture and remained a popular home style choice in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Georgian-style houses are known for being perfect examples of symmetry, using the golden ratio as their guiding architectural element. They are usually square or rectangular, with at least two chimneys, one on on each side of the roof. The front door is perfectly centered at the front of the house and acts as the dividing line between two symmetrical halves. The front door is adorned with pilasters (rectangular columns), often with ornamental cornices, molding, and pediments. They were mostly built during the reigns of Britain’s four King Georges, between 1714 and 1830.
Cape Cod architecture is named for the Massachusetts coastal region, where 17th-century English colonists had adapted half-timber hall and parlor houses used in England to better match the New England climate. Built from 1690 to 1850, the homes were boxier and had a lower-slung silhouette to stand up to the elements. The style is simple and clean-lined, with a rectangular silhouette, with a steep roof and a central door.
Cape Cod Revivals cropped up from the 1920s to the 1950s, which helped popularize the style, spreading it all over New England and across the United States.
French Colonials are highly prevalent in the American Southeast, particularly Louisiana. They are known for their square, symmetrical styling, steeply pitched roofs, and expansive, wrap-around porches on both lower and upper levels. French-style double doors are used for the front door, which is centered on the house and usually flanked by two windows. The rooms had high ceilings to accommodate the heat and tall skinny windows to aid cross ventilation.
Known for their white stucco walls, red clay roof tiles, wooden beams, and rustic appearance, Spanish Colonial homes are extremely popular throughout the American Southeast, Southwest, and California. Most Spanish Colonial homes have some kind of interior or exterior courtyard, usually in the center of the house. They first appeared in North America between the 1600s and mid-1800s, when Spanish settlers arrived and began building their homesteads.
You can spot a Dutch Colonial home by its "Dutch roof." It has a gambrel roof, which is symmetrical and sloping on each side. Dutch Colonial homes are wide, with roofs featuring long eaves extending over the sides, making the house look barn-like. Historically, both sides of the exterior had a porch. The home is constructed of stone or brick, while the doors and window shutters are made of wood. The houses usually have a chimney on either one or both ends. The style was popularized in the 1700s and remained a classic style in the American Northeast.
In the 17th century, the British shared a taste for classically inspired designs from ancient Greeks and Romans, as evidenced by pilasters or columns around the door and shutters around the windows. Like French Colonial and Georgian architecture, symmetry was key and achieved by exacting placement of the door in the center, framed by symmetrical windows placed on two stories of the home. Wood and brick were the most common building materials.
A great example of Southern Colonial style homes is the estate homes in the South with colonnades extending across the front of the house. These large two- to three-story homes were set far off from the main road, accessed via a long drive, and featured a portico or front patio behind the colonnade. Extensive ornate molding can be found inside and outside the house. This style is also considered "Greek Revival."
When America celebrated its centennial in the late 1800s, the Colonial Revival architectural style emerged as a nod to the country's humble Colonial beginnings but was elevated with Victorian-era architectural stylings. Colonial Revival took off in the early 20th century featuring simple layouts, symmetrical window designs, and gabled, hip, or gambrel roofs combined with ornate Victorian features, porticos, moldings, and large windows.
Pros and Cons of Colonial-Style Homes
Plain, simple, classic
Timeless appeal aids resale
Generally spacious rooms
Well suited for families and entertaining
Simple to decorate given the straightforward layout of rooms
Two-story layout not ideal for those with mobility challenges
May be too traditional for contemporary tastes
Separate rooms aren’t friendly to open-plan living
Generous room volumes mean higher energy bills
The familiarity of the style may make it feel generic
Colonial-Style Home Decor
Colonial-style decor should evoke a feeling of stately elegance. The interior often features a grand entrance hall, wide staircase, polished wood floors, millwork, and wainscoting. Fireplaces were also focal points in the room.
However, early Colonial style was very simple, straightforward, and rustic. The furniture was handmade, wooden, with hand-sewn patchwork quilts. Later furniture styles included cabriole chairs, claw-foot tables, and highboys. Other popular materials used during the period were rattan, wicker, reed, sisal, jute, and wool woven textures, including braided rugs on the floors. The color palette was muted, using calm tones often paired with soft white walls.
Wood beam architecture was incorporated into the construction, and wood tones were used throughout the house, including as window frames, which often used dark timber paneling. Interior and louvered shutters and draperies were commonly used to surround windows. In homes with more ornate European influence, valances with sweeping cascades and damask, velvet, and brocade curtains adorned the windows.
For more opulent homes, the 17th-century French-style toile wallpaper ruled the day. The paper featured pastoral scenes in its pattern with trees, flowers, animals, and cottages.
History of Colonial-Style Homes
The first American Colonial-style homes developed during a period of British colonial rule. The homes were timber-framed wood houses with simple windows, decorative shutters, and symmetrical forms anchored by a central door and a chimney or two. Then these "original American Colonials" stopped being built around the American Revolution in 1765–1783, when British architecture fell out of fashion as the new country asserted its independence.
However, a century later, for the country's centennial celebration of 1876, the Colonial Revival style emerged from 1880 to 1955. Architects borrowed and mixed elements of earlier building styles to create a variation of the originals suited to the times. The first wave of Colonial Revival homes from 1880 to 1945 were well constructed from quality materials.
But between 1945 and 1955, a newer crop of post-war Neo-Colonials sprung up in American suburbs that lacked the craftsmanship and charm of the originals. Still, it was good enough for suburbs nationwide, where they became ubiquitous. Then, in the late 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st, Neo-Colonial architecture took on a new and supersized variation in the form of McMansions that came to define the era and still make up American neighborhoods to this day.
Colonial homes remain an iconic part of the American architectural landscape that never seems to go out of style. They appear as sought-after historic homes in New England and as reproductions. They continue to be built by developers today throughout the United States and are now termed "New Traditional."
What makes a house a Colonial style?
The hallmark of a Colonial-style home is its symmetry and square or rectangular shape. The door is centered, the windows match on each side, and usually, there are at least two to three stories.
Why are Colonial-style homes popular?
Colonial-style homes are so popular because they have curb appeal. They are also in a modular shape, making them easy to work with if you plan to redesign.
What is the difference between a Colonial home and a traditional home?
"Colonial" refers to a specific architectural style of home, and the term "traditional" applies to many styles of homes considered traditional, including Ranch, Craftsman, and Colonial.
What rooms are in a Colonial house?
A Colonial-style house typically has two to three stories. The first floor has an entranceway, kitchen, dining room, and living room. Larger homes may also have a library, sitting room, and bathroom on the first floor. The second and third floors house the sleeping quarters and additional bathrooms.
What colors are Colonial?
Colonial colors are muted and simple. The palette mirrors the colors of the building materials used by early Americans, such as wood tones and brick. The standard colors of the day were brown, burnt orange, tawny red and pink, rich tan, and yellow.