American Colonial is an architectural style that first emerged under the period of colonial rule in the United States in the 1600s and 1700s. Today, the term American Colonial is generally shorthand for both the historical building style introduced by British colonists in New England, as well as the Colonial Revival style that proliferated in the 20th century and remains one of the most popular architectural home styles throughout the United States to this day.
Keep in mind that American Colonial architecture is also a broad-based umbrella term that encompasses a number of architectural styles that reflect the multi-cultural influence of early settlers to the U.S. These include saltbox-style homes, Georgian, Cape Cod, French Colonial, Spanish Colonial, and Dutch Colonial, among others.
History of American Colonial-Style Homes
The American colonies were settled by immigrants who brought their own architectural aesthetics and building know-how with them across the Atlantic. By adapting to the availability of local materials and weather conditions, they created what went on to become a signature American home style.
The first defining period of American Colonial-style homes were what is known as First Period British that came into prominence during British colonial rule. This dominant style is what most of us think of when we hear the words “American Colonial,” timber framed wood houses with simple windows, decorative shutters, and symmetrical forms anchored by a central door and a chimney or two.
The original American Colonials ceased to be built around the time of the American Revolution in 1765–1783, when the vogue for British architecture fell out of fashion as the new country asserted its independence. But a century later, the country’s centennial celebration of 1876 created a nostalgia that led to the Colonial Revival of 1880 to 1955, when architects borrowed and mixed elements of earlier building styles to create a variation of the originals that were suited to the times.
During the first wave of the Colonial Revival from 1880 to 1945, homes tended to be 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, but were good enough for suburbs around the country where they became ubiquitous.
In the late 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st, Neo-Colonial architecture took on a new and supersized variation in the specter of the McMansions that came to define the era and still haunt American neighborhoods to this day.
Colonial homes remain such an iconic part of the American architectural landscape that they have never really gone out of style, whether in regard to sought-after historic homes in New England or the myriad reproductions that have been constructed and continue to be built by developers today throughout the U.S., which are often branded as New Traditional.
Key Characteristics of American 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
Pros and Cons of American Colonial-Style Homes
Plain, simple, classic
Crowd-pleasing traditional style makes them easier to resell
Generally spacious rooms
Well suited for families and entertaining
Simple to decorate given the straightforward layout of rooms
Two-story layout with bedrooms upstairs is not ideal for the elderly or those with mobility challenges
Traditional formal style can be limiting for contemporary tastes and casual lifestyles
Spacious but separate rooms that aren’t friendly to the open-plan living preferred by many homeowners today
Prominent central staircase may make substantive renovations a challenge
Generous room volumes mean higher energy bills for heating and cooling
The familiarity of American Colonial style makes it feel generic to some