What Is Southern Architecture?

A southern-style home.

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Sometimes referred to as "antebellum architecture," southern architecture is often defined by large homes on farms or plantations that feature massive, wrap-around porches, sloping, exterior staircases, large windows, and Greek-inspired columns. Because "antebellum" translates to "prewar" in Latin, true southern homes are those built prior to the Civil War in the 1860s—and it's estimated that fewer than 20 percent of these original structures still stand today.

Although classical southern architecture is defined by a specific time period, revivalist home builders have drawn inspiration from these dramatic southern homes for decades. Other architectural types, such as Louisiana's French Colonial homes, have provided inspiration, as well. Read on to learn more about southern architecture, including its history, must-have architectural elements, and where you'll find the largest collections of southern-style homes.

The History of Southern Architecture

Prior to the Civil War, neoclassical architectural styles, like Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italian, and other similar Mediterranean styles were popular among southern home builders. Although European building techniques were becoming extremely popular among American home owners, plantation and farm owners in the South chose these styles for their drama and practicality: The large, wrap-around porches provided coverage from the hot, southern sun; large windows allowed a breeze to pass through the home, as did exterior staircases and hallways; and high ceilings enabled heat to rise within the home, keeping the living areas cooler.

An image of a plantation home.
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Sometime between the 1830s and 1860s—prior to the American Civil War—there was a shift in the architectural techniques used on these plantation and farm homes. Over time, southern architecture blended dramatic architectural details inspired by European building with features practical for southern weather. Some of these features include:

  • Large, wrap-around porches. As previously mentioned, these porches protected the home from severe heat, as well as rain during bad weather and hurricanes.
  • Raised basements. Propping the home up on a raised basement protected the main living areas from flooding during storms and hurricanes.
  • Vaulted ceilings. Ceilings were heightened to alleviate the heat and humidity that accumulated in the house throughout the day.

Although southern architecture was extremely popular across the American South for decades, few true southern homes still stand today. As previously mentioned, it's estimated that fewer than 20 percent of pre-war southern homes remain intact. Additionally, southern architecture hasn't experienced a major resurgence, like Spanish Colonial or mid-century modern homes did in the 20th and 21st centuries. Although some homeowners may renovate and revive old southern homes, it's unlikely you'll find many new homes built in this style.

Must-Have Elements

It's rare to find a newer southern-style home, but there are several identifying characteristics you'll find in existing southern architecture throughout the American south. Some of these characteristics include:

A square, symmetrical exterior

Most southern-style homes are square structures with a squarely centered front door. Exterior doors are often flanked by tall, skinnier windows, or feature French doors for easier access to outside living spaces.

A raised basement

Torrential rains and hurricanes are common in the American south, so many homes were propped up on first-story basements. Not only did these basements protect the main living spaces from flooding, but they also provided additional storage space for the inhabitants.

A large, wrap-around porch

Perhaps the most recognizable element of southern-style homes, wrap-around porches provided shady areas to sit, as well as protection from the elements. On extremely hot days, they offered protection from the sun, and during the rainy season, they protected the living spaces from rain and flooding.

Greek-inspired columns

Borrowing inspiration from famous Greek structures, many southern homes had dramatic columns on the exterior of the home. They served a practical purpose, too—columns were often used to prop up second-story porches or balconies.

Tall ceilings

Tall, vaulted ceilings didn't just make southern homes appear grand, they helped alleviate the heat and humidity that accumulated inside the home, too. Heat rises, so ceilings were raised and vaulted to capture hot air above living spaces.

Winding, exterior staircases

Adding more dramatic flair to the homes' exteriors, many southern-style homes had sloping exterior staircases. The main purpose of these staircases was to cross-ventilate the home.

Where to Find Southern-Style Homes

As previously mentioned, you probably won't find many new construction homes in the southern style. However, you can find a large collection of southern homes across the American South in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee. Many southern-style homes have been converted into historic sites, but some original homes have inhabitants today.