So You Want to Buy an Old House — Part One

By Patrick F. Cannon           

Some people buy old houses with the intention of restoring them to their former glory. While they may not fully understand the trials that await them, they have at least some idea of what they have and what the house should ultimately look like. Others buy old houses because they’re relatively cheap. Real estate agents often describe these properties as needing “tender loving care.” A little “updating” and some “sweat equity” could, they contend, easily double their value.

Alas, in all too many cases the new owner barges ahead with little consideration of what architectural or historical value the house might have. It may  end up being perfectly “livable,” but  any  architectural significance may be  lost forever.

On the other hand, if the new owner were armed with at least a rudimentary knowledge of architectural styles before ripping off ornamental brackets or other details, he or she might do a sympathetic restoration instead of a mere remodeling. It is in this spirit that I have prepared this basic primer on historic building styles one is apt to come across in this country.

Of course, one cannot hope to cover every style in the space available. For example, I have left out the Georgian. Never having been in the Peach State, it seemed presumptuous to include it. Nevertheless, what follows should suffice for most cases.

Colonial. True Colonial houses are quite rare, understandably-irate Native-Americans having burned many of them down. Later owners may have thought them too plain and drafty and thoughtlessly replaced them. Those that do survive are simple and unadorned, with an occasional dormer or gable to relieve their dullness. The early settlers, after all, had more interest in survival than art. True colonial houses rarely appear on the market, since most are now being used for local historical societies or gift shops.

Dutch Colonial. Since their forbearers had invented gin, the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam were rather less stiff-necked than the English Puritans in New England. The distinguishing feature of their houses was the Gambrel roof, an invention of Alois van Gambrel. He had actually started with the intention of using a hip roof, but even the Dutch thought that might be a bit too racy. The Dutch never made it big in America, so most of the better surviving examples of Dutch Colonial are found tucked away in the shabbier comers of Manhattan, Harlem and Yonkers. The finest extant example now houses the offices of the Knickerbocker Holiday Inn, an excellent example of adaptive reuse.

Spanish Colonial. This is a tricky one, since authentic examples are often indistinguishable from most of the homes in the Southwest and Southern California and all Mexican restaurants. People of taste would do well to steer clear of this style (and perhaps Mexican restaurants too, depending on the state of their digestion).

Federal. As you might imagine, this noble and austere style was developed by members of the Federalist Party as a reaction to the excesses of  the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, feelings ran so high during this turbulent period that all Confederalist-style buildings were burned to the ground by members of the Federal Institute of Architects (F.I.A.), disguised for the occasion as Canadians. As a result of a later compromise between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, all Federal houses exhibit lofty and spacious rooms for the owners and small, dark and gloomy ones for the servants or slaves.

Classic Revival. As you might expect, itdidn’t take long for the mercurial Jefferson to break with both Adams and the Federalist style. One can imagine the revulsion he must have felt as his once-cherished architectural principles came under attack by – and ultimately succumbed to – monarchist tendencies. The Classic Revival was an altogether more Republican movement, whose impetus came from Plato’s Republic, wherein we read: “Let us build our houses in the Classic style, so that ages hence may know that we were free men.”   The admiring Jefferson was so taken with this profound sentiment that he had it chiseled on the pediment at Monticello.

In contrast to the often-austere Federal houses, those of the Classic Revival were generally freer in plan. Whimsical wings added to their charms. A typical feature was the “Great Hallway,” which marched with precision from front to back door. From there, it was but a short stroll through a charming pergola to the facilities. These were often quite elaborate, with colonnades and separate doors for the ladies and gents. Four-holers were not uncommon. Nor were built-in bookcases, since the waterborne diseases of the day sometimes necessitated prolonged stays.

You will be familiar with the usual half-moon cut out on the doors of more rustic outhouses. Classic Revival facilities were more likely to be pierced by Rousseau’s  profile, thus bringing in the light of pure reason (and removing the vapors of the moment). As this style was popular right through the middle of the 19th Century, many fine examples survive, from the rockbound coast of Maine to the back lots of Hollywood.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

(Next week – The Eminent Victorians and beyond)

2 thoughts on “So You Want to Buy an Old House — Part One

  1. Hi Uncle Pat, Is there any subject you’re not familiar with? You continue to fascinate me, love your writing skills! So prolific!


  2. The old architectural style you see most often here in rural America, aside from barns, is the simple I House, so named not for the resident’s egotism but for its elongated rectangular floor plan. Two stories high, it often features a porch, an attached kitchen/pantry area forming an L, and in special examples Palladian embellishments, gables, arches, brackets and fancy mill work providing visual interest to the otherwise flat facade. Because these houses are so basic and adaptable, they have largely survived where more elaborate designs have, as you noted, been preserved for non-residential functions. Funeral homes and lawyers’ offices come to mind, and in the case of Classic (Roman) architecture and Palladio, banks and early federal buildings (now dominated by Brutalism).

    Had a good laugh over those half-moon (or crescent moon?) cutouts that were replaced by the romantic Rousseau’s profile, though I think you might have meant Voltaire, as Rousseau was largely the source of the vapors that brought about Marxism and other collectivist fantasies. When we were grad students here, Jill and I lived in a shack that had an outhouse (non-functioning) in the back yard. Not sure if it is still standing, or if it had a moon vent.

    When we were scouting out the area before we decamped from Illinois, we stayed at a charming place outside of town, the Red Rabbit Inn, twin contemporary cabins each modeled after an I house: So the style survives.


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