Pocahontas was chatting with her friend Captain John Smith, comparing her reed-covered hut with his sturdy log home. "Hey John," she asked, "What style is your house?"
"I'm not sure," Smith answered, "I think it's a Colonial."
Most American homes contain some elements of Architectural style; some are "pure" examples of style, but most have bits and pieces of different styles. The job of identifying a home's style is a little easier if you know a bit of history and look at a few key features including massing, roof shape, window size and placement, and detailing.
Most American Colonists were English, so most Colonial homes are derived from English styles. The earliest were based on old medieval homes, easily identified by simple massing, a few small windows, and massive chimneys. The New England saltbox with its lower back roofline is a common adaptation of the medieval style; Dutch Colonials have similar massing but are distinguished by their distinctive gambrel roof style.
Interest in English Colonial architecture grew tremendously with the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia in the early 20th century. A great many suburban homes of the 1930s and 1940s are based on the Colonial Williamsburg model and that influence continues today.
Georgian Colonial style is very common and has many variations. The best-known Georgian homes are of red brick, although wood siding is also common. Georgian homes are simply massed; usually have a centered front door; double-hung windows; and a gabled or hipped roof. Georgians range in decoration from the very plain to the very elaborate.
Revival and Eclectic Styles
Home designers and builders have been influenced by styles from earlier times throughout American history. In the 19th Century, many homes were based on classical models.
Greek Revival homes have very simple forms, often just a single rectangular block. Taking cues from Greek temples, builders added a front porch with massive columns, and a very heavy cornice line at the roof.
Italianate styled homes emphasize the vertical and are almost always very elaborately decorated. The cornice line at the roof of an Italianate is notable for wide overhangs and large scrollwork brackets, and the windows are often crowned with ornately carved headers.
Colonial Revivals aren't copies of original Colonials; rather they're liberal interpretations of all shapes and sizes, using Colonial details and elements for inspiration. The Colonial Revival style was extremely popular during the early 20th Century and almost always has a front porch, a detailed cornice line, double hung windows, and symmetrical massing. Many new homes that don't fit into other stylistic categories might be best classified as Colonial Revivals.
Tudor is a very free-form style. Typically they're very asymmetrical with very steeply pitched roofs. A wide variety of material is seen on the outside, although the best-known examples include some "half-timbering" - areas of stucco or brick broken up with wood timbers. The entry of a Tudor home is often modest but heavy, and windows are broken up with many small panes. Tudor style was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s and is seeing a comeback today.
"Victorian" refers to a group of styles popular in America during the late 19th century that was made possible in part by the invention of new framing techniques.
Queen Anne is the most common Victorian style and is characterized by an irregular shape, a steeply pitched roof, elaborately carved details, and large porch. Queen Annes are known for their multi-hued color schemes and complex siding and trim details.
Shingle style is uniquely American in origin, and was one of the first styles to be embraced by society Architects of the late 1800s. Shingle style homes are often similar in massing to the Queen Anne style, but as the name suggests, used wood shingle siding as exterior cladding. Shingle style homes make a point of avoiding elaborate exterior detailing and trim.
Early 20th Century
In the first half of the 20th century American Architects began developing new home styles instead of relying on classical and European models for inspiration.
Among the more notable American styles is Prairie, popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright but practiced in various forms throughout the country. Prairie homes are typically long and low with deep roof overhangs; windows are often grouped together. Porches are common and usually supported by massive columns. The Prairie style wasn't in fashion long but strongly influenced hundreds of thousand of "ranch" homes across the country.
Craftsman style began in California and quickly became the preferred style for small homes across the country until about 1930. Small Craftsman homes are usually called Bungalows and are characterized by low-pitched gabled roofs with wide overhangs. Details such as beams and brackets are very common. A Craftsman home has a "hand-crafted" look that continues throughout the interior.
Late 20th Century
After a period of little interest in "styled" homes, good design is making a comeback. Some older styles are popular again including Georgian Colonial and Craftsman, and a few new styles have been developed that are fashionable in many parts of the country.
Classifying a late 20th Century home can be difficult as they're often a mix of elements from different styles. But most homes have at least one strong feature that puts closer to one style than another. Find that dominant feature and you'll be on the right track to naming the style.