In the early days of America’s founding, along the eastern seaboard, English colonists built robustly beautiful homes that are today often referred to as Colonial. However, Georgian, or more descriptively American Georgian, better describes these houses and distinguishes them from earlier colonial traditions of our English, Dutch, Spanish, and French colonists. The term Georgian refers to the period of British history encompassing the reigns of Kings George I through IV (1714-1830). American Georgian architecture is most prevalent prior to and just after our revolution, after which other stylistic influences drawn from discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum captivated popular taste.
Our American Georgian architecture is part of a conversation over time which began in the temples of ancient Rome; develops during the Renaissance in Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura; and continues in England first in the work of Inigo Jones and then in the Anglo-Palladian tradition promoted by Lord Burlington.
This classical tradition of architecture was brought to America’s shores by the mid-18th century when patrons and craftsmen were using English treatises, pattern, and builder books, such as Gibbs’ Book of Architecture (1728). Great American houses such as Westover, Wilton, Mount Airy, Drayton Hall, and equivalent exemplars in the north, owe their appearance to this millennia-long conversation. And though their materials varied greatly from north to south and they varied in character from Baroque to Palladian, these houses were all tied by their common classical root as interpreted through Renaissance Italy and Georgian England.
A simple rectangular mass, generally two and a half stories high, two rooms deep with a center hall, and five to seven bays wide, the American Georgian house is a spare form ornamented with restraint at carefully chosen moments. Often this central block was added to with hyphens and wings creating a five part plan. Roofs varied with more steeply pitched gambrel, hipped, or gabled roofs in the north and hipped, clipped hipped, or gabled roofs in the south. This style’s beauty resides in its proportions and symmetrical disposition of its elements. Windows were arranged symmetrically about the front door and aligned one atop the other, often with upper windows diminishing to be narrower and shorter. Windows were double hung wood sashes with heavy muntins and small panes of glass, typically 9 over 9, 9 over 12, or even 12 over 12.
The most expressive aspect of these houses was at the entry. Often copied directly from pattern books, entries were created with elaborate classical details and occasionally glass as a transom or fan light. Equally important to the character of these houses are the materials used. In the north wood siding predominates, most often beveled and lapped. More typical in the south was brick, often in Flemish bond, accented with shaped water tables, glazed headers, and rubbed or gauged brick at openings. Interiors were as well-proportioned and detailed. They were typically paneled with mantelpieces and door and window surrounds being highlights in main rooms.
There is a uniquely American spirit in these houses. A spirit that borrows freely from what is best, adapts it creatively in difficult conditions, and forges something wholly new that nonetheless embodies immutable ideals. In the case of the American Georgian house, beauty is that ideal. An excellent resource is Great Georgian Houses of America, Volumes I and II as reprinted by Dover Publications. The author wishes to draw attention to Fiske Kimball’s introductory essay in this book and to acknowledge the Wythe House in her hometown of Williamsburg as the model for the sketch showing typical details of an American Georgian house. More on America’s traditional domestic architecture and classical architecture may be found at my online bookshop.
Copyright for all images and text, unless in the public domain or otherwise noted, Christine G. H. Franck, Inc.