The Center Hall Colonial Dilemma
The “Colonial” is really a wide open “style” that in truth has a very limited number of common denominators. But its genesis was survival. Not only did its original builder’s survive amid the wild world they built in, but the style has survived to be a dominant player in many spec building markets – most commonly, in the east and south.
When the early colonists came to North America, they had to put a roof over their head quickly or they would soon be dead. They had to come up with a dwelling that shed water and would protect them against animals, weather and anyone who wanted to steal what they had taken so much courage and effort to build for themselves.
Given those circumstances the original “Colonial” homes had to be built quickly. Speed in building meant that Colonial houses were rectangular, symmetrical, with a gable roof, and a central line of support for the floors that paralleled those rectangular walls.
Stylistically, the next layer were regularly spaced, relatively small windows. This was due to the fact that glass was a precious commodity and doors were harder to make than walls. Therefore, the openings in a Colonial are literally by rote with even spacing and most often, the front door being dead center on the front of the façade.
The Colonial Revival suburban macro-aesthetic has many, many variations – “Federal,” “Saltbox,” “Garrison” – but the “Center Hall” is the easiest to market universally. It has a double-height, longer face to the street and narrower gabled ends facing the side yards. It is a rectangular box with a central front door that opens into a narrow middle bay that has a straight run stair to one side and a hallway to the other with walls on either side carrying the weight of the floors above.
Like so many types of American domestic architecture, this small acorn has exploded into gigantism where “Center Hall” Colonials can be overbuilt.
The Colonial Revival movement after World War I launched marketing that latched onto the juggernaut that was Colonial Williamsburg (kind of an Ur Disneyland that was championed and built by George Wythe). It essentially offered up a sense of history to the children of 19th century immigrants in houses that had a uniquely American presence.
As noted, there are other non-“Center Hall” Colonials such as the “Garrison” where the second floor overhangs the front by a foot or two, the “Saltbox” that have roofs high in the front and run down to one story at the back and “Federals” that can have a columnated front entry or have a gable face to the street.
The siding of a Colonial is either painted or clear finished wood, clapboard or shingles often with shutters and paneled front doors – now often made with imitation products. Windows are always (always) made with divided light paning (“grills” in current parlance) and “should” be double-hung.
“Colonial” is the essential baseline for almost all residential thinking in American culture. The variants are there and are described in this blog but in truth, the Colonial is the Mac & Cheese of our culture’s domestic architecture fare.