Skip to content

The Center Hall Colonial Dilemma

December 7, 2010

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2010 2:30 pm

    Colonials and its classy cousin, saltboxes, are great.
    A good development is the overhang and front porch, adding invitation to the composition, and marking the entrance.
    If your client wants something grand, consider columns, or a raised portico. Stone base courses all around the house can look good.
    If inspiration is required, look at Greene & Greene, HH Richardson if you like heavy, FLLW again

  2. ben permalink
    March 3, 2011 4:45 pm

    This is a great description of the CH Colonial. My wife and I just purchased one and are desperately trying to figure out how to configure, how to open it up, layout, design, etc. Do you have any good design blogs that specifically focus on this type of house?


  3. March 4, 2011 8:03 am

    Sadly I do not, but the wonderful historic overview of how New England farmhouses evovled truly enlightened me: “Little House, Big House, Back House, Barn” – pretty sure it’s on Amazon

  4. May 18, 2013 9:33 pm

    Howdy clever points.. now why didn’t i think of these? Off topic slightly, is this page sample merely from an abnormal installation or else do you employ a custom-made template. I use a webpage i’m seeking to improve and properly the visuals is probably going one of the key issues to complete on my list.

  5. July 27, 2013 8:16 am

    First off I would like to say fantastic blog!
    I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints? Thanks!

  6. July 27, 2013 8:59 am

    I wish I knew – I have just had an thought that has been fed by several insights/incites – and, right now -NOW – I will hit it. But other times it is both forced and frustrated. I could never write for a living. Its hard enough scraping enough filthy lucre from designing buildings…but thats another story – actually kinda about what I am now going to write about! THANK YOU FOR RSVPing

  7. Alex Dickson permalink
    June 30, 2014 9:43 pm

    “Little House, Big House, Back House, Barn” was written by one of my (and Brian O’Looney’s) professors at the SARUP – UWM. He was a fantastic professor and a dedicated researcher. I love that book – it was very influential in my own masters thesis on rural land design. Love reading that you have and value it too.
    Your thoughts on the Center Hall Colonial design are interesting – I hadn’t thought about it as open but that resonates. I love the style – so simple and yet fulfilling.

  8. Rod Brown permalink
    July 1, 2014 10:21 pm

    My better half and I recently bought a CHC and we love it. I grew up in one, so maybe that has something to do with it. I can see how some might think they are generic in design, especially if you live in the “younger” states. I live in a very old town in Massachusetts so the colonials are actually from colonial times…well most are. I’ll take one over a ranch any day. The key to a colonial is accessories to make it stand out (paint color, landscaping, trim, etc).

    Many people seem vexed over what to do with the formal living room (we call it a parlor) and formal dining room. The answer is…do whatever you want! Rules be damned. Having “extra” rooms is a good problem to have IMHO. I turned my parlor into a greenhouse. It gets nice light so I filled it with a few chairs and TONS of plants…and a small tree.

    We looked at a lot of “open concept” houses and I’m glad I’m not living in one. It is just as bad as too many disjointed rooms. Many of marriages will be lost in these homes. Ten years from now, people will be building walls. The great thing about a CHC is that the rooms are large and connected on the ground floor. I have four ways to enter my kitchen and each of those connecting rooms connect to another room. The design has a nice flow. We are also lucky in that our center staircase goes up to a second floor foyer, which opens the design up further.

    Anyway… A CHC is a tried and true design. It may not be sexy, but it is classy.


  1. Page not found « Saved By Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: