New England Architecture Style: An Overview

published on 10 March 2024

New England architecture style encapsulates a rich history that spans nearly 400 years, evolving from simple, medieval-inspired wooden homes to elaborate Victorian designs, and eventually embracing modernism. Here’s a quick overview to get you started:

  • Early Colonial Homes: Simple wood construction, steep roofs, small windows, and large central chimneys.
  • Georgian and Federal Styles: Symmetry, decorative moldings, and refined elegance with balanced window arrangements.
  • Greek Revival: Grand entrances, columns, and pediments reflecting democratic ideals.
  • Victorian Era: Diverse, with styles like Italianate and Queen Anne featuring ornate decorations and complex rooflines.
  • Shingle and Colonial Revival: Simplified designs with a focus on American traditions and nostalgia for the Colonial past.
  • Modern and Mid-Century Architecture: Embraces simplicity, practicality, and a blend of European modernism with local materials.

From the practicality of early settlers’ homes to the elegance of Georgian symmetry, the democratic ideals embodied in Greek Revival, the decorative exuberance of the Victorian era, the nostalgia of the Shingle and Colonial Revival styles, to the sleek lines of modern architecture, New England’s architectural landscape is a testament to a rich history and a dynamic blend of past and present. Alongside the evolution of styles, there’s a concerted effort to preserve these architectural treasures, ensuring New England's unique heritage endures.

Post-Medieval Architecture in Early Colonial Houses

The first homes built by European settlers in New England were simple and made mostly of wood. They had steep roofs to help snow slide off, small windows to keep the heat in, and big chimneys in the middle to warm up several rooms at once. These homes looked a lot like the medieval cottages in England, but with less decoration, showing the practical and straightforward lifestyle of the early settlers. As families got bigger, some houses were extended to have a sloped back part, known as saltbox, for extra space.

Establishing Georgian Order

By the 1700s, as towns got bigger, a new style called Georgian became popular. This style was all about balance and beauty, with brick houses, windows on both sides of the front door, and decorative touches like crown molding. However, many of these houses still kept some old features, like chimneys that weren't in the middle or additional back parts, mixing the new style with the old ways of building. This was the start of New England's tradition of blending new architectural styles with their own building methods.

Architectural Evolution Through the 18th and 19th Centuries

Federal Refinement of Georgian Style

Around 1780, a new style called Federal popped up. It was a bit fancier than the older Georgian style but kept some of the same ideas.

Key things about Federal style include:

  • Fancy door tops with half-circle or oval windows above
  • Interesting room shapes like ovals and circles
  • Thinner parts of the window, letting in more light
  • Fancy carved decorations on fireplaces, walls, and ceilings
  • Lighter and more delicate borders and trims

Overall, Federal style was about making things look nicer and more elegant, while still liking the balance and classic feel of the Georgian era.

The Greek Revival and its Democratic Ideals

In the 1820s and 1830s, people started really liking Greek-style buildings. This wasn't just because they looked cool, but because they stood for big ideas like democracy.

Things you'll see in Greek Revival include:

  • Big front part sticking out with a triangle top
  • Fancy front door with a window above and side windows
  • Big porch with columns
  • Triangle window fronts
  • Thick lines around the roof edge

Greek Revival buildings looked a bit like Greek temples, which made people think of important values like wisdom and fairness. This style wasn't just for big public buildings; houses were built this way too.

The Diversity of Victorian Architecture

By the mid-1800s, buildings got a lot more varied and fancy. This time is known as the Victorian era.

Some styles from this time, like Italianate, Second Empire, and Queen Anne, had:

  • Uneven fronts with towers, big windows, and complicated roofs
  • Lots of fancy decorations like brackets and wood trim
  • Bright colors
  • Big front doors and porches that go around the house

Thanks to catalogs that sold house parts, these fancy styles became popular in many places. Victorian homes stood out because they were so detailed and colorful, showing off a bit of luxury.

New England's Unique Contributions: Shingle and Colonial Revival

The Shingle Style and Colonial Revival architecture came about in New England towards the late 1800s. These styles show how people in New England took ideas from other places and made them their own, creating designs that really stand for what this area is about.

The Shingle Style: Simplicity and Unity

While the rest of the country was going all out with fancy Victorian houses, some architects in New England decided to keep things simple. The Shingle Style is all about using wood shingles all over the building to make everything look smooth and connected.

Key things to know:

  • The whole house is covered in wood shingles without a lot of breaks or decoration.
  • The roof might have different levels or parts that stick out, but it all blends together.
  • Big porches that feel like part of the house, not just added on.
  • Not much fancy decoration, maybe just some classic-looking columns or special windows.
  • Some houses have rounded parts or special doorways, but it’s all pretty understated.

This style was more about being uniquely American and keeping things low-key. It took some ideas from other styles but did them in a simpler way. You’d mostly see these houses by the coast, not everywhere.

Colonial Revival: Romanticized Nostalgia

As America got close to being 100 years old, people started to really love the old colonial days. This led to the Colonial Revival style, which tried to bring back the look and feel of early American houses.

Here’s what it includes:

  • Fancy windows and doors that make the front look symmetrical.
  • Windows that have lots of small panes and are usually in pairs.
  • A mix of details from different old styles, like Georgian or Federal.
  • Traditional materials like wood siding or brick.
  • Sometimes, there are extra parts like low wings or decorative railings.

This style wasn’t about being exactly like the old days but more about capturing the spirit of those times. It mixed old looks with new ways of building, making houses that both looked back and fit modern life. This style is still a big part of what makes New England special.

Modern Architecture in New England

As the 1900s went on, New England started seeing more modern buildings pop up, mixing with the older styles that many people loved. This new style focused on keeping things simple and useful, moving away from fancy decorations. It was a big change that mixed old New England styles with new ideas from Europe.

Emergence of the International Style

In the early 1900s, buildings made of glass and steel started to show up, bringing a new look from Europe to American cities. In the 1930s and 40s, New England got a few of these modern buildings, though not everyone was sure they liked them. For example, the Harvard Graduate Center by Gropius and Breuer was a bold move, and so were some sleek office buildings in Providence and Boston. These new designs were all about being practical and were quite different from the more traditional styles being built at the same time.

Mid-Century Regional Modernism

By the 1950s and 60s, New England started to adapt the modern style to fit better with the local scene. This new take kept the open spaces and lots of glass from modern design but added local touches like wood and stone. Some of the best examples mixed modern ideas with local styles, like houses on Cape Cod and in coastal Maine that used timber and stone but kept things simple.

Famous architects took these ideas further, designing public and commercial buildings. For instance, Boston City Hall combined modern concrete with a touch of local red brick. Other important buildings from this time include the Lincoln Center in Providence, which mixed glass and brick, and Yale’s Art & Architecture building by Paul Rudolph, known for its concrete design.

Present Contrasts & Connections

Now, these mid-century buildings are an accepted part of New England's look, even though people weren't sure about them at first. The area still sees new buildings that are modern, but there's also a lot of effort to blend the new with the old. For example, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine expanded with a design that's modern but nods to traditional New England houses. This mix of old and new keeps New England's architecture interesting and varied.

Keeping New England's Unique Buildings Safe

New England has a lot of old and special buildings that tell the story of the area's long history. Since people first settled here about 400 years ago, they've built homes and other buildings in styles you won't see anywhere else. From simple early settler homes to big fancy houses, these buildings are an important part of what makes New England special.

But as time goes on, keeping these old buildings in good shape is getting harder. More people, new buildings, and just the wear and tear of life can damage them. That's why some groups and people are working hard to make sure these buildings stay around for a long time.

Groups Working to Save Buildings

There are a few main groups that work to keep New England's old buildings safe:

  • Historic New England: This group looks after more than 100 old properties and lets people visit them. They take care of places like the Eustis Estate and the Sarah Orne Jewett House.

  • Providence Revolving Fund: This group focuses on fixing up old buildings in Providence, RI. They've helped save more than 290 buildings so far.

  • Maine Preservation: This group works all over Maine to keep old buildings safe. They've helped save more than 200 places since 1972.

  • Boston Preservation Alliance: This group helps protect old buildings in Boston. They also give tours and teach people about the city's history.

Big Projects to Fix Up Old Buildings

Some specific buildings show how much effort goes into keeping New England's history alive:

  • Mark Twain House, CT: This house was almost torn down, but now it's fixed up and people can visit. It's where Mark Twain wrote many of his famous books.
  • Newport Mansions, RI: These huge summer homes from the past have been fixed up and now millions of people come to see them every year.
  • First Period Homes, MA: These very old homes from the early days of New England have been kept safe by people who care about history. They show how people built houses long ago.
  • Victoria Mansion, ME: This big, fancy house in Portland was almost lost, but volunteers saved it. Now it's a museum showing off its beautiful design.

Keeping these old buildings safe is a big job. They need a lot of care to stay in good shape. But by working together, people are making sure that New England keeps its special look and history for many more years to come.


Glossary of Architectural Terms

Here's a simple guide to some common terms you'll hear when talking about New England architecture. These will help you understand the styles and features of different buildings:

Clapboard siding: This is when the outside walls of a building are covered with overlapping wooden boards. It's a waterproof way to protect the building and is very common in New England.

Saltbox shape: Imagine a house with a roof that slopes down at the back, making the house look like an old-fashioned salt container. This design was practical for adding more space.

Ell: When a family needed more room, they would add on a section to their house that stuck out to the side. This is called an 'ell.'

Gambrel roof: This is a type of roof that looks a bit like a barn's. It has two angles on each side, which makes the roof look like it has a kink in it. This design allowed for extra storage space upstairs.

Pediment: The fancy triangle you see above doors or windows on some older buildings. It's a classic decoration from styles like Federal and Greek Revival.

Palladian window: A big window that's divided into three parts. The middle part is usually a rounded arch and is bigger than the two side parts. This style is often found in more formal, classical buildings.

Column: These are the tall, cylindrical structures that hold up porches or entryways. They can be simple or very ornate, depending on the building's style.

Baluster: These are the little posts that hold up the railing on stairs or porches. They can be simple or have fancy designs.

Corbel: A chunk of material that sticks out from a wall to support something above it, like a roof or a shelf.

Queen Anne: A style of house from the late 1800s that's easy to spot because it has a lot of different shapes, materials, and decorative details all mixed together.

Shingle: A way of covering a building with small, flat pieces of wood, making the outside look smooth. It's a key feature of the Shingle Style, which is simpler and more natural-looking than some other styles.

International Style: A modern look from the mid-20th century that's all about being sleek and simple. These buildings often use a lot of glass and steel and don't have much decoration.

Hopefully, this makes it easier to picture what these terms mean when you're learning about New England's architecture!

Further Reading

Here are some easy-to-follow suggestions if you want to dive deeper into New England's special way of building and designing houses:


  • The Architecture of Historic Nantucket by Clay Lancaster - This book takes you through a photo journey of Nantucket Island, showing off the Cape Cod and Colonial styles that make it unique.

  • Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture by Annabel Jane Wharton - This book talks about the modern buildings from the early International Style that popped up in New England and all over the U.S.

  • American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker - It has pictures and stories of different house styles from all over the country, across various times.

  • Shingle Styles: Innovation and Tradition in American Architecture, 1874 to 1982 by Vincent J. Scully Jr. - Learn how the Shingle Style came to be in New England and how it changed coastal houses.

Online Resources

  • Historic New England - A group that works to keep New England's history alive. They have info on historic homes you can visit and a guide to different architectural styles.
  • Boston Preservation Alliance - They share stories about saving old buildings in Boston and offer tours to see the city's architecture.
  • Providence Architecture Guide - A website that shows off important buildings in Providence and lets you explore them through self-guided tours.
  • Maine Memory Network - An online museum with photos and documents about Maine's past, including its historic buildings.

These resources are a great place to start if you're curious about the unique styles of houses and buildings in New England from different times. Let me know if you're looking for more info on this interesting topic.


New England's buildings tell a story that's been going on for nearly 400 years. It started with simple houses that were practical and a bit like the ones in England. Then, as time went on, people started adding fancy touches and new styles, like the pretty Georgian houses and the grand Greek Revival buildings.

Later, during the Victorian era, houses got even fancier with lots of decorations. But then, some architects in New England wanted to go back to simpler designs, which led to the Shingle style and the Colonial Revival that looked back at America's early days with fondness.

In the 20th century, things got modern with buildings made of glass and steel, but there was always a way to mix the new with the old. This mix of the past and present is still happening today, with efforts to keep old buildings safe while adding new ones that fit in.

New England's architecture is special because it mixes old styles with new ideas, and it keeps changing while still holding on to its history. It's a mix that shows how the past and the future can look good together. By taking care of old buildings and blending them with new designs, New England can keep its unique look and feel for a long time.

What style is New England?

New England's traditional houses are mostly in the Colonial style. This style includes influences from English, Dutch, and French settlers from the 1600s and 1700s. These homes usually have two floors, a rectangular shape, sloped roofs, lots of small windows, and decorative shutters. They're often made with wooden siding or bricks.

What is a traditional New England style home?

Traditional New England Colonial homes typically have:

  • Two floors and a rectangular shape
  • Roofs that slope to the side or are slightly sloped all around
  • Bases that are a bit lifted off the ground
  • A decorative half-circle window over the front door
  • Fancy door frames with crowns or small porches, often half-circle or semi-circle shaped

You'll also see features like lots of small windows, wooden siding, brick chimneys, and doors in the middle.

What is the most common house style in New England?

The English Colonial style is very common in New England. This style reflects the homes of English settlers in the 1600s, with two floors, steep roofs, lots of small windows, brick chimneys, and wooden siding.

What is New England vernacular architecture?

New England's traditional buildings often used wood for the main structure and for the outside covering, like clapboard or wooden shingles. This simple way of building didn't change much for more than 100 years and is typical for the area.

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