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The Evolving Colonial

See why colonials -- our earliest style homes -- are considered the most enduring and adaptable.

The colonial home is as much a reflection of our immigrant heritage as an architectural style. In the days of our infancy, before the colonies became a nation, the term colonial could be applied to every hut and house the settlers built. After the United States was formed, the emerging style that evolved since 1700 continued to develop into the formal, gracious look we now think of as colonial.

Early immigrants from England, France, Spain, Scandinavia and elsewhere found life in the untamed New World difficult, and they had no architectural plans to draw on — only their memories of home and the styles they'd known. Short on time, money and architectural know-how, they created simple homes, using whatever materials were available — primarily wood but also stone and clay.

English settlers to New England and the Southern colonies built timber-framed, clapboard-clad or occasionally brick cottages not unlike the farmhouses of home. French immigrants to what is now Louisiana created homes with steep hipped roofs and often wide porches, whereas the Spanish crafted low masonry buildings, roofed with tile, tar or sometimes thatch, in Florida, Texas, California and the Southwest.

The builders of those early colonials prized shelter over beauty. Houses were often asymmetrical, with small windows and little decorative detail. They began small — often with only one or two rooms — and grew as the family and its prosperity increased.

As the 17th century gave way to the 18th, the influence of Renaissance style came to these shores. Houses in the emerging Georgian style might be deceptively simple looking, but they were typically symmetrical; featured decorations for windows, door frames and cornices. The houses of this era were designed, not merely constructed.

The Adam colonial (circa 1780-1820) was an extension of Georgian style, with Palladian windows, fanlights over doors, ornate entablatures and decorative entry porches, or porticos.

Colonial style culminated with the early classical, or Roman, revival (circa 1770-1830), which appropriately marked the transition to a republican form of government. The Roman revival is sometimes called Jeffersonian classicism because the third president was such a prominent proponent. His masterpiece, Monticello, demonstrates in grand fashion the pedimented portico and Roman columns characteristic of the early classical revival.

Of course, no style goes on forever. Jeffersonian classicism was followed by the Greek revival, which took hold in the early to mid-19th century. But the elements of colonial style remain part of our architectural vocabulary, and many modern homes borrow freely from the classic, graceful components that expressed the dignity and ambitions of a young and growing nation.

A Home for the Human Condition

The symmetrical Georgian colonial, with its predictable floor plan, is a surprisingly adaptable design. In the original Georgians — built from the early 1700s through around 1780 — the first floor consisted of four equal-sized rooms (parlors, a dining room and a bed chamber) joined by a large central entry hall and a central staircase. Upstairs the hall joined four corner bedrooms. Note the absence of a kitchen and bathrooms — typically relegated to outbuildings.

In a Georgian-style home built today, the parlor becomes the living room; the dining room stays the same. The bed chamber on the first floor can remain so or evolve into a den. The fourth room on the main floor is now a kitchen. The upstairs bedrooms are as necessary as ever, though one might be transformed into a home office. In some cases, the cellar has been changed into a family room.

"When it's necessary to deviate from the traditional floor plan, for example, to add kitchens and bathrooms, modern areas can still pose as colonial in style when they're reinforced with colonial architectural details," says William Graham, the curator of architecture for Colonial Williamsburg.

The gracious Georgian hallway and floor plan continue to provide "a balanced formula that meets the needs of the human condition," notes George Siekkinen, the senior architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Zones of transition from public to private can be seen as the hallway admits guests into the front rooms and, as it proceeds more deeply into the house, leads to the private space of bedrooms secluded on the second level.

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