American Style

From Santa Barbara to Savannah, home styles tell us about a region's history, geography and climate.

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For writer Susan Sully, summer vacation was synonymous with her journey to her mother's hometown in Milledgeville, Ga. There, blocks of Greek Revival and Italianate houses stood in vivid contrast to the newer bedroom community in Greenwich, Conn., where Susan was raised. She marveled at the tall, white columns and deep, shady porches of this antebellum capital of Georgia and grew up with a longing to live in a town characterized by regional style. At the age of 34, she settled on Charleston and set about writing a self-described love song to the city called Charleston Style: Past and Present.

"There is something comforting about living in a place where there's a communal sense of style, a sense of shared history, of shared values, whether moral or aesthetical and of shared secrets," says Susan, who has written numerous books on region style, including Savannah Style: Mystery and Manners.

What Is Regional Style?

Regional style is "very much of the place," says Robert Craig of Georgia Tech's College of Architecture. It springs from the use of indigenous materials to adapt to the region's unique history, geography and climate.

"Until the Industrial Revolution, houses inherently reflected their locale," says Jim Kemp, author of American Vernacular. Up to that point, regional style was shaped not only by available building materials but also by the building practices brought by settlers to the area. The Germans who immigrated to Pennsylvania brought a tradition of masonry that resulted in some of the finest stone houses in America. Spanish settlers to the Southwest incorporated the adobe forms of Native Americans to encompass a number of styles including Spanish Colonial.

The historic city of Galveston exemplifies how architecture is keenly influenced by such factors as history and weather. Beginning in the 1850s, Galveston, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, experienced an influence of Southern architecture because of the region's commerce, says Jeff Tully, director of preservation and conservation services at the Galveston Historical Foundation. Homes there might reflect the French Colonial New Orleans style or the plantations of Mississippi. But in 1900, the Great Storm, the nation's worst natural disaster, claimed 6,000 lives and altered the city's architecture forever. The grade of the island was raised 17 feet, and most of the surviving homes — regardless of their architecture — adopted a regional look simply because they were raised.

Today's Regional Influence

Following the Industrial Revolution, the cultivation of regional style became more a matter of choice than of necessity. But architects today once again appreciate the practicality of working within the parameters of a region's landscape, indigenous materials and climate.

Anne Fairfax, of Fairfax & Sammons Architects PC in New York City, designed a stucco-over-stone house in Middleburg, Va. "I can actually pick up dirt and give it to the stucco man and ask him to match the color of this earth," says Anne. "The building becomes almost a geological formation, less of an intrusion into the landscape and more of a natural outgrowth of it."

Architect Robert Craig restored an Eastlake Victorian house in Atlanta. While the architectural style is not regional to Georgia, says Robert, it does have elements that are truly Southern. To keep the 1885 house cool, there are 14-foot-high ceilings and a veranda oriented to protect the house from too much sun.

"The buzzword today is building sustainable architecture," he says. "The irony is that two or three hundred years ago, people did that because they had to; they had to design a green architecture," Robert says. "Regional style tends to be more sensitive to issues that we're not trying to reclaim for ourselves."

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