At the turn of the last century large, middle-class families often lived in massive Victorian Queen Anne-style homes. Not only were these homes big -- two or more stories -- they had many small, closed-off rooms and ornate touches both inside and out. Today those lovely remaining "gingerbread" houses and "painted ladies" still grace the streets of older, American communities. But if you're lucky enough to own one, you probably didn't grow up in one.
The evolution of the popular American house style
The American Dream of the mid 20th-century included owning a home, which meant that home plans had to become smaller, more efficient, and affordable enough to accommodate finances and family, especially after the Depression.
But even before the Great War, the Depression, and World War II, architects with vision and a new, egalitarian philosophy were already creating styles that would take Americans into the middle and latter half of the century. The movement was meant to make home ownership more accessible and homes more modern, less "fussy" than the Victorian styles. Many of these newer-style homes were sold as kits for early 20th century DIYers.
Architects were also busy reviving and redesigning older styles and merging some of the new styles with popular styles of old. Chances are if you're a member of the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, or the Gen X-ers, "home" conjures memories of a bungalow, Prairie-style, ranch-home, Colonial Revival, or cozy Cape Cod.
Growing up in the burgeoning suburbs of post-WWII America, you likely lived in some variation of at least one of these five popular home styles, each of which started as a regional style, then spread during the post-war housing boom to all parts of the U.S. and evolved into today's modern homes along the way.
The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia reintroduced Colonial architecture to the American public. Based mainly on the Georgian and Federal/Adam styles, Colonial Revival became an instant hit with its large rooms and clean, modern simplicity -- not to mention its patriotic symbolism -- and it remained so, well into the 1950s. If you're old enough to remember the Ozzie and Harriet TV show, you'll recognize this as the style of their home. Colonial Revival homes were rectangular, with two or three stories. They usually included these elements:
- Porticos with columns
- Double-hung windows with decorative shutters
- A centered front entry, often with a pediment
- Paneled front door with transom and/or sidelights
- Living area downstairs and bedrooms upstairs
The popularity of the Colonial, however, was destined to lose some of its popularity to the Bungalow.
Nothing quite surpasses the enduring popularity of the economical, solid little Craftsman, Craftsman Bungalow, or simply "Bungalow" as it came to be known. The style originated during the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. Furniture designer Gustav Stickley created and published the first plans in his magazine, The Craftsman, from 1901 to 1916. The style really took off when two California architects, brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, refined and promoted it on the West Coast. There it picked up elements of Japanese and Chinese wooden architecture. The simplicity and economy of the original bungalows often included these features:
- Natural materials like stone, wood, and stucco
- Low-pitched roofs
- Wide eaves supported by brackets
- Lots of windows; windows in closets; leaded and stained glass windows
- Built-in cabinets and shelving
- Dark-stained, interior wood trim
- Front porches supported by chunky columns
- Open-plan interiors with the kitchen usually at the back of the house
Variations include the Chicago bungalow, clad in brick, and the Spanish Revival bungalow, sided with stucco and featuring elements such as red-tiled roofs, walled terraces, parapets, and decorative tile.
Prairie style homes reflect the plains landscape of their Midwestern origins -- low and wide. This expansive style originated in 1900 and was popularized by the iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is most often associated with the midcentury modern style. Features common to Prairie-style include the following:
- Low, horizontal lines with wide overhanging eaves
- Clerestory windows for privacy and lots of light
- Open, interior spaces
- Central chimney
Those who dismiss the Ranch, or Rambler as it is known on the West Coast, fail to acknowledge its unparalleled popularity as a post-WWII, suburban home style from 1945 to 1980. Features of the original Ranch included the following:
- One story
- Rectangular, L-shaped, or U-shaped floor plan with open-plan interior
- Low, sprawling horizontal design
- Low, gabled roof
- Large windows, including double-hungs, picture windows and patio sliders
- Attached garages
- Natural materials such as brick or wood facades and oak flooring
Detractors of the style complain about its lack of decorative touches, but the basic ranch house has proved to be one of the most popular styles of the last century, and if you grew up in the 'burbs of the '50s, '60s, or '70s, you probably lived in one -- or one of its variations, the Raised Ranch or Spilt Level.
No list of popular home styles of the last century would be complete without mentioning the Cape Cod. These mass-produced, 1,000-square-foot basic Cape Cod homes built by Levitt fueled the start of the housing boom after WWII. While earlier architects had begun the movement to make home buying affordable for all Americans, these homes kicked it into high gear. Twentieth-century Cape Cods, a close variation on the original New England homes of the first colonists, featured the following elements:
- Centered front entry
- Living area on one level
- Living room and kitchen in the front of the house so you could keep an eye on the kids
- Kitchen and bath on the same side of house to consolidate plumbing
- Expandable upward and outward for growing families
It remains to be seen whether Millennials eventually catch the home buying fever embraced by previous generations. Will this generation of mobile Americans eschew home ownership in favor of renting and following employment opportunities where they lead? Is it time to ditch the excesses of the late 20th-century McMansions in favor of more manageable and affordable homes?
Perhaps 100 years from now someone will write an article on popular home styles of the mid-21st century: the Tiny House and Micro Apartment.
Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.
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