Style is one
of the most used-and abused-words in the English language, particularly
when pressed into service in the study of architectural history.
Defining the word style itself is the first hurdle encountered
in the preparation of a guide to American architectural styles.
This pictorial essay attempts to bring some order to semantic
confusion and to illustrate examples of styles that have flourished
in the continental United States since the first colonial settlements.
The following definition of architectural style from the Oxford
English Dictionary will be used: "a definite type of architecture,
distinguished by special characteristics of structure and ornament.:
Style conceived in these terms is essentially visual and has
no necessary relationship to the function of a building —
churches, courthouses and residences may all be of the same
aid in describing architecture and in relating buildings —
perhaps of different chronological periods — to one another.
But more than that, stylistic classification acknowledges that
building is not just a craft but an art form that reflects the
philosophy, intellectual currents, hopes and aspirations of
Like most other manifestations
of social change, stylisitc periods do not have sharp edges.
It is tempting to subdivide them into early, middle, late, neo
and protostyles. However, for the preservationist interested
in identifying, enjoying and defending the architectural assets
of a community, the real need is to understand the broad stylistic
movements in American architecture.
To be useful, stylistic
nomenclature should describe visual features. However, many
long-established terms, such as colonial and Victorian,
refer essentially to historical and political periods and tell
little about the appearance of a building. Thus, the word colonial,
for instance, can be applied with equal validity to the House
of the Seven Gables (c. 1668) in Salem, Mass., with its rambling
medieval appearance, and Mount Pleasant (1762) in Philadelphia,
Pa., which illustrates the restrained adaption of classical
Renaissance forms. Colonial is also used in modern real
estate jargon to describe late 19th and 20th-century structures
that include such familiar 18th-century motifs as exterior shutters,
Palladian windows and broken pediment doorways. Obviously, a
term that can be so freely applied is not useful as a stylistic
Other widely used
architectural labels such as Georgian and Federal,
which are also derived from historical periods, elicit fairly
specific visual images. The Wren Building (begun 1695) in Williamsburg,VA.,
and Hampton Plantation (1783-90) in Towson, MD, for the description
of Georgian even though they were not built between 1714 and
1775, when the Georges of England ruled the American colonies.
Finally, many buildings
defy stylistic labels. They may represent transitional periods
when one style was slowly blending into another; they may exhibit
the conscious combination of unrelated stylistic elements for
a certain effect; or they may be the product of pure whimsy
or eccentricity. Such buildings are especially common in the
United States, where many early structures were produced by
competent, but unsophisticated, builders far removed from the
European origins of current styles.