Techniques > Architecture > Poppeliers

What Style is It?

John C. Poppeliers, Nancy B. Schwartz, S. Allen Chambers. What Style Is It? New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995 (1983), Part One: Styles of the Colonial Period, page 3. View on Amazon.

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 architectural style.

Stylistic designations 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 its time.

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 designation.

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.