American Architectural Styles: An Introduction

Exterior styles are a product of deeper cultural values that represent a particular place and time. Styles are somewhat analogous to clothing fads, which can come and go, and sometimes return. Back when the spread of cultural ideas and fashions across the country was slower, certain architectural styles remained in vogue for multiple decades or longer, and often revealed a distinctly regional identity. By the Victorian Era of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, multiple styles became simultaneously popular and readily available throughout the United States, ushering in what historians refer to as the “Eclectic Era” of architecture, when Americans had their choice of numerous modern or revival styles. This co-existing fascination with so-called “period styles” and early modernism continued unabated until the Great Depression. Relatively little building construction took place between 1929 and 1945.

Not until after World War II did America see another national building boom, by which time automobile suburbs, modern-era housing and office towers were the rule. America’s modern era of functionalism and a general aversion to historic references dominated the built environment from the 1940s through the 1980s. The familiar “glass box” office tower and ubiquitous suburban ranch house are still powerful symbols of this anti-stylistic era when “form followed function”. Changes were brewing by the 1970s, however, leading America to react against modern architecture and planning practices. Historic styles became gradually popular once again, coinciding with the now-booming historic preservation movement. Colonial Revival elements adorned otherwise modern ranch houses, and by the 1990s a vague “postmodern era” was in full swing.

Postmodern architecture is generally characterized by an unrelated and exaggerated use of historical styles, or imitatated reproductions of older buildings. The current rise of postmodern historicism has coincided with a revived interest in traditional town planning practices known as “neotraditional” development, or more generally, the New Urbanism. A return to city centers in high-rise, mixed-used lofts and condos is now occuring, and hundreds of neotraditional neighborhoods are under construction or are already completed, with designs that variously emphasize walking, mass transit, mixed uses, community livability, public space, and — hopefully — affordability. What will be America’s next major cultural interest, and how will the built environment reflect that interest?

3 Responses to “American Architectural Styles: An Introduction”
  1. Thomas, I found your blog a while back and your information on architectural styles has been helpful as I study buildings that I find during my travels. I have a blog

    and post things of interest to me that I find. In Western New York State we have many Greek Revival and Second Empire buildings which are among my favorites. Thanks for all your work and I will return often. Another Thomas…Tom The Backroads Traveller

  2. Thomas, have you looked at the characteristic floor plans of the various styles of American homes? Do you know of any references which have? I have often thought this would be just as interesting as the characteristics of the exteriors.

    • Hi Hallie, agreed. Interior spaces are probably more important for understanding society and culture than the exteriors. We tried to capture a lot of these aspects in our 10-volume series, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Homes through American History: . Not trying to plug this, as it was not made available except in the 10-volume set (mostly for libraries, etc), but this is where we collected a lot of the references to interiors.

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