American foursquares - the anti-Victorians

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- American foursquare is a great name for a housing style. The dictionary defines foursquare as forthright, marked by boldness and conviction; just and fair in business dealings, firm and resolute.
The architectural style is all that. It's an honest, basic look for home buyers who had turned away from the fussy, over-ornamentation of the various high Victorian styles. And, it was a very economical design.
Photos: Six


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- American foursquare is a great name for a housing style. The dictionary defines foursquare as forthright, marked by boldness and conviction; just and fair in business dealings, firm and resolute.

The architectural style is all that. It's an honest, basic look for home buyers who had turned away from the fussy, over-ornamentation of the various high Victorian styles. And, it was a very economical design.

Photos: Six Foursquares

The four equal sides of a house meant it used small, in-town lots efficiently. And paring back on the expensive decorations common in Victorian homes also made foursquares faster and more affordable to build.

The foursquare's uniformity meant many of the building processes, such as sawing and fitting, could be done in bunches, increasing the efficiencies of the workmen.

So many parts of these buildings, such as all of the framework - were so uniform that they could be built in a central plant and shipped to their construction sites. Entire foursquare houses were turned out (in numbered pieces) by Sears Roebuck and other catalogue home companies during the years they were manufacturing and selling houses.

The invisible style

The style's undeniable attractions quickly won it a following and it became one of the most popular house designs of the era starting in the late 19th century and running into the 1930s. So simple is the look and so ubiquitous were the houses, that it almost ceased to be identifiable as a design style.

People began to think of it as simply a traditional house. Today, most Americans looking at one would be hard-pressed to call the style by name.

But American foursquare does have its distinctive characteristics. These start with the equal-sides and the massed, cubical shape. Foursquares look substantial, solid. There are often four bedrooms on the second floor flanking the central hall and three rooms downstairs.

Nearly all American foursquares sport a deep - sometimes wraparound - front porch where proud owners could relax while they watched out over their neighborhoods and greeted passer-bys.

A large, central dormer often peered out from the front of the attic floor and the roof was hipped or pyramid shaped.

Stealing ideas

Many American foursquares borrowed much of their detailing from other styles. Builders started with the basic square box and added flourishes from the prairie school or mission, Greek revival and, especially, craftsman designs.

These details included built-ins, such as china cabinets or shelving, pocket doors and stained or leaded glass windows. Wood molding and mantles tended to be finely crafted and staircases featured beautifully turned spindles and stately columns and bannisters.

Foursquare builders used some of the excellent building materials that were available then at much lower prices than they can be bought for today. The woods were often mahoganies or virgin golden oak, common and cheap then but to die for now. Walls were plaster and lath and ceilings were high. Sometimes bay windows were added for decoration.

Wood was the exterior material of choice but foursquares were also built of stone, brick or concrete block and sometimes the outside walls were stuccoed. There were often massive overhangs, which protected the sides from weather and shaded upper-story windows during summer months.

The houses were built to last and they did; few cities and towns across the nation lack at least a few good examples of the type. So next time you walk down a neighborhood street, see if you can identify the American foursquares along the way. You may be surprised at how many you find.

It was a good, honest, all-American style and Americans embraced it for decades.

Photos: Six Foursquares

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