Architecture / Style / Postmedieval English


  • 17th to 18th century (Poppeliers)


Establishing their first settlements in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, some half a million colonists had emigrated to America from England, Scotland, and Ireland by the end of the 17th century. With them came a thoroughly British pattern of social and cultural values that soon traversed the Atlantic seaboard. Building characteristics varied from colony to colony and town to town. However, a broad distinction can be drawn between the New England village, which comprised individual houses grouped around a town green, and the isolated southern plantation, a self-sufficient enterprise supported by slave labor and complete with a forge, carpentry shop, and perhaps a brickyard. New England settlers were primarily middle-class yeoman families. Most came from a single area of England (East Anglia), and they continued a well-entrenched tradition of heavy timber-framed buildings. Settlers of the Virginia tidewater region and farther south came from more diverse areas and included a significant number of bricklayers and masons. Lime, used for mortar, was also readily available in the South, so masonry construction was more typical. Until about 1700, all early English Colonial houses shared a distinct postmedieval character, most noticeable in steep pitched roofs (a holdover originally designed to support thatch), immense stacked chimneys, and small casement windows. The plan was typically a one-room, all-purpose “fireroom,” orhall,” used for cooking, eating, and sleeping, or a two-room layout with a central chimney dividing the hall and parlor or kitchen. Additional sleeping chambers were located above (Carley).

Few structures remain from the first English settlements on the East Coast, and those that do exhibit market regional variations. The term “late medieval” is perhaps the most adequate general designation because it acknowledges the traditional qualities of 17th-century English colonial architecture. St. Luke’s Church (1632), Smithfield, Virginia, for example, resembles an English Gothic parish church. Other early English colonial buildings in North America reflect styles that were developed during the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625) combining medieval verticality and steep, picturesque rooflines with classical ornament and symmetry of plan and fenestration. In the ample but plain house of the English yeoman – a late 16th-century building type that was the model for most colonial residences – the predominance of medieval forms is evident, this type is characterized by a steeply pitched roof, tall massive chimneys and small windows with leaded pediments… (Poppeliers, 12).

Also known as Early Colonial by Poppeliers.


Leading Examples

St. Luke’s Church (1632), near Smithfield, Virginia. Has hallmarks of the English Gothic parish church – prominent tower, steep roof, buttresses and lancet-arched windows. New Englanders rejected the Anglican model and developed the plain, square meetinghouse to symbolize their dissenting views. (Poppeliers, 12)

Bacon’s Castle (1655), Surrey County, Virginia. The best American example of early 17th-century English architecture. The dramatically grouped chimney stacks are direct transplants from the settlers’ homeland, while the curvilinear Flemish gables show Continental influences. (Poppeliers, 13)

The House of the Seven Gables (c. 1668), Salem, Massachusetts. Reflects a tradition of building in wood that was brought to New England by Puritan colonists from eastern English counties. It is more asymmetrical than other clapboard English houses, but it shares with them the steep roofline, decorative overhang, massive central chimneys, casement windows and two-story height. (Poppeliers, 13)

The Elihu Coleman House (1722), Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. Is typical of early New England houses, with its prominent central chimney, shingle-covering and lean-to, or saltbox, configuration. (Poppeliers, 14)

The Paul Revere House (1678-80), Boston. Sole survivor of the city’s 17th-century row houses, was originally one unit in a two-story gable-roofed row. Its picturesque appearance owes much to an early 20th century restoration. (Poppeliers, 14).

The Day-Breedon House (c. 1700), near Lusby in Calvert County, Maryland. Shows the steep roof and small windows with leaded casements typical of early colonial architecture on the eastern seaboard. (Poppeliers, 15)

The Adam Thoroughgood House (1636-40), Virginia Beach, Virginia. Has massive T-shaped chimneys, a steep gable, two-room plans and leaded casements characterizing the end of the medieval building tradition. End chimneys and brick construction were common in the southern colonies. (Poppeliers, 15)

Magnolia Mount (c. 1790), Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Reflects the architectural traditions established several decades earlier by French colonists. A raised cottage, the house has a prominent gallery shaded by an extension of the hipped roof, an adaptation to the humid climate of the lower Mississippi valley. (Poppeliers, 16)

The Kautz Barn (c. 1877), near Shawnee, Pennsylvania, is a product of the area’s long tradition of Germanic folk architecture. (Poppeliers, 17)

The African House (c. 1820), Melrose, Louisiana. Is part of Melrose Plantation, which was established and developed over amny generations by free blacks. One of several buildings in the complex thought to have African design origins, this structure’s overpowering hipped roof conceals a second story. (Poppeliers, 17)

The Dutch Reformed Church (c. 1700), North Tarrytown, New York. HAs a bell-shaped gambrel roof that marks it as unmistakably Dutch colonial. Washington Irving, who is buried in the churchyard, made the site famous in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (Poppeliers, 17)


Sources Cited

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