Architecture Spotlight: American Colonial Revival builds a homey sense of history
American Colonial Revival homes, with their symmetry, stability and lines as old as our nation itself, evoke a sense of history, tradition and homeyness — sort of like the comfort food of American architecture.
The style spread across the country in the 1920s and ’30s, when East Coast-based shelter magazines highlighted the homes on their pages. Also at that time, Colonial Williamsburg was being restored, prompting more interest in the era.
“The white clapboard Colonial with a white picket fence out front, it became a sort of symbol of American domesticity,” said Kenneth Breisch, associate professor of architecture at USC.
They became classic family homes for the middle class. Or, expanded and augmented, they were the mansions of Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, fit for Hollywood stars such as Donna Reed, Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. Bankers used the style for their institutions and their homes alike, to convey propriety and conservatism, Breisch said.
Peter J. Holliday, author of “American Arcadia: California and the Classical Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2016), wrote that the Colonial style “evoked the reassuring spirit of the American past.”
In fact, the genre’s very existence was a paean to the red, white and blue. The style arose from the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, a world’s fair to celebrate the anniversary of American Independence. It spurred a nostalgia for all things Colonial, including the architecture.
Holliday, a professor of art history at Cal State Long Beach, said the genre seems to gain popularity in times of trouble — during the Great Depression, or during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
“People are really trying to show their Americanism,” he said. “For some it’s maybe trying to give themselves a sense of roots, a sense of association with something more established.”
Some examples showed up in Los Angeles prior to World War I, but many more were built in the 1920s and ’30s as the real estate boom brought new residents, many wanting homes that looked like the ones they knew back in the East and Midwest, said Elysha Paluszek, associate architectural historian at GPA Consulting and coauthor of the city’s Historic Context Statement on American Colonial Revival — a comprehensive overview of the style from the Los Angeles Office of Historic Resources.
Madeline Warren was five months pregnant with twins in 2000, and looking to move out of a Santa Monica rental, but she and her husband kept getting outbid. Then their agent took them to an American Colonial in Hancock Park, built in 1938.
“I was actually hoping for a Spanish house, because I like that style,” said Warren, an associate professor at Chapman University’s College of Film and Media Arts. “We came to this plain-looking brick-and-wood house. I said, ‘I don’t think so. It looks like an East Coast town hall,’ We walked in the door, and immediately fell in love.”
She said they appreciated the classical details, including wainscoting, paneled doors and leaded windows overlooking the yard.
“I really liked the scale of this house,” Warren said, and it turned out to be ideal for raising a family, with its large rooms and two stories — kids asleep upstairs, dinner party downstairs.
American Colonial was popular throughout the country, but in Los Angeles it never dominated the landscape the way California Craftsman or Spanish Colonial Revival did, in their turns. Then again, its appeal had a longevity far beyond that of other, more faddish styles, Paluszek said. Her report lists its heyday as lasting from 1895 to 1965, from early structures in South L.A. and West Adams, to Baby-Boomer suburbs in the San Fernando Valley.
Back in 1929, the editors of Popular Mechanics praised its enduring appeal, calling Colonial “a style as liquid in public approval as a Liberty bond at a bank.”
And the familiarity of American Colonial homes has been a boon for Hollywood, which simply looked in its backyard for houses that could pretend to be anywhere in the country, as residences for Ferris Bueller in Illinois, Don and Betty Draper in New York, Richie Cunningham in Wisconsin or Beaver Cleaver in some vaguely Midwestern town.
Warren said she and her husband grew up back East — on Long Island and in New Jersey, respectively — and in hindsight the Hancock Park house may have played to some deep-seated comfort level.
“We consider ourselves very lucky to have found it,” she said. “It just has great warmth to it. It’s a great family house. I’ve definitely been won over by the style.”
Style: American Colonial Revival
Features: Usually symmetrical and two stories, with a paneled front door flanked by bays of windows, which are multi-paned double-hung or palladian, sometimes with louvered shutters. The roof is pitched, with eaves most often at the sides, sometimes with dormers. The exteriors are mainly brick and/or clapboard. The subgenre Dutch Colonial features a gambrel roof (which looks like half an octagon), while Georgian (named for the English kings, not the state) is fronted by columns, looking at home on a Southern plantation.
Places to find them: Bel-Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Hancock Park, South Los Angeles, West Adams, Windsor Square; San Fernando Valley neighborhoods including Toluca Lake, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood and Encino; Long Beach and Pasadena.
Prominent architects and builders: Gordon Kaufmann, Sumner M. Spaulding, Paul Williams, Roland Coate, Gerard Colcord, Oliver Dennis & Lyman Farwell, Albert Walker & Percy Eisen, John Byers & Edla Muir.