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American Foursquare Architecture & Interiors

The epitome of the post-Victorian “comfortable house,” the Foursquare is about dignified self-containment. By Patricia Poore

    Builders in the early 20th century referred to this type as “truly American . . . the square type of modern home,” “massive” and “conservative.” Whether done plain or embellished with Prairie School, Arts and Crafts, or Colonial Revival details, the Foursquare (1895–1929) was an economical house to build—and suited to small lots, prefab parts, and the housing boom.

    Foursquares seemed to spring up almost overnight. There were none in 1890. By 1910, thousands had been built. This familiar house got recognition and a name in 1982, in an article by Old-House Journal publishers Clem Labine and Patricia Poore.

    Hallmarks of Foursquares

    BOXY SHAPE It’s nearly a cube (practicality usually dictated a slightly greater depth than width), with two full storeys and an attic that was often made livable by large dormers.

    HIPPED ROOF Exceptions exist, but most Foursquares have a hipped or steep, pyramidal roof.

    WIDE PORCH The piazza normally extends the full width of the front, with a wide stair and entry either at the center or to one side.

    LARGE WINDOWS Grouped windows became popular with this style, admitting plenty of light.

    QUIET STYLE Yes, there are Foursquares with lots of art glass, jutting bays, and tiled roofs, but in general the “style” of the house is quietly announced in the use of simplified motifs, whether A&C, Prairie, or Colonial.

    Style Variants

    The debate rages: is “foursquare” a house type or a true style? When you can narrow down a building phenomenon to a period of about 25 years, what’s the difference? There’s no mistaking these houses for earlier cube forms like the Georgian Manor or the Italian Villa.

    ARTISTIC: Craftsman details were incorporated in the early wave, ca. 1900–1915: boxed posts, exposed rafter tails. (Some of these examples could be called “bungalow in a box.”)

    PRAIRIE: Many Foursquares throughout the Midwest incorporated the “modern” motifs of the region: horizontal banding, porch with a slab roof, geometric ornament, and “Prairie” art glass after Frank Lloyd Wright.

    CLASSIC: Houses like this might be called Free Classic: note the Palladian-style window and oval “cameo.” After 1915, most examples could be termed Colonial Revival.

    Inside the Foursquare

    Built-ins such as bookcases and window seats were popular enhancements; those building planbook or kit houses could order room-dividing colonnades and kitchen cabinets. The style of furnishings was eclectic, in keeping with the fast-changing times and the affordability of catalog and mass-production furniture. Interior style changed from decade to decade. Look for hardwood wainscot, woodwork, and trim; stenciled or papered friezes, and machine-printed wallpaper; upholstered and leather furniture; a strong focus on the hearth and mantel. Craftsman (“bungalow”) interiors—Mission oak furniture, mica lamps, square-spindled staircases—would have been common with the first wave. But Colonial Revival styles were ascendant after 1915, and lush Jazz Age rooms came along in the Twenties.

    Recommended Books

    Beyond the Bungalow
    by Paul Duchscherer and Linda Svendsen: Gibbs Smith, 2005.
    This book of lavish photographs goes further than the bungalow: to chalets, English Revival houses, and the occasional Foursquare.

    Bungalow Kitchens
    by Jane Powell and Linda Svendsen: Gibbs Smith, 2000.
    This is documentation and nitty-gritty advice for restoring, renovating, or re-creating the rather plain yet evocative early-modern kitchen of the era: tile, glossy cream-painted cabinets, linoleum. A good place to start if you don’t want a 2007 “showroom kitchen” that will soon look dated, and if you don’t need to spend six figures on cherry woodwork and European fixtures.

You may also or alternatively want to refer to books about Prairie School (Midwest) house interiors.


    Tim Francis September 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    What a great resource. I have a neighbor doing a remarkable rebuilding of a four square and this is going to help him make better choices as he re-sides and bricks the exterior. Thanks a million.

    Paula July 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    We have a beautiful old 4 sq home and fell in love with it the first time we pulled up to the curb….
    There is nothing like sitting on our front porch, climbing our beautiful staircase or looking out he attic windows to see a view of the city.

    monica haskin July 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    we live in a sears kit home built in 1914 it is a classic four square house and we just love sitting in the porch and watching the world go by we get a lot of favorable comments on how we have kept our home looking like 1914 and in such great shape

    Jim Knutson November 2, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I have been inspecting homes for over 22 years with about 7000 buildings completed in that time. Many of them are old houses and commercial buildings. I subscribed to your magazine for about 10 years and still have those copies which I am trying to scan into my computer so that the information contained is available to my customers. Scanning is at best a time consuming effort so it would be very helpful to me and others if you would put your past articles onto a searchable DVD as has been done with Fine Homebuilding and Journal of Light Construction. Your recent web page is nice, but the articles can’t be “separated out” to make them available to my customers.



    Doug November 17, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    We own a nice four square in salisbury nc with a stucco exterior. Luckily we do roofing, remodeling and painting with a strong focus on historic restorations.

    Tracy November 29, 2011 at 12:25 am

    Thanks for all the helpful advice, I’m having such an amazing time renovating my new prairie style home! Every day I discover something new. I am so grateful to live in a piece of art and have the opportunity to return this home to it’s original state of beauty!!….

    John Criner January 11, 2012 at 9:09 am

    I have just realized what my 1909 home in Castle Shannon PA is architecturally identified as being!! Bought house 6 yrs ago. I am currently refacing a newly found fireplace in the dining room. Websit and mag a wonderful resource for advancing(?) the past identity of this home. As an aside, I was happily surprised to see that Mr. Clem Labine was a significant contributor to labeling this house style. As a 62 yr old I remember as a child Mr Labine pitching for my Pittsburgh Pirates in the 60s. Now I must communicate with Mr. Labine. Thank you OLD HOUSE JOURNAL for the architectural enlightenment. John

    Marilyn Rea April 21, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Four years ago we bought a home in Norton, Ma..
    It resembles a Sears home up the street but not exactly.
    We have a large gazeebo porch that wraps around the house, and a flattened roof that the nieghbors tell us once had a cupola. There is also a door from the second floor that goes out to the roof, and we are certain that it must have led to a second story porch directly above the impressive 1st floor porch.
    WQe were never able to find any blueprints, and would appreciate any info you could give.
    Marilyn Rea

    Jersey Taylor September 24, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    We love our 4 square! just not sure of the date! it is driving me crazy! all 6 fireplaces are marded with the #22 in the concrete flue, above the brick. Mantles have not been removed but one, to resecure it to the wall and there was a commission date on it. Which date do we go by? Mantle date was earlier than the # in the fireplace. Help me, I am going crazy over this, still after 16 yrs!!! thx

    Scoats November 25, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    My Four Square which probably dates from the 1890s is semi-detached, sharing a party wall with my neighbor. So it’s not a true Four Square, but has all the exterior elements of a Four Square, pyramidal third floor with dormer, wide porch, brick pediments. Interior, it’s more of a traditional straight through twin house.

    Anyone else ever come across a set of semi-detached four squares?

    Maxine manus January 5, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    We have a 1900 4 square. It seems there may have been a fireplace in the dining room because of a bump out in the wall. We also have a chimney in the center of the roof. There are no other fireplaces in the house. Was it common for there to be only a fireplace in the dining room in a 1900 4 square?

    rebecca wiener February 18, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    Any ideas to expand back of our 1930′s foursquare to make kitchen which is 9×11 and put in a laundry area also?

    Heidi March 17, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    I live in a foursquare double house as Scoats describes, but have yet to find others like it. Mine is in West Virginia.

    Barbara Klestzick March 29, 2013 at 10:41 am

    We did an addition on our very small 4 square. (Our architect called it a 3/4 square.) We took down half of the wall to open up the kitchen to the dining room and put a pantry in back of the dining room using the door that went out to the back porch. A friend offered this solution which we didn’t use, but might be what youre looking for.. Make the current ktichen into a bathroom and a laundry room. Put the new kitchen and family room where the back porch used to stand.

    Deborah Ellison May 13, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Are all foursquare houses two story? My house is 1-1/2 story. The two bedrooms are upstairs with angled and low ceilings. Otherwise, it looks just like the foursquare houses I’ve seen online. It was built in 1906.

    Katy July 17, 2014 at 10:23 am

    I’m trying to figure out if our home is considered foursquare. It was built in 1914 in Cincinnati. There are a lot of houses just like it, but it appears more narrow than the foursquare homes I see pictured. The look is similar, and I wonder if it may be a catalog home as it has the stained glass that I see as options in old catalogs. It is 2 story with a finished attic.
    However common this house is in Cincinnati, I can’t seem to find an exact picture of it anywhere on the internet. The stock of old homes in Cincinnati is huge, so nothing is considered historic unless it is massive or housed historically important people. Neighbors and folks native to this area are very accustomed to the incredible amount of older homes here and aren’t very curious about what types of home they own.

    Thea Merrill January 22, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    To Deborah Ellison:

    Yes, there are many foursquares that are 1-1/2 stories instead of two. See the wonderful publication, “Rehab Right,” which is available free as a PDF from the City of Oakland, CA Planning Department at the following link:

    It’s a terrific resource for identifying styles and also for doing sensitive and respectful rehab work on older homes like yours.

    Matt August 24, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    I live in a gorgeous four square built in 1906. I live in Carthage, MO, a small town that boomed from 1890 to the mid 1900s because of a marble mine. It was once the richest town per capita and is loaded with beautiful homes from the era. As wonderful as four distinct seasons are they can also cause you to have some extremely high bills in the summmer and winter. We are planning to insulate and finish the attic but am curious to learn of any other tricks for heating and cooling our house. The original fire place was damaged during the 1960s when a local dynamite plant exploded and has since been used for the a/c. We do have an addition that includes a bathroom large living room and a two car garage. Any tips or suggestions?

    Ellis Alford September 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    I have an early 1900′s 4-plex apartment building that resembles a four square
    home. I would like to remodel and bring up to today’s standards. Can you share
    some insights on where to find qualified contractors that can take on this project.

    Rachel G. September 11, 2015 at 12:22 am

    Our Kansas City home was built in 1910 on a corner lot. It is in a neighborhood surrounded by 2 and 1/2 storey foursquares and bungalows. But ours is different. It has 2 storeys, with a front gabled roof and three dormer windows on each side, a wrap-around porch, and a main entry on the side of the home. Because of the dormers, we have 3 window seats upstairs and a bay in the dining room. It has leaded glass panels on both sides of the front door, a boxed-beam ceiling in the dining room, and green hand-dipped tile fireplace surround with tiger-striped quarter-sawn oak mantle (the fireplace would have been for a gas insert, as there is no chimney). These things are Craftsman, but otherwise, we have no built-ins or leaded glass to speak of. Also, the staircase goes straight up from the entry, and does not do a 90 or 180 turn like most foursquares. There are no Victorian or Colonial Revival elements whatsoever. What style is our house???

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