Colonial Revival Revealed

The timeless approach to decorating that’s also known as Traditional.

Colonial Revival exterior drawing.

Illustrations by Rob Leanna

Architectural historians often dismiss Colonial Revival as a nostalgic aberration rather than a style. Anything so popular eventually runs into embarrassing episodes, it’s true, but there is no denying that the Colonial Revival created the most significant and long-lasting decorating approach for American interiors. It is the underpinning for Traditional, ever-popular and not just for “colonials,” and the typical choice for dining rooms and bedrooms coast to coast.

Public interest in things Colonial dates to the 1876 Centennial, which occasioned patriotic sentiment and, among other things, focused attention on the rapid disappearance of original Colonial buildings. Architect Charles McKim and colleagues launched their seminal study tour of the old houses of New England. Their earnest photographing and sketching resulted in a “modern colonial style” of building: a studied vernacular of stained shingle walls, steep roofs, and classical ornament borrowed from Georgian buildings. The Colonial Revival collided with the contemporaneous English Queen Anne Revival in our American Shingle Style.

This reproduction chair is the only Revival piece in this typical room. The rest is a mix; note the Moorish table and a Victorian side chair reupholstered in chintz. (All illustrations based on interior views after actual period photographs annotated by William Seale.)

The Architecture
As the Victorian era drew to a close, Americans looked to the architecture of the original Colonies for inspiration. Vernacular traditions (chiefly English, but also Dutch and German) were thrown into the mix, and everywhere the decorative vocabulary was that of 18th-century classicism.

This English Colonial Revival, which resulted in an architectural vocabulary that went national, was a movement with roots in 19th-century Boston and Philadelphia. The “revival” encompassed every sort of replica and free adaptation of styles from the colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival periods (i.e., ca. 1670–1845). Neoclassical and Federal-era elements decorated large houses that retained Victorian-era massing and big verandahs.

These new houses were not replicas, nor were they intended to be. They were often larger than the originals, and not symmetrical. Greek columns, Roman pilasters, and Palladian windows were used to great effect in 1900, as they had been during the Georgian and Federal periods. Other details of real Colonial houses came back into vogue, including multi-light window sash, heavy shutters, hipped roofs, fanlights, Adamesque mantels, and graceful staircases with turned balusters. The center hall plan returned.

The Colonial Revival picked up steam with a return to classical motifs (pediments, columns) after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893; now classicism ruled architecture. Academically correct examples of Colonial Revival eventually replaced the transitional, neo-Colonial forms of the early years. Although they could not be mistaken for a Colonial-era original, many houses built from 1910 through the 1930s are more academically correct. Emphasis was placed not only on classical details but also the rectilinear, symmetrical forms of the 18th century.

During the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, “Colonial” was the preferred vocabulary for both mansions and spec-built houses. Colonial Revival reappeared after the Second World War, along with both formal classical and informal “Early American” interiors. Familiar variants include the Saltbox and Cape Cod house forms; the Elizabethan garrison colonial with its peaked roof and second-floor jetty; symmetrical Georgian and Federal revival houses; even “colonial bungalows” and neoclassical American Foursquares. Furthermore, Arts & Crafts and Colonial motifs often appeared together in a generation of houses.

Taking license: The settle’s Chippendale feet and arms and giant broken pediment show the tendency of revivals to exaggerate appealing features of the originals to the point of distortion!

The Interiors
If you grew up in the United States, or have a penchant for Hollywood movies, you know the alphabet soup of Colonial Revival: balusters, brass lamps, chintz, chandeliers, Chippendale pulls, Federal mantels, florals and stripes, four-poster beds, grandfather clocks, highboys, hooked rugs, ivory paint, netted canopies, nostalgic prints, Palladian windows, porch columns, Queen Anne dining chairs, shutters, sidelights, spinning wheels, and Windsor chairs.

The transitional interiors of the first wave often mixed iconographic items such as a Windsor chair with English art wallpaper by William Morris and the odd piece of Arts & Crafts furniture. The familiar stage-set Colonial appeared early on: the rocker, the dressing table set with an antique shaving glass. Historian John Burrows has suggested the name Old Colony Style for the nostalgic look of the early revival, separating it from academic Colonial Revival and later Early American styles.

This period marked the end of the division of walls into dado, fill, and frieze. Now there might be a dado or a frieze but rarely both. Wainscoting was still used in halls, dining rooms, and libraries. Rooms were stripped of clutter and a few antiques well placed; one paint color and one fabric pattern created simplicity. Chippendale-style chairs and a neoclassical mirror were brought in. Wallpaper was lighter, with florals on pale backgrounds and stripes most popular. Ceilings were usually unornamented.

Furniture was rarely all of a style or era. Grand Rapids (Golden Oak) furniture was stripped of applied ornament and painted. Styles of the 18th and early 19th centuries—Chippendale, Queen Anne, William and Mary, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and American Empire—were revived. Some pieces were fairly accurate reproductions, others a pastiche. A Pilgrim sub-style (using primitive and post-medieval forms) appeared in the 1890s and was popular for informal use into the 1930s.

Colonial Revival interior design surpassed even the French Louis styles, prior to the First World War. For most people, it was an affectation more than it was historically accurate; only the wealthy clients of decorators got actual period rooms. Even die-hard Revivalists were not that interested in accuracy; after all, they were borrowing motifs from a narrow field of the richest Colonial citizens. The Revival imitated fine houses; rustic objects may have been placed as icons, but in general, that which was poor, primitive, or dirty about real Colonial life was ignored.

Federal Revival houses dressed in delicate ceiling medallions, classical cornices, and Adam-style mantels would have walls painted in light blues or apricots. Federal-era reproduction wallpapers were widely available. Decorator Elsie de Wolfe made chintz—colorful glazed cotton, often in large floral patterns—a standard for Colonial Revival interiors. Ruffles were for summer cottages and bedrooms; fitted valances in chintz or brocade, she said, were more suitable in the drawing room.

Since the 1990s, the strong resurgence in building new classical architecture once again has brought back traditional rooms, most of them rendered with an academic formality.

Pilgrim room

The fashion for primitive rooms with hutches and braid rugs began in the 1890s and was resuscitated as a postwar Early American style. This one comes from a 1919 book that showed Tudor, French, and Colonial Revival decorating schemes, most of them more formal than this “colonial hearth room.”

Dining room

Throughout the 20th century, it was typical to furnish the dining room in traditional Colonial Revival style, even when the parlor was Craftsman and the library Tudor. This quintessential 1916 room is at Little Holme, built in 1916 by architect Harry B. Little for his own family in Concord, Mass.


Little Holme was featured in House Beautiful in 1917: This period photo shows the preference for “early American” bedrooms that has proven so enduring. Note the high-post beds with testers (now hung with a simple canopy or valance), the brass candle-lamps, and the sweet wallpaper.

Your Bookshelf
The Colonial Revival House by Richard Guy Wilson: Abrams, 2004. This is a one-of-
a-kind, smart, beautiful volume that includes 275 photos for inspiration. Besides tracing Colonial Revival, the book shows how the early movement overlapped, in its concerns and motifs, with the American Shingle Style.

Colonial Revival Maine by Kevin Murphy: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005. A regional take on the development of a new “colonial style” (i.e., the Shingle Style). Drawings and archival photos of interiors (very helpful!) are accompanied by exterior views and new photos.

The Houses of McKim, Mead & White by Samuel G. White: Universe, 2004. The pre-eminent firm is best known for their Beaux Arts classicism and their public commissions. Seminal, too, were the early houses of MMW and especially those of Stanford White, built for wealthy Easterners during the Gilded Age. From 1879 to 1912, the firm designed over 300 houses in places like Newport, the Hudson Valley, and Long Island. Here we see exteriors and rooms inside.

At Home in New England: Royal Barry Wills Architects 1925 to Present by Richard Wills: Rowman & Littelfield, 2013. An overview of the work of this pre-eminent firm that contributed so much to the New England Colonial Revival in the 20th century.

Classical Interiors: Historical and Contemporary by Elizabeth M. Dowling: Rizzoli, 2013. Authoritative writing on high-style classicism links classical architecture to several revivals. Sumptuous photos.

The Great American House: Tradition for the Way We Live Now by Gil Schafer III: Rizzoli, 2012. Contemporary classicism and traditional idioms in the work of this award-winning architect, covering his own historic home, renovations, and new buildings, North and South.

Tags: architecture colonial colonial revival OHJ April 2016

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