The Colonial Revival homes style became popular after the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia created a growing feeling of nostalgia about the American home. Homebuilders and architects turned to early American houses as inspiration for new, more dramatic houses appropriate to the booming economic times.

How to identify Colonial Revival homes

Here are the distinguishing features of the Colonial Revival house:

  • Symmetrical façade
  • Square or rectangular center-hall floor plan
  • Gable, gambrel or hipped roof, depending on substyle
  • Two or three stories
  • Wood siding or brick construction
  • Paneled entry doors, often with sidelights
  • Simple details
  • Dormers
  • Small porticos with pillars or columns
  • Multipaned, double-hung windows
  • Shutters
  • Bedrooms on upper floors, away from living areas
  • Multiple fireplaces
  • Paired chimneys

Origins of the colonial revival house

The Colonial Revival style began after the American Centennial in 1876. This sparked a fascination with the country’s Colonial roots. Colonial Revival houses were first built in the late 19th century, in the shadow of the Victorian era. Colonial Revival grew in reaction to Victorian excesses, focusing on simpler, more traditional layouts and façades. The style took hold quickly and became one of the country's longest-lived architectural forms, with countless versions being built even today.

Colonial Revival was so appealing to the public that homeowners rushed to remodel older style homes in the newest fashion, dressing them in Colonial-style balusters, columned porches, decorative swags, and pedimented entrances.

By the early 20th century, Colonial Revival had exploded nationally, thanks to features in countless books and periodicals. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York tapped the craze when it bought up rooms and objects from authentic Colonial homes and put them on display in its Central Park edifice.

Ironically, interest only increased during the Great Depression, when the Library of Congress launched the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1933, documenting many original Colonial homes. Many out-of-work writers worked in the WPA writers programs, documenting and photographing historic buildings.

Variations: Georgian Colonial, Federal Houses and more

Georgian Colonial, with its side gables, was one of the earliest Colonial Revival home styles. But the fad drew inspiration from many other precedents, including the gambrel roof style of the Dutch settlers, hip-roofed Federals, Garrison Colonials with their medieval-style overhanging second floors, and Saltbox Colonial style—which is typified by two stories in front and one at the back, with a single, steeply sloped roof covering both levels.

Virtually all variations of the Colonial Revival home have elaborate entrances, some with broken pediments, along with cornices and double-hung windows with multiple panes to mimic the appearance of old glass.

Colonial Revival houses are usually clad in clapboard, but some are made of brick. Trim is traditionally white, with shutters in green or black.

Updated from an earlier version by Steven Marsh.