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History of Colonial Architecture in Massachusetts

Colonial Architecture

You would be hard-pressed to find an American adult who doesn't know what a colonial house looks like. In neighborhoods across the country, colonials have dominated the landscape for decades. Of course, the name is not a misnomer. This style of home first arose during the colonial era. It comes as no surprise, then, that colonial homes are abundant across the state of Massachusetts. Unlike many areas of the country, however, Massachusetts--and the northeastern section of the state in particular--is home to many well-preserved historic colonials.

The earliest colonial homes were built shortly after settlers arrived from England. Indeed, one only needs to look to Plimoth Plantation, as the earliest settlement was known, to find prime examples of this type of architecture. Colonial homes that were built around 1620 are regarded as First Period colonial homes. Incredibly, well-preserved examples of these homes are still standing. Like any type of architecture, however, colonials have evolved considerably through the years. If you look at one from the First Period and one today, you will see many major differences.

While you probably already know the basics of what colonial architecture entails, here are some of the most distinctive characteristics of this particular style:

• Two stories - Colonial homes always have at least two stories. Some even have three or more, but the vast majority have two. In most cases, living areas are on the main floor, and bedrooms are upstairs.

• Protruding gables - Most colonial homes have several protruding gables.

• Steep roofs - This particular feature is a major bonus in cold-weather climates like Massachusetts'. Steep roofs cause rain, snow and ice to largely fall away, preventing them from accumulating. This reduces the risk of wear, tear, leaks and other damage.

• Large chimney - Traditionally, colonial homes boasted one large, central chimney. Chimneys are used differently now, but these homes still typically have one large chimney--but it's not necessarily at the center of the home.

• Simplicity - Beyond the features that are listed above, colonial homes have very simple designs. You will not find a lot of ornamentation on them.

Many of the features that we associate with colonial homes today originally came about due to necessity. For example, the large, central chimney served to heat the premises, and it was also often where meals were cooked. To facilitate this, fireplaces often had large hearths made out of brick or stone. You will find that most modern colonials still have a large fireplace and hearth. Although people no longer cook meals in their fireplaces or use them to heat their entire homes, a large fireplace still comes in handy on cold, wintry Massachusetts nights.

While most people refer to many modern homes as "colonials," the truth is that they don't typically boast traditional colonial architectural features. Rather, they are what is known as Colonial Revival or Neo-Colonial. Don't worry, though. No one will correct you if you call a home that was built within the last few decades a colonial. Further, there are usually many colonial-style homes on the market in Massachusetts at any given time, so it is typically fairly easy to find one. One thing to keep in mind is that these homes span a vast period of time. Many are much older, and it is important to stick with older colonial homes that have been properly maintained and updated through the years.

First Period colonial homes are the model by which all subsequent colonials were created. It is interesting to consider how these homes have changed through the decades. At the time of Plimoth Plantation--roughly around the year 1620--colonial homes were usually positioned so that they faced the southeast. This was to make the most of available sunlight, which was especially important during cold winters. Early on, these homes usually had very small casement windows. This was because at the time, there was a major shortage on glass. Fortunately, this changed as glass became more readily available. Today, colonial homes usually have many medium- to large-size windows.

To this day, it is possible to find existing examples of First Period colonial homes. You do not have to venture far if you live in Massachusetts. In Ipswich, in fact, you can find several examples of First Period colonials. In Danvers, MA, the Rebecca Nurse house offers a great example of this type of architecture. The Orchard House in Concord, MA, is another great example. You can even see how the roofs of these homes have changed by checking out the thatched roof Pilgrim House at Plimoth Plantation. Over in Salem, the famous House of the Seven Gables is one of the best-known examples of early Colonial architecture. Finally, the Fairbanks House, which was built in 1641, is the oldest timber-frame colonial house in Massachusetts.

Today, you can find modern colonial homes in communities across Massachusetts, New England and the country. They have even become popular in many areas overseas. For a while, they fell somewhat out of favor as people became more concerned about efficiently heating and cooling their homes; a second story can make this more expensive and difficult. However, advances in insulation technology and heating and cooling technology have largely eliminated these issues, and colonial homes are once again fairly popular.

While you can find colonial homes for sale in towns and cities across Massachusetts, you won't find many in densely populated urban areas like Boston. Homes like these tend to have fairly large footprints, so it isn't often feasible to have them in large cities. However, outlying areas in greater Boston are home to many neighborhoods and subdivisions that boast plenty of these two-story homes. In the suburbs, homes like these are typically located on fairly large lots, and they often have nice backyards. When people think of the idyllic white picket fence home, they often think of a colonial.

Will colonial architecture ever fall completely out of favor? Considering the fact that these types of homes have existed in one form or another since the middle of the 17th century, it seems pretty unlikely. What is more likely is that these types of homes will continue to evolve with changing times. As for whether colonial architecture will rise or fall in popularity, that remains to be seen. Like so many things, real estate trends are often cyclical, so we could very well see another boom in the popularity of colonial homes.