A field guide to local architecture
How to identify the old houses in our midst. Plus, where to find the supplies to fix them up.
THE REST OF THE COUNTRY may tease us for our funny accents, our convoluted street patterns, and our obsessive dedication to the Red Sox, but there’s one thing no one laughs off: our sense of history. The past is everywhere in Boston and its environs, inescapable and seductive. “You can see the history of the city as you walk down one street,” says Kristi Chase, preservation planner for the city of Somerville. “Washington Street, Somerville Avenue — these are main drags that have farmers’ housing from the 1780s next to, say, a Queen Anne or a 1920s automotive or apartment building. The same is true for Boston and Cambridge and many of the suburbs.”
The reason for this, in part, is that the preservation movement began early in Boston, when Hancock House, built in 1737 on Beacon Street overlooking the Common, was demolished in 1863. The house was such a supreme example of the Georgian style and such an important site in Revolutionary history that people protested; a broadside of the time had shouted “Bostonians! Save the Old John Hancock Mansion,” to no avail. The loss of Hancock House, says Joe Cornish, senior stewardship manager of the preservation group Historic New England, “really spurred an outcry that continued even after the event. Preservationists look at that as a turning point for preservation in New England and preservation in general. It raised awareness of significant early buildings being destroyed.” The demolition of much of the West End in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s was another big wake-up call.
Today, Cornish continues, “we [Bostonians] have an awareness of our history and our role in the nation’s history and the need to preserve our link to that. Part of that is being good stewards of historic buildings.”
Still, many of those who live in the area’s ubiquitous older houses have little knowledge of their architectural provenance. You might, for example, think of the three-decker as a style of architecture, when in fact it’s simply a type of architecture. What’s the difference?
“To me the type is the use and shape of the box,” says Chase, “and the style is an elaboration of that. . . . So a three-decker could be in Colonial Revival style, could be in Queen Anne style, could be fairly modern. It’s a New England type.” The worker’s cottages in Charlestown and Somerville, for instance, and the opulent Beaux-Arts mansions of the Back Bay’s Commonwealth Avenue have one thing in common: They’re all row houses. “Capes, too,” Chase notes. “Again, they could be anything from workers’ housing to fairly grand.”
Identifying your home’s origins is not a precise science. “Architects didn’t work slavishly in one style,” notes Judy Neiswander, advocacy coordinator for the Boston Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit that protects and improves significant architecture in the city. “They picked and chose and mixed things up in the 19th century, because they were trying to come up with a new style based on an older vocabulary.” Knowing the year a house was built goes a long way toward identifying its style, but if that’s not enough, these two approaches can help. First, determine the home’s most modern yet still original feature. Federal style, for example, contains many elements of Georgian, but overall the scale is lighter and more refined, often with glass fanlights and sidelights rather than imposing architectural elements surrounding the entrance. Second, examine the building materials. A building whose windows have small six-over-six panes, for example, is older than one with larger two-over-two panes, providing of course that the windows are original. “We didn’t start making glass in large sizes like that until the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s,” says Neiswander. “It’s the ability to produce glass in large sizes that drove the windows to be large, which established the scale of the building, making it bigger.”
Here, a guide to a few of the building styles that give the Hub its unique character among American cities.
What Also known as Post-Medieval style, First Period houses are the ur-Colonials, with an iconic boxy shape, a steeply pitched roof to keep snow from accumulating, and a large central chimney to heat the entire one-room-deep interior. They were not designed by architects but rather were built by early Colonists to echo the houses they lived among in Europe, particularly southeastern and central England. Most are sided with narrow clapboards and have casement windows with multiple panes.
Where Boston (notably the Old Corner Bookstore in Downtown Crossing), Concord, Marblehead, Newburyport, Salem
What Fashionable during the reign of England’s King George III, Georgian style is based on the well-proportioned, symmetrical ideals of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Palladian patterns were published in tradesmen’s books and then brought to the New World, where the style proliferated with both brick and wood sidings. Most Georgian houses in New England are two rooms deep and two stories high, with chimneys at each end instead of in the center. “In the Boston area we’re fortunate to have large numbers of Georgian and Federal-style houses still intact,” says Cornish. “In other parts of the country, you don’t have that.”
What Because the nation’s founding fathers consciously chose to emulate the look of ancient Greece and Rome, architects were needed, and Boston’s own Charles Bulfinch was among the most prominent. They planned buildings that were similar in shape to the Georgian style and still strictly symmetrical but more refined, with low-hipped roofs, decorative molding on the cornices, and delicate fanlights over the front doors. The interiors had more creative floor plans and embellishments, including swags, garlands, urns, and classical geometric patterns.
Where Amherst, Andover, Barnstable, Boston (notably Mount Vernon and Pinckney streets, Quincy Market, and Union Park), Cambridge (such as Inman Square and Otis Street), Jamaica Plain
What The classical theme continued and intensified with the robust and muscular Greek Revival style, which was often used for public buildings but also for domestic architecture that spread from the cities to the provinces. Its most prominent feature is its columns, either real — beneath a porch or a heavy pediment — or echoed in wide corner boards often capped with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian details. The roof is typically situated gable-end forward, with one or more chimneys set back, and, though the style is generally symmetrical, the entryway is often on one side and accentuated with narrow sidelights and a rectangular transom.
Where Dorchester, Martha’s Vineyard (particularly Oak Bluffs), Roxbury, Yarmouth
What “I’ve always had a fondness for Italianate and Gothic Revival,” says Historic New England’s Cornish. “They’re romanticized mid-19th-century revival styles that were really very important to tying the site and landscape and setting to the house and trying to incorporate indoor and outdoor living spaces.” Gothic architecture was used in the medieval cathedrals of England and northern France, and its rebirth in the United States rejected classicism and embraced naturalism. Its steeply pitched rooflines often dripped with intricate moldings on deeply overhanging eaves. Windows, which typically extended into the gable, and doors were commonly topped with pointed molding arches, and one-story full-width or entry porches were sometimes detailed with fancy woodwork.
Where Back Bay, Boston (such as Concord Square), Dorchester (notably Savin Hill Avenue), Jamaica Plain, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Roxbury
What Italianate, like Gothic Revival, grew out of the Picturesque movement in Europe, which focused on the irregularity of nature and drew its inspiration from the landscape. In this country, the houses had somewhat irregular shapes that sometimes incorporated square towers and cupolas. Ornamentation included wide, bracketed eaves; arched double or triple windows, often bay-shaped, tall, and narrow; paired, frequently arched doorways; structural masonry or decorative wood corner quoins; and centered or full-width porches.
Where Boston (notably St. Germain Street), Brookline (particularly Beacon Street), Fall River, Holyoke, Lynn, Newton, Worcester
What Less common for housing in the Boston area, Romanesque Revival is exemplified in Back Bay’s Trinity Church, designed by the foremost practitioner of Romanesque style, H.H. Richardson, and in the Engine 33 and Ladder 15 firehouse on Boylston and Dalton streets, also in the Back Bay. Richardson’s designs were published after his death in pattern books and builders’ guides, and the style was taken up for residences as well. Romanesque buildings are marked by their large round towers and prominent arches; many are constructed of masonry, though wood-framed examples are not unheard of.
Where Boston (notably Appleton Street), Brookline, Cambridge,
Dorchester, Lowell, Lynn, Melrose, Newton, Salem, Somerville, South Boston (such as East Broadway), South End
What Second Empire houses are pretty much everywhere; they took off with the post-Civil War population explosion and the invention of the streetcar, which made suburbs more accessible. With the economy booming and house plans becoming more complex, Second Empire style, adapted from French architecture and named after the reign of Napoleon III, became popular, with its two to four stories, straight or flared mansard roofs containing many dormers, expansive porches, and rectangular towers centered on the front facade. Decorative touches included stained-glass windows, fanciful ironwork, and bracketed eaves.
Where Fall River, Lowell, Newton, North Adams, Springfield
What Stick Style is “a very specific design,” says Neiswander, “in which the exterior walls have boards that divide their surface vertically and horizontally with clapboard in between.” Stucco can also be between those boards. Often said to link Gothic Revival and Queen Anne, Stick Style also overlapped with Tudor Revival. It emphasized asymmetrical two- or three-story forms, complex gable roofs with overhanging eaves, decorative trusses at gable ends, exposed rafter tails, and corbeled chimneys.
Where Arlington, Brookline, Milton, Newton, Swampscott, Winchester
What Some architectural historians consider Shingle Style to be a subset of Queen Anne, while others consider it a strictly American style. Identified by its lack of ornamentation, gambrel roofs, lean-to additions, and extensive porches, the Shingle Style was never adapted to mass housing, but was used primarily in wealthy seaside resort areas such as Newport, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and coastal Maine. Shingle Style’s “massing,” or form, is typically asymmetrical. “As you go around the house you get completely different outlines of it,” says Neiswander, “whereas if you were going around a house with regular massing, you’d see the same shape.”
Where Adams, Arlington, Beverly, Boston (notably Greenwich and St. Germaine streets), Brookline, Chicopee, Dorchester (such as Savin Hill Avenue), Fall River, Gloucester, Great Barrington, Holyoke, Marlborough, Newton, Somerville, Springfield, Swampscott
What Though it was the most common Victorian-era architecture in the United States, Queen Anne can be hard to define because it encompasses such a variety of elements and styles. One thing all Queen Anne houses have in common, though, is that they’re grand. “These buildings were done when people were feeling wealthy and forward-looking, to say ‘We have arrived,’ ” says Somerville’s Chase. Asymmetry was de rigueur, and varied wall planes and forms included bays, towers, overhangs, wall projections, and multiple textures. Gingerbread woodwork was common, as were porches, bold paint colors, and projecting upper floors.
Where Arlington, Barnstable, Belmont, Boston (notably Gainsborough Street), Brookline, Chelsea, Concord, Dorchester (such as Rowell Street), Hingham, Longmeadow, Newton, Quincy, Salem
What The Colonial style was revisited following the centennial of independence, and it became one of the country’s most entrenched forms, spurred in part by architects McKim, Mead, and White’s highly publicized travels through New England recording its exemplars. The revival included the Dutch Colonial style with its gambrel roof and curved eaves but focused on neoclassical touches like pediments, columns, Palladian windows, and symmetry that chafed against the ornamental Victorian styles then in vogue. “The real Colonial house would be considered vernacular, an Everyman’s house that had no architect,” says Chase. “Colonial Revival amalgamated a bunch of styles they saw going back.” The post-Depression era saw the simplification of the style that became ubiquitous in suburban tract subdivisions.
Where Belmont, Boston (notably upper Commonwealth Avenue), Brookline, Newton, Springfield, Wellesley
What Also called English Revival, Tudor architecture harkens to the medieval period but with storybook elements that made it a favorite among the well heeled. Brick or stone first stories predominate, while the second and third floors are invariably decorated with faux timber frames and stucco siding. Brick chimneys, dark interior woodwork, and steeply pitched slate roofs, often with dormer windows, finish the look.
What Though Mid-Century Modern may not quite qualify as a traditional style, it is significantly represented in the Boston area. Often compact in size, these houses often were built using experimental materials, some of which have not stood the test of time, making them prime targets for tearing down. “It’s such an uphill battle to educate people that these are important buildings,” says Cornish. Informed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s natural aesthetic and inspired by Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement in Germany, these homes are characterized by flat rooflines, large windows, open floor plans with changes in elevation, and plain, simple facades and interiors.
WHERE TO FIND OLD SUPPLIES
Architectural Salvage Inc.
3 Mill Street, Exeter, New Hampshire
The website alone is an architectural voyeur’s dream, with photos of English stained-glass doors, brass sink brackets, intricate corbels, claw-foot shower bases, and granite mantels. And if you can’t find what you want in the 6,500-square-foot showroom, it may be in one of two off-site barns stocked with salvaged timber and flooring.
Boston Building Resources
100 Terrace Street, Boston
Boston Building Resources has a mix of old and newer things, including hundreds of doors and windows, recent-vintage kitchen cabinets, and the occasional marble sink top with brass faucet. “Plus” members — who must meet income guidelines posted on the website — get an even deeper discount.
Habitat for Humanity ReStore
1580 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury
You may not snag the 1859 newel post you’re looking for here, but you might come across like-new kitchen cabinets, appliances, lighting, and furniture — as well as surprises such as the occasional pallet of cleaning products. ReStore is probably the neatest and cleanest secondhand place you’ll find, and all proceeds go to building homes for families in need.
Nor’East Architectural Antiques
16 Exeter Road, South Hampton, New Hampshire
With 17,000 square feet of showroom and warehouse space and another 3½ acres of antique building materials outdoors, Nor’East is likely to have just about any pre-1940s materials you’re looking for. But just to make sure before you go, check the website — it’s updated daily.
1946 Washington Street, Boston
This 7,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse in Boston stocks an amazing array of architectural materials and decorative items, from double pedestal sinks to iron fencing to religious statuary and stained glass. They regularly sell to film crews.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.