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What an American Home Looks Like


This colonial style home was built in North Carolina in 1772, before the American Revolution.
What an American House Looks Like
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American homes are a lot like America. They are a mix of designs from many countries, all combined together.

For example, a visitor to a neighborhood in the United States might see several kinds of colonial houses. Workers began building these houses in the 1600s, when Britain ruled the area.

Colonial houses are often box-shaped, two-story houses. They have a front door in the middle, and five or seven windows. Both sides of the house are usually the same.

This colonial style home was originally built in 1759. Later owners added other design elements.
This colonial style home was originally built in 1759. Later owners added other design elements.

Their original design came from ancient Roman and Greek buildings. But over time, Americans added design elements from the architectural styles of other countries.

One modern-day colonial home can have a tall French-style roof, like the Louvre museum in Paris. Another can have narrow Greek columns near the front door, like the U.S. White House. Another can have long pieces of wood on the outside, like some houses in England during the Middle Ages. Or the same house can have all three!

Jackie Craven is a reporter who writes about architecture. She told VOA over email, “Our homes, like our people, draw from many sources.”

Victorians

A Victorian-style house in California
A Victorian-style house in California

The style of American homes also show what was happening in the country at the time they were built. In the 1800s, the U.S. was growing economically. Workers learned how to make many copies of the same thing quickly, for not very much money. One result is that a number of Americans could pay for the building of large, complex houses. These are called Victorians after Queen Victoria who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901.

Victorian houses follow Queen Victoria’s romantic image. They are usually three stories tall and asymmetrical – in other words, the sides are not the same in size or shape. One side may have large windows. Another may have a porch. One side might also be tall and rounded. Victorians also have detailed wood cutouts for visual appeal.

The colorful Victorian houses in San Francisco are called "painted ladies."
The colorful Victorian houses in San Francisco are called "painted ladies."

At first, Victorians were painted in a mix of earthy colors, like browns, greens and dark orange. In later years bright pinks, blues and yellows became popular combinations.

Some observers compare Victorian houses to doll houses, gingerbread houses or even wedding cakes.

They look fancy, but they are modest in relation to some houses that came later.

Mansions and Sears

At the end of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution made steel part of the American environment. Steel helped build railroads and skyscrapers.

The Breakers mansion in Rhode Island was finished in 1895. It has 70 rooms and was influenced by Italian palaces.
The Breakers mansion in Rhode Island was finished in 1895. It has 70 rooms and was influenced by Italian palaces.

It also helped make a few American businessmen very wealthy. Some built extremely large mansions that looked more like European castles than family homes.

They mixed old Italian, French, and Roman Empire building traditions that aimed to show how powerful and rich the owners were. Inside, the mansions had huge stairways and dining rooms big enough for 100 people.

But by the beginning of the 1900s, some people were rejecting shows of wealth by powerful people. And many Americans needed housing that was far less costly, especially during the economic depression of the 1930s.

This Sears catalogue home was advertised in 1913.
This Sears catalogue home was advertised in 1913.

So houses became simpler and smaller. One company, called Sears, made house building kits you could order from a catalogue. The business sent you the parts and the plans for the house. Then you and a few friends built it yourself. The houses lasted, too – about 70 percent of Sears kit houses are still standing.

Frank Lloyd Wright

During the same years that Sears was mailing housing kits, an architect named Frank Lloyd Wright was creating a new kind of American house.

Wright did not want to use European ideas. He believed American houses should fit into the nature around them. Some of his most famous houses are long and low, with clean lines and a simple style. The roof hangs far over and beyond the walls, so the area outside feels more connected to the structure. Inside, the rooms are all connected.

The Brady Bunch house was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright designs.
The Brady Bunch house was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright designs.

Wright designed more than 1,000 houses in his life. His influence can be seen in a huge number of American homes built in the 20th century. They are especially common in neighborhoods just outside of cities, called suburbs. For example, the ranch house on the 1960s and 70s television show “The Brady Bunch” was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

McMansions

Susan Piedmont-Palladino is an architect and the director of Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center. She calls the history of American homes an “all-you-can-eat buffet.” In other words, Americans have many home styles to choose from.

“We can borrow anybody’s style of architecture, and I’m not sure that’s the attitude in other countries around the world,” she says.

And Piedmont-Palladino says American homes are different in another way. She observes that most American homes are for just one family: one set of parents and their children. The single family house, she says, “dominates” American neighborhoods.

A house being built in Kentucky in the early 2000s.
A house being built in Kentucky in the early 2000s.

She also notes that as American families are getting smaller, American houses are getting bigger. For example, in the late 1900s some Americans built large houses again to show their wealth and power.

But these houses are not as unique or beautiful as the mansions of the late 1800s. Many of them look similar to each other. They are known in a negative way as McMansions – mansions that are as common and quickly made as the food at a McDonalds fast food restaurant.

Piedmont-Palladino says in the future, she would like to see American houses move a different direction. She hopes owners and builders will seek designs that are friendly to the environment and use resources wisely.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for Learning English. It is based on a VOA report by Dora Mekouar. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

colonial - adj. of or relating to the original 13 colonies forming the United States

romantic - adj. stressing emotion and imagination

porch - n. a structure attached to the entrance of a building that has a roof and that may or may not have walls

gingerbread - n. a cake or cookie made with molasses and ginger and often decorated with candy

fancy - adj. very expensive and fashionable

modest - adj. not showing or feeling great or excessive pride

mansion - n. a large and impressive house : the large house of a wealthy person

catalogue - n. a book containing a list of things that you can buy or use, often with pictures

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