Architecture of the United States

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Thomas Jefferson designed his Georgian style Monticello estate in Virginia, the only World Heritage Site home in the United States.

The architecture of the United States demonstrates a broad variety of architectural styles and built forms over the country's history of over four centuries of independence and former British rule.

Architecture in the United States is as diverse as its multicultural society and has been shaped by many internal and external factors and regional distinctions. As a whole it represents a rich eclectic and innovative tradition.[1]

Frontier vernacular

A sod house, 1901.

The Homestead Act of 1862 brought property ownership within reach for millions of citizens, displaced native peoples, and changed the character of settlement patterns across the Great Plains and Southwest. The law offered a modest farm free of charge to any adult male who cultivated the land for five years and built a residence on the property. This established a rural pattern of isolated farmsteads in the Midwest and West instead of the European and eastern U.S. states' villages and towns. Settlers built homes from local materials, such as rustic sod, semi-cut stone, mortared cobble, adobe bricks, and rough logs. They erected log cabins in forested areas and sod houses, such as the Sod House (Cleo Springs, Oklahoma), in treeless prairies. The present day sustainable architecture method of Straw-bale construction was pioneered in late-19th-century Nebraska with baling machines.

The Spanish and later Mexican Alta California Ranchos and early American pioneers used the readily available clay to make adobe bricks, and distant forests' tree trunks for beams sparingly. Locally made roof tiles were produced by the Mission Indians. As milled wood became more available in the mid-19th century the Monterey Colonial architecture style first developed in Monterey and then spread. The Leonis Adobe, Larkin House, and Rancho Petaluma Adobe are original examples.

Mid-19th century

Greek Revival

Greek revival style attracted American architects working in the first half of the 19th century. The young nation, free from Britannic protection, was persuaded to be the new Athens, that is to say, a foyer for democracy.

Benjamin Latrobe (1764–1820) and his students William Strickland (1788–1854) and Robert Mills (1781–1855) obtained commissions to build some banks and churches in the big cities (Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC).

Some state capitol buildings adopted the Greek Revival style such as in North Carolina (Capitol building in Raleigh, rebuilt in 1833–1840 after a fire) or in Indiana (Capitol building in Indianapolis). One later example of these is the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus, designed by Henry Walters and completed in 1861. The simple façade, continuous cornice and the absence of a dome give the impression of the austerity and greatness of the building. It has a very symmetrical design and houses the Supreme Court and a library. A rare style also was adopted around this time, Egyptian Revival architecture.

Exemplary Greek Revival buildings
The Fireproof Building, 1827, Charleston, South Carolina, by Robert Mills
New York Customs House, 1842, New York City, designed by James Renwick (the first Federal customs house)
The Ohio State Capitol, in Columbus, 1861, Henry Walters
The Rosicrucian Fellowship Temple, 1920, Oceanside, California, designed by Lester Cramer (New York)


Gothic Revival

From the 1840s on, the Gothic Revival style became popular in the United States, under the influence of Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852). He defined himself in a reactionary context to classicism and development of romanticism. His work is characterized by a return to Medieval decor: chimneys, gables, embrasure towers, warhead windows, gargoyles, stained glass and severely sloped roofs. The buildings adopted a complex design that drew inspiration from symmetry and neoclassicism.

The great families of the east coast had immense estates and villas constructed in the style, with antipodes of Neoclassicism. Some took Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill House as a model. Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892) worked on villa projects in the Hudson River Valley and used details from the Gothic to Baroque repertoire. For the Jay Gould estate country house "Lyndhurst" in Tarrytown, New York, Alexander Jackson Davis designed a building with a complex asymmetrical outline, and opened the double-height art gallery with stained glass windows.

New York City is home to James Renwick Jr's Saint Patrick Cathedral, an elegant synthesis of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims and the Cologne Cathedral. The project was entrusted to him in 1858 but completed by the erection of two spires on the facade in 1888. The use of materials lighter than stone allowed to pass from flying buttresses to exterior buttresses. Renwick also showed his talent in Washington, D.C. with the construction of the Smithsonian Institution. But his critics reproached him for having broken the architectural harmony of the capital by building an eccentric combination in red brick using Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombard, and eclectic themes.

Richard Upjohn (1802–1878) specialized in the rural churches of the northeast, but his major work is still "Trinity Church" in New York. His red sandstone architecture makes reference to the 16th-century forms in Europe. The Gothic Revival style was also used in the construction of universities (Yale, Harvard) and churches. The success of the Gothic Revival was prolonged up until the beginning of the 20th century in numerous Skyscrapers, notably in Chicago and in New York.

Gothic Revival across functions
Residential: "Lyndhurst", by Alexander Jackson Davis in Tarrytown, New York, 1838–1865.
Cemetery: James Monroe Tomb, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia (1858)
Government: West Virginia State Penitentiary, Moundsville, West Virginia. (1867–1876)
Academic: Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Gilded Age and late 1800s

Late Victorian architecture

The Carson Mansion, an 1886 Queen Anne Victorian in Eureka, California, is widely considered to have achieved the height of expression of that style.

Following the American Civil War and through the turn of the 20th century, a number of related styles, trends, and movements emerged, are loosely and broadly categorized as "Victorian," due to their correspondence with similar movements of the time in the British Empire during the later reign of Queen Victoria. Many architects working during this period would cross various modes, depending on the commission. Key influential American architects of the period include Richard Morris Hunt, Frank Furness, and Henry Hobson Richardson.

After the war, the uniquely American Stick Style developed as a of construction that uses wooden rod trusswork, the origin of its name. The style was commonly used in houses, hotels, railway depots, and other structures primarily of wood. The buildings are topped by high roofs with steep slopes and prominent decoration of the gables. The exterior is not bare of decoration, even though the main objective remains comfort. Richard Morris Hunt constructed John N. Griswold's house in Newport, Rhode Island in 1862 in this style. The "Stick Style" was progressively abandoned after c. 1873, gradually evolving into the Queen Anne Style.

Captain George Flavel House in Astoria, Oregon, a distinctive Queen Anne-style home.

On the west coast in California, Oregon, and Washington, domestic architecture evolved equally towards a more modern style. San Francisco has many representations of the Italianate, Stick-Eastlake, and Queen Anne styles of Victorian architecture, c. 1850s–1900. Constructed with Redwood lumber they resisted the 1906 San Francisco earthquake itself, though some burned in the aftermath. They introduced the contemporary services of central heating and electricity. The Carson Mansion conceived of by Builder-Architects, Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom and built by an army of over 100 craftsman from the massive lumber operations of its owner, is prominently situated at the head of Old Town Eureka, California on Humboldt Bay. It is widely regarded as one of the highest executions of Queen Anne style in California and the United States.

On the east coast the Queen Anne evolved into the Shingle Style architecture. It is characterized by attention to a more relaxed rustic image. Richardson designed the William Watts Sherman House (1874–1875) in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Mary Fiske Stoughton House (1882–1883) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Charles Follen McKim the Newport Casino (1879–1881) using shingle clad asymmetrical facades.

While medieval influence rode high, in the second half of the 19th century, architects also responded to commissions for estate scale residences with Renaissance Revival residences. Industry and commerce tycoons invested in stone and commissioned mansions replicating European palaces. The Biltmore Estate near to Asheville, North Carolina is in the Châteauesque style of French Renaissance Revival, and is the largest private residence in the U.S. Richard Morris Hunt interpreted the Louis XII and François I wings from the Château de Blois for it.

Rise of the skyscraper

Chicago's Home Insurance Building, the world's first steel framed skyscraper, erected in 1885.

The most notable United States architectural innovation has been the skyscraper. Several technical advances made this possible. In 1853 Elisha Otis invented the first safety elevator which prevented a car from falling down the shaft if the suspending cable broke. Elevators allowed buildings to rise above the four or five stories that people were willing to climb by stairs for normal occupancy. An 1868 competition decided the design of New York City's six story Equitable Life Building, which would become the first commercial building to use an elevator. Construction commenced in 1873. Other structures followed such as the Auditorium Building, Chicago in 1885 by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. This adopted Italian palazzo design details to give the appearance of a structured whole: for several decades American skyscrapers would blend conservative decorative elements with technical innovation.

Soon skyscrapers encountered a new technological challenge. Load-bearing stone walls become impractical as a structure gains height, reaching a technical limit at about 20 stories (culminating in the 1891 Monadnock Building by Burnham & Root in Chicago). Professional engineer William LeBaron Jenney solved the problem with a steel support frame in Chicago's 10-story Home Insurance Building, 1885. Arguably this is the first true skyscraper. The use of a thin curtain wall in place of a load-bearing wall reduced the building's overall weight by two thirds. Another feature that was to become familiar in 20th-century skyscrapers first appeared in Chicago's Reliance Building, designed by Charles B. Atwood and E.C. Shankland, Chicago, 1890 – 1895. Because outer walls no longer bore the weight of a building it was possible to increase window size. This became the first skyscraper to have plate glass windows take up a majority of its outer surface area.

Some of the most graceful early towers were designed by Louis Sullivan (1856–1924), America's first great modern architect. His most talented student was Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), who spent much of his career designing private residences with matching furniture and generous use of open space.

Beaux-Arts and the American Renaissance

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Illinois.

Daniel Burnham's "White City" of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, Illinois, ceremonially marks the dawn of the golden age for the Beaux-Arts style, and larger firms such as McKim, Mead and White. The era is documented in photo architectural albums such as the Architectural photographic series of Albert Levy.[2]

The Columbian Exposition also reflected the rise of American landscape architecture and city planning. Notable were the works of Frederick Law Olmsted, an already-prominent and prolific landscape architect who had designed the Midway Plaisance of the 1893 Exhibition, having previously designed New York's Central Park in the 1850s, the layout of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and many other works nationwide. Olmsted and his sons were also involved in the City Beautiful movement, which, as its name suggests, sought to aesthetically (and thus culturally) transform cities. The aspirations of the movement can be seen in the McMillan Plan for Washington, D.C..

As the century progressed, the Beaux-Arts influence would become somewhat more restrained, returning to its more Neoclassical roots. The Lincoln Memorial (1915–1922), made out of marble and white limestone, takes its form from doric order Greek temples without a pediment. Its architect, Henry Bacon, student of the ideas from the Beaux-Arts school, intended the 36 columns of monument to represent each of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death. The Jefferson Memorial was the last great monument constructed in the Beaux-Arts tradition, in the 1940s. Its architect, John Russell Pope, wanted to bring to light Jefferson's taste for Roman buildings. This is why he decided to imitate the Pantheon in Rome and grace the building with a similar type dome. It was severely criticized by the proponents of the International Style.

Early suburbs (1890–1930)

With the boom in the use of electric streetcars, the inner ring of suburbs developed around major cities, later to be aided by the advent of bicycles and automobiles. This boom in construction would result in a new, distinctly American form of house would emerge: the American Foursquare.

Arts and Crafts Movement

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School

Catalog Homes

Revivalism in the 20th century

The trend of reviving previous styles continued over from the 19th century. Many of the revivals beginning in the late 19th century on into the 20th century would focus more on regional characteristics and earlier styles endemic to the United States and eclectically from abroad, further influenced by the rise of middle-class tourism.

Mediterranean revival

The early 20th century saw Mediterranean Revival style architecture enter the large estate design vocabulary. A major and significant example is the Hearst Castle on the Central Coast of California, designed by architect Julia Morgan. The San Francisco Bay Area estate Filoli, by Willis Polk, is in Woodside, California with the mansion and gardens now part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and open to the public.

the Dumbarton Oaks estate, in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., has Italian Renaissance gardens by early landscape architect Beatrix Farrand and architectural design by several architects including Philip Johnson. The Harold Lloyd Estate, "Greenacres" in Beverly Hills, California, is a significant example from the 1920s, with extensive gardens by a leading estate Landscape designer in that era, A.E. Hanson.

Spanish Colonial revival

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition the architecture by Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow Sr. intentionally moved beyond the Mission Revival Style, from their studying Spanish Colonial architecture and its Churrigueresque and Plateresque refinements in Mexico. The project was a popular success, and introduced the Spanish Colonial Revival style to many design professionals and the public in California and across the country.

George Washington Smith, based in Montecito and Santa Barbara, designed the detailed and integrated Andalusian Spanish Colonial Revival Casa del Herrero estate in 1926. Smith, Bertram Goodhue, Wallace Neff, and other notable architects created many 'Country Place Era' properties throughout California during this period. A civic example is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and a commercial example the Mission Inn in Riverside, California.

Other colonials

Exotic revivals

Style Moderne and the Interwar skyscraper

Skyscrapers as architectural battleground

One culturally significant early skyscraper was New York City's Woolworth Building designed by architect Cass Gilbert, 1913. Raising previous technological advances to new heights, 793 ft (233 m), it was the world's tallest building until 1930.[4] Frank Woolworth was fond of gothic cathedrals. Cass Gilbert constructed the office building as a cathedral of commerce and incorporated many Gothic revival decorative elements. The main entrance and lobby contain numerous allegories of thrift, including an acorn growing into an oak tree and a man losing his shirt. The popularity of the new Woolworth Building inspired many Gothic revival imitations among skyscrapers and remained a popular design theme until the art deco era. Other public concerns emerged following the building's introduction. The Woolworth Building blocked a significant amount of sunlight to the neighborhood. This inspired the New York City setback law that remained in effect until 1960. Basically the law allowed a structure to rise to any height as long as it reduced the area of each tower floor to one quarter of the structure's ground floor area.

Another significant event in skyscraper history was the competition for Chicago's Tribune Tower. Although the competition selected a gothic design influenced by the Woolworth building, some of the numerous competing entries became influential to other 20th-century architectural styles. Second-place finisher Eliel Saarinen submitted a modernist design. An entry from Walter Gropius brought attention to the Bauhaus school.

World's tallest buildings in the Interwar Era
New York's Woolworth Building, 1913, remains one of the 50 tallest buildings in the United States (built in a Neo-Gothic style)
40 Wall Street, briefly holding the title of the world's tallest building until the completion of the Chrysler building
New York's Empire State Building, 1931, with the spire of the Chrysler Building, 1930, in the background.

Roadside architecture

The automobile culture of the United States has spawned numerous forms of architectural expression peculiar to that country (or alongside Canada), often vernacular in origin. Diner



Miami Modern

Post-War suburbs

A suburban development in San Jose, California.

The 1944 G. I. Bill of Rights was another federal government decision that changed the architectural landscape. Government-backed loans made home ownership affordable for many more citizens. Affordable automobiles and popular preference for single family detached homes led to the rise of suburbs. Simultaneously praised for their quality of life and condemned for architectural monotony, these have become a familiar feature of the United States landscape.

Modernism and reactions

Early Modernism

Interest in the simplification of the interior space and exterior facade progressed due to the work of Irving Gill, characterized by several Californian houses with flat roofs in the 1910s such as the Walter Luther Dodge house in Los Angeles. Rudolf M. Schindler and Richard Neutra adapted European modernism to the Californian context in the 1920s with the former's "Lovell Beach House" in Newport Beach and Schindler House in West Hollywood, and the latter's Lovell Health House in the Hollywood Hills.

International style

European architects who emigrated to the United States before World War II launched what became a dominant movement in architecture, the International Style. The Lever House introduced a new approach to a uniform glazing of the skyscraper's skin, and located in Manhattan. An influential modernist immigrant architect was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) and Walter Gropius (1883–1969), both former directors of Germany's famous design school, the Bauhaus.

The Reliance Building's move toward increased window area reached its logical conclusion in a New York City building with a Brazilian architect on land that is technically not a part of the United States. United Nations headquarters, 1949–1950, by Oscar Niemeyer has the first complete glass curtain wall.

American government buildings and skyscrapers of this period have are a style known as Federal Modernism. Based on pure geometric form, buildings in the International style have been both praised as minimalist monuments to American culture and corporate success by some, and criticized as sterile glass boxes by others.

Skycraper hotels gained popularity with the construction of John Portman's (1924–) Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel in Atlanta followed by his Renaissance Center in Detroit which remains the tallest skyscraper hotel in the Western Hemisphere.


In reaction to the "glass boxes" issue, some younger American architects such as Michael Graves (1945– ) have rejected the austere, boxy look in favor of postmodern buildings, such as those by Philip C. Johnson (1906–2005) with striking contours and bold decoration that alludes to historical styles of architecture.

Architecture as an American profession

Education and practice

The formal education and practice of U.S. architecture started in the early 19th century when Thomas Jefferson, and others, realized a need for trained architects to fulfill an acute need for professionals to support an expanding nation. It was then that architectural education became institutionalized within a formal setting; prior to this, the dominant model for training was apprenticeship to artisan, "at best a hit-or miss proposition educationally." [5] Additionally, most who called themselves architects during that general time period, were male, well-off, white, and trained in the French Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) education philosophy. According to Georg Hegel, a fine art philosophy, by definition, that focused on aesthetics and intellectual purpose, rather than any practical function.[6] This is the basis in which Thomas Jefferson, and others, formalized U.S. architectural pedagogy 150 years ago. According to Ernest Boyer and Lee Mitgang, a philosophy that advocated for:

  1. leaving the practical nature of the profession to be learned outside of formal education;
  2. architectural design to be conducted by a competitive method, with judgements by jury;
  3. the study of design be continuous through school, and design problems should not be overly practical, but rather should stimulate the imagination through the study of great masters;
  4. and an architectural curriculum include as broad a cultural background as time permits.[5]

This philosophy does not mention scientific or social science research. This legacy has meant that today, fewer than 20% of the 115 accredited Schools of Architecture offer a Ph.D. program; in addition, only a handful more offer exposure to and experience in rigorous research within building science & technology centers and laboratory settings. According to Gordon Chong, the architectural profession having emphasized "looking back as a means for justifying design decisions for future design," there remains a significant imbalance in learning between experience, intuition, and evidence-based design.[7]

There are currently over 83,000 members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) estimates the number of architects licensed in the United States at 105,847. Architecture firms employ approximately 158,000 people in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics).[8]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 33 professions are identified as over 90% white, including architecture at 91.3% white.[9] A number of allied professions are also over 90% white, including construction managers (91.8%), construction supervisors (91.8%), and cost estimators (93.9%), and related construction tradespersons including electricians (90.0%), painters (90.7%), carpenters (90.9%), cement masons (91.2%), steel workers (92.3%), and sheet metal workers (93.5%). The US labor force is 80% white.[10]

See also


  1. ^ Chaney, Sheldn. "The New World Architecture" Tudor Publishing Company, New York, 1935, p. 14
  2. ^ "American Victorian Architecture", by Arnold Lewis and Keith Morgan. Dover publications, 1975
  3. ^ Landis, Larry. "John V. Bennes (1867-1943)". The Oregon Encyclopedia. Portland State University. Retrieved February 6, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Study for Woolworth Building, New York". World Digital Library. 1910-12-10. Retrieved 2013-07-25. 
  5. ^ a b Boyer, Ernest L.; Mitgang, Lee D. (1996). Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ISBN 978-0931050596. 
  6. ^ Hegel, Georg (1998). Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. 1 (Translation ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198238164. 
  7. ^ Kaiser Permanente; Chong Partners Architecture; University of California, Berkeley (May 1, 2008). Developing an Evidence-Based Design Model that Measures Human Response: A Pilot Study of a Collaborative, Trans-Disciplinary Model in a Healthcare Setting (PDF). AIA College of Fellows: 2005 Latrobe Fellowship. pp. 3–5. 
  8. ^ "AIA Pressroom: Facts, Figures and the Profession". Retrieved 17 May 2014. 
  9. ^ Thompson, Derek. "The 33 Whitest Jobs in America". 
  10. ^ "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey – Demographics". Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Further reading

External links

  • Historic American Building Survey at the Library of Congress
  • American Institute of Architects, the national professional organization
  • Deerborn Massar Photography Collection at the University of Washington Library Architecture of the Pacific Northwest.
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