When the Pilgrims first came to New England they did not build log cabins. Modern research shows that this form of construction was typical only of a later period - after the Revolution, when the first great pilgrimage Westward from the Alleghenies began.
Some palisado-houses were built by the first settlers. They were not unlike the English dwellings of Norman times, when growing trees or cut logs planted upright were bent together until their tops met and then were covered with thatch, sod, brush and mud to form a rude shelter. It seems that sod huts and half-underground shanties also were used during those first bitter years at Plymouth.
1 Colonial Homes (The Home Builder's Library, Architects' Small House Service Bureau, Inc., 1927).
Soon these crude forms were discarded. The next step was the single-story house of one or two rooms built of hewn or sawed lumber. This was closely similar to the early forerunner of the English Cottage - for the Pilgrims were Englishmen and the England they had left was essentially medieval.
Fig. 12. - Typical New England Colonial style house with plans (Figs. 13-14) as it has been modified to meet present-day needs. The central urn over the doorway which made its appearance in the early Georgian period is used over and over in Colonial architecture. (Copyright - the Architects' Small House Service Bureau, Inc., House Plan 6-A-72.)
Their first framed house was a simple rectangle with steep gabled roof of thatch. It was heated by a single fireplace with a great beam across its opening, located at the end of a one-room house or in the center if there were two rooms. The chimney was of wood and clay, for bricks and mortar were scarce. The spaces between the studs in the walls were filled with sticks and clay.
Fig. 13. - First-floor plan. Ceiling height, 8 feet 6 inches
Fig. 14. - Second-floor plan. Ceiling height, 8 feet
On the inside this filling was covered with boards in vertical-panel effect. Light was supplied through sliding wooden frames covered with oiled paper. On the outside the house was sheathed with wood.
At first, hand-split "shakes," which resembled modern shingles except that they were longer, wider, thicker and more crudely fashioned, were used. But within a few decades the Colonists discarded these for siding-boards which were more economical and better in appearance. Several types of boards were employed, but gradually drop-siding such as we use today came into general acceptance, and this finish appears on many of the fine old Colonial houses which are the models for modern homes in this style.
Such was the basis of domestic architecture in the Northern United States. The second step was the addition of a second story and the laying out of two rooms downstairs and two above, with fireplace in the middle of the house or, in the finer dwellings, with one at each end. Where the owner could afford it the second story overhung the first and the first decorative element that appeared in these buildings was a plainly carved pendant or drop projecting downward from this overhang. Sometimes, too, a curved or flat arch appeared over the doorway, the door itself consisting of two thicknesses of wide boards diagonally studded with nails.
More room was obtained at first simply by tacking a lean-to onto the rear or end. This later was carried up to the second story. Gabled dormers were poked through the roof to make the upstairs chambers larger and lighter. But still there was no privacy - you'd have to go through one room to reach another.
So the hallway was developed. Its earliest form was an interior entry-vestibule called a porch. This was extended through the whole depth of the house and a short run of stairs with a winder at top and bottom was built in its rear. Gradually this was expanded into a hall-system intersecting both floors, affording seclusion to each room and giving the artisans a chance for beautiful work in the carving and turning of newels, balusters and stair-ends characteristic of the Colonial style.
From 1650 on, glass windows were common in the better homes. The glass had to be imported and large sheets were more expensive than small ones. So there were 24, 18 or 12 panes in each window, the common type being the hinged casement sash with leaded panes either diamond or oblong in shape. Gradually two or three sashes came to be grouped in the same opening, except in dormers, attics and gable-ends.
But this left the downstairs hall dark. Builders experimented with transoms and side-lights for nearly a century before the late-Colonial treatment - a fanlight with or without narrow side lights - was perfected.
By 1670 thatch had been generally discarded in favor of handsplit shingles. The first variation in the traditional gable was the flattening of its peak to form a gambrel or curb. Mansard, hipped and pedimentgable designs later came into favor. And during the second and third decades of the XVIIIth Century, when modillion cornices and columned exterior porches began to be common, low balustrades appeared as ornaments on roof-decks.
Fig. 15. - Commonly termed English Georgian style. (Copyright - Architects' Small House Service Bureau, Inc., House Plan 6-F-10.)
Now, when the American home had reached this stage, it constituted a distinct architectural form, something which was different from any domestic architecture developed in the Old World. It embodied a character as simple, as dignified, as gaunt and unembellished, as practical, and as uncompromising as the characters of the men who created it. That is the New England Colonial style.
But it continued to change. Its two principal tendencies during the XVIIIth Century were in refinement of detail and organization of design. The exterior porch with its Greek columns and pediment-gable is an example of the former. By organization of design is meant that comers and builders began to conceive of a house as a harmonious whole, not a single unit to which an addition could be tacked on at any place desired. Ideas for both of these developments were borrowed chiefly from England and France, the sources of most of our domestic architecture.