Architecture of the United States

Architecture of the United States

The Architecture of the United States includes a wide variety of architectural styles over its history. Architecture in the US is regionally diverse and has been shaped by many external forces, and can therefore be said to be eclectic, something unsurprising in such a multicultural society.

The United States of America is a relatively young country, and the overriding theme of American Architecture is modernity, with the 20th century skyscraper as its ultimate symbol.

American Indian

The oldest structures on the territory that is now known as the United States were made by the Ancient Pueblo Peoples of New Mexico. The Tiwa speaking people have inhabited Taos Pueblo continuously for over 1000 years. The related Chacoan civilization built extensive public architecture in northwestern New Mexico from CE 700 - 1250 until drought forced them to relocate. Another related people, now best known through the Cliff Palace and neighboring structures in Mesa Verde National Park, created distinctive cliff dwellings in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona from the twelfth through to the fourteenth century.

Other Native American architecture is known from traditional structures, such as long houses, wigwams, tipis and hogans. Images of local Algonquian villages Pomeiooc and Secoton in what later became coastal North Carolina that survive from the late sixteenth century. Artist and cartographer [ John White] stayed at the short-lived Roanoke Colony for 13 months and recorded over 70 watercolor images of indigenous people, plants, and animals.

Hawaii's late entry to the United States gives it a substantial history of precolonial architecture. Late nineteenth century Hawaiian architecture shows European influence. Earlier structures reflect Polynesian heritage.


When the Europeans settled in North America, they brought with them their architectural traditions and their construction the in building the oldest buildings in America. Construction was dependent upon the available resources: wood and brick are the common elements of English buildings in New England. It is also related to the logistics of colonialization which leads to a political appropriation of space by the mother country (governor's palace, forts). The mark of European domination is also economical (customs, plantations, warehouses) and religious (churches, Protestant churches, Franciscan and Jesuit missions).

panish influence

Spanish exploration of the American southwest began in the 1540s. The conquistador
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado crossed this dry region in search of the Pueblo Indians' mythical cities of gold. The Pueblo people built houses of adobe, a sun-dried clay brick, held together with exposed wooden beams. Their cubic form and dense arrangement gave villages a singular aspect which would be emulated by the Americans ("Pueblo Style"). One can imagine the disappointment of the conquistador in the face of these modest, unadorned structures, but under their roofs the temperature remained constant and cool. The Spanish finally conquered these villages and made Santa Fe the administrative capital of the region in 1609. The governors' palace was built between 1610 and 1614, mixing Indian and Spanish influences, with adobe walls and wrought iron fences. The building is long and has a patio. The San Miguel chapel of Santa Fe, dating from 1610, used the adobe technique, which gave this religious edifice a striking look of majesty and austerity.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish founded a series of forts ("presidios") from present-day Los Angeles to present-day San Francisco. From 1769 to 1823, they created a network of missions in the southwest. The missions had a significant influence on later regional architecture. The most celebrated of these settlements is that of Mission Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. The mission at the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico has an adobe church with a rectangular nave, exterior buttresses, and two symmetric, unadorned towers. The Mission San Xavier del Bac in Arizona is a good example of the Churrigueresque style in vogue in the rest of Latin America. The facade is framed by two massive towers and the portal is flanked by estipites, finely worked columns that serve only as ornamentation.

Spanish construction style was also applied in Florida intermittently from 1559 to 1821. Here, the "conch style" had a certain success at Pensacola, for example, adorning houses with balconies of wrought iron; the same tendency appears in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Fires in 1788 and 1794 destroyed the original Spanish structures in New Orleans. Many of the city's [ present buildings] date to late 18th century rebuilding efforts.

The earliest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States is St. Augustine, Florida founded in 1565. The Castillo de San Marcos fort 1672-1695 is its oldest surviving structure. It remains one of the rare architectural vestiges of the 17th century in the United States together with the Spanish fort at Pensacola.

English influence

The Georgian style appeared during the 18th century and Palladian architecture took hold of Williamsburg, Virginia. The Governor's palace, built in 1706-1720, has a vast gabled entrance at the front, which is adorned by a small lantern hanging from the banister. It respects the principle of symmetry and uses the materials that are found in New England: red brick, white painted wood, and blue slate used for the roof with a double slant. This style is used to build the houses of plantation workers and the rich merchants living on the Atlantic coast (see below "Aristocratic Rural Houses").

In religious architecture, the common design features were brick, stone-like stucco, and a single spire that tops the entrance. They can be seen in Saint Michael's Church in Charleston (1761) or Saint Paul's Chapel of Trinity in New York (1766). The architects of this period were strongly influenced by canons of Old World architecture. Peter Harrison (1716-1755) brought out his European techniques which he applied in the state of Rhode Island. Between 1748 and 1761, he constructed the Redwood library and the Newport market. Boston and Salem were the two main cities where the English style took hold, but in a more uncluttered style, more adapted to the American way of life. The Architect Charles Bulfinch fitted the "Massachusetts State House" in 1795-1798 with an original gilded dome. He worked on the construction of several houses in the Beacon Hill quarter and Louisburg Square in his home city of Boston.

Excavations at the first permanent English speaking settlement, Jamestown, Virginia (founded 1607) have unearthed part of the triangular James Fort and numerous artifacts from the early 17th century. Nearby Williamsburg was Virginia's colonial capital and is now a tourist attraction as a well preserved eighteenth century town.

The oldest remaining building of Plymouth, Massachusetts is the [ Harlow House] built 1677 and now a museum. The Fairbanks House (ca. 1636) in Dedham, Massachusetts is the oldest remaining wood frame house in North America. Several notable colonial era buildings remain in Boston [] . Boston's Old North Church, built 1723 in the style of Sir Christopher Wren, became an influential model for later United States church design.

19th Century public architecture

In 1776, the members of the Continental Congress declared the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. The Treaty of Paris (1783) recognized the existence of the new republican country, the United States of America. Even though it was a break with the United Kingdom on the political stage, English influences continue to mark the buildings constructed in this part of the world. Public, philanthropic and commercial controls grew in parallel with the growing demographics and territorial extension. The buildings of these new federal and judicial institutions adopted the classic vocabulary (columns, domes and pediment), in reference to ancient Rome and Greece. Architectural publications multiplied: in 1797, Asher Benjamin published "The Country Builder's Assistant". Americans looked to affirm their independence in all domains: politics, economics but also culture, with the foundation of universities and museums. It was at the end of the 19th century that this independence and dynamism expressed itself to the fullest, as it is documented in photo architectural albums like the "Architectural photographic series" of Albert Levy. ["American Victorian Architecture", by Arnold Lewis and Keith Morgan. Dover publications, 1975] .

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. The constitution, drawn up in 1787, gave birth to new institutions which necessitated buildings and imposed the principles of national sovereignty and separation of powers. The official, civil and religious architecture (those that constituted the originality of the United States), reflected this vision and took the Acropolis buildings as a model. The Propylaea were reproduced in another scale in front of the houses in the countryside on the east coast. 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). Above all, the capitol buildings of the Federal States adopted the neoclassical 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 capitol building in Columbus in Ohio, 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.

Washington, D.C.

The federal capitol building in the United States is a good example of uniform urbanism: the design of the building was imagined by the Frenchman Pierre Charles L'Enfant. This ideal of the monumental city and neoclassicism is taken up by the supporters of the City Beautiful movement. Several cities wanted to apply this concept, which is part of the Beaux-Arts style, but Washington, DC seems the most dedicated of all of them. The White House was constructed after the creation of Washington, DC by the congressional law of December 1790. After a contest, James Hoban, an Irish American, was chosen and the construction began in October 1792. The building that he had conceived was modeled upon the first and second floors of the Leinster House, a ducal palace in Dublin, Ireland which is now the seat of the Irish Parliament. But during the War of 1812, a large part of the city was burned, and the White House was ravaged. Only the exterior walls remained standing, but it was reconstructed. The walls were painted white to hide the damage caused by the fire. At the beginning of the 20th century, two new wings were added to support the development of the government.

The United States Capitol was constructed in successive stages starting in 1792. Shortly after the completion of its construction, it was partially burned by the British during the War of 1812. Its reconstruction began in 1815 and didn't end until 1830. During the 1850s, the building was greatly expanded by Thomas U. Walter. In 1863, an imposing statue, "Freedom", was placed on the top of the dome. The Washington Monument is an Obelisk memorial erected in honor of George Washington, the first American President. It was Robert Mills who had designed it originally in 1838. There is a perceivable color difference towards the bottom of the monument, which is because its construction was put on hiatus for lack of money. Around 170 meters high, it was completed in 1884 and opened to the public in 1888.The Lincoln Memorial (1915-1922) is another monument from the same series: made out of marble and white limestone, the building 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.

Finally, the Jefferson Memorial is the last great monument constructed in the Beaux-Arts tradition, in the 1940s. His 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 to grace the building with a spectacular Dome, which rises 39 meters beneath the sun. It was severely criticized by the proponents of the International Style.

Return to medieval forms

From the 1840s on, the Neogothic 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 Neogothic style was also used in the construction of universities (Yale, Harvard) and churches. 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 in Europe, but today we find it nestled amongst the immense skyscrapers of Manhattan.

In New York, we think of 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, DC with the construction of the Smithsonian Institution. But his critics reproached him for having broken the architectural harmony of the capitol by building an eccentric combination in red brick borrowed from the Byzantines, Romans, Lombards and personal additions.

The success of Neogothicism was prolonged up until the beginning of the 20th century in numerous Skyscrapers, notably in Chicago and in New York, many in Henry Hobson Richardson's Richardsonian Romanesque.

Federal architecture

Thomas Jefferson, who was president of the United States between 1801 and 1809 had created interest in several domains, including architecture. Having journeyed several times in Europe, he hoped to apply the formal rules of palladianism and of antiquity in public and private buildings, in the city and the countryside. He therefore contributed to the plans for the University of Virginia, which began construction in 1817. The project, completed by Benjamin Latrobe, allowed him to apply his architectural concepts. The university library is situated under a rotunda covered by a dome which was inspired by the Pantheon of Rome. The combination created a uniformity thanks to the use of brick and wood painted white. For the capitol building of Richmond, Virginia (1785-1796), Jefferson had seized upon imitating the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, but chose Ionian order for its columns. Man of the Age of Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson had participated in the emancipation of the New World architecture by imposing his vision of an art-form in service of democracy. He contributed to developing the federal style in his country and to adapting European Neoclassical architecture to republican values born at the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson was a skilled amateur architect who designed the original buildings at the University of Virginia and his estate Monticello. Work commenced in 1768 and modifications continued until 1809. This North American variation on Palladian architecture borrowed from British and Irish models and revived the portico. This interest in Roman elements appealed in a political climate that looked to the ancient Roman republic as a model.

The Federal style was popular along the Atlantic coast from 1780 to 1830. Characteristics of the federal style include neoclassical elements, bright interiors with large windows and white walls and ceilings, and a decorative yet restrained appearance that emphasized rational elements. Other significant federal style architects include Asher Benjamin, Charles Bulfinch, Samuel McIntire, Alexander Parris, and William Thornton.

Aristocratic Rural Houses

They developed on the east coast where the rich proprietors and planters had sumptuous and comfortable residences constructed from around the 17th century, who sought to imitate English residences.

17th to 18th centuries

The diffusion of architectural traits in the colonial aristocracy permitted the Georgian style to assert itself. At Mount Pleasant, (Philadelphia), John McPherson had a residence constructed in 1761-1762 equipped with an entrance topped by a pediment supported by Doric columns. We can recognize here a roof with a balustrade and a symmetrical arrangement, characteristic of the neoclassic style en vogue at the time in Europe. In Salem, Samuel McIntire was the architect of the John Gardiner-Pingree house (1805); he designed the roof with a gentle slope, a balustrade and built it out of brick. He took up Palladio's idea of linking the buildings by a semi-circular portico supported by columns.

In the 1780s, the Federal style began to diverge bit by bit from the Georgian style and became a uniquely American genre. At the time of the War of Independence, houses stretched out along a strictly rectangular plan, adopting curved lines and favoring the decorative details such as garlands and urns. Certain openings were ellipsoidal in form, one or several pieces were oval or circular.

Thomas Jefferson elaborated the plans of his own house of Monticello in Virginia, close to Charlottesville. A beautiful example of the Palladian style, it brings to mind the Salm Hotel situated in Paris, that Jefferson had been able to see when he was an ambassador in France. He used antique components such as Doric columns, tetrastyle porticoes and a central dome.

In Louisiana, the colonial houses sometimes support a neoclassical pediment with columns, as is the case at "Belle Meade Plantation" in Tennessee. With symmetrical allure, the residence has at its disposal a columned porch and narrow windows. But the domestic architecture in the South had consciously freed itself from the classic model when it supported a mid-height balcony on the front and left out the pediment on the entrance portico (Charleston, South Carolina, Oak Alley plantation in Louisiana). The houses were adapted to the regional climate and registered themselves into the economy of the plantation. They sported a stucco and cast iron decor just like in the French quarter.

19th century

Much later, the great families of the coast had immense estates and villas constructed in the neogothic style, with antipodes of neoclassicism. They took the house of Sir Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill as a model. Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) worked on the villa projects in the Hudson river valley and dressed them with fantasy details taken from the medieval repertoire. For George Merritt's residence at Lyndhurst, he chose to build a building with a complex plan and to open several ears who could be made to think of Church stained glass windows.

In the second half of the 19th century, the architects Richard Morris Hunt, Henry Hobson Richardson and Frank Furness usually responded to the orders of the rich families such as the Ames or the Vanderbilt and they constructed Roman or renaissance revival residences. The industry or transportation magnates invested in stone and commissioned villas imitating European palaces. The Biltmore Estate, close to Asheville in North Carolina, was the largest private residence in the country. Richard Morris Hunt copied the Louis XII and François I wings from the Château de Blois. It was the golden age for large agencies such as McKim, Mead and White and for the Beaux-Arts style, comprised there for private constructions. The architecture was an expression of notable Americans' prestige.

Modest homes

Balloon-frame construction

At the beginning of the 19th century, less technical manuals ("pattern books") had been distributed. The settlement of the western United States changed the needs of the architecture in use. The pioneers used the "balloon frame" technique in the 1840s and 1850s. The first use of which seems to have been in 1833 for the construction of St. Mary's Church in Chicago. Its success lies in the quickness of construction (standardized boards and nails). It allowed anyone to easily build the framework of the house which was then covered with siding. The interior of the walls were covered with plaster or wood. It encouraged the fast development of towns and encouraged great mobility. However, these houses did not offer good sanitary conditions and burned easily in the case of a fire.

19th century currents

The "Stick Style" is an American method of house construction that uses wooden rod trusswork. The buildings are topped by high roofs with steep slopes. The design is asymmetrical and the interior space opens out onto several verandas. 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. The "Stick Style" was progressively abandoned after the crisis of 1873.

Then the "Shingle Style" replaced the "Stick Style". It is characterized by simplicity and the attention to comfort. Henry Hobson Richardson constructed William Watts Sherman's house in 1874-1875 by leaving the wooden structure visible. Mrs. F. Stoughton's house in Cambridge (1882-1883) and the Newport Casino (1879-1881) used shingle coverings.

On the west coast, domestic architecture evolved equally towards a more modern style. The Haight Ashbury quarter, in San Francisco, is representative of Italianiate Victorian style (1860-1900). Constructed with sequoia wood, they resisted the town's fire in 1906 and were highly decorated and colored. In that era, they offered all the modern comforts: central heating, electricity and running water. Their dimensions were standardized: 8 meters (26 feet) for the facade and 30 meters (98 feet) deep. They were composed of several floors and some wings.

Interest in the simplification of the space and exterior decoration progressed due to the work of Irving Gill, characterized by several Californian houses with flat roofs in the 1910s (Walter Luther Dodge's house, in Los Angeles, for example). Rudolf M. Schindler and Richard Neutra adapted European modernism to the Californian context in the 1920s ("Lovell Beach House" in Newport Beach, California and "Health House" in Los Angeles).

Frontier vernacular

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. 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 influenced villages of the northeastern states. Settlers built homes from local materials, often erecting log cabins in the forested eastern states or sod houses in the treeless prairie. A few original log cabins remain, most of which have been concealed by clapboard facades. Related Straw-bale construction, pioneered in Nebraska with early baling machines, has endured as a modern building material.

Rural residents preferred homes built from milled lumber and constructed these instead of sod or log homes when they could afford the materials. Railroads delivered building supplies to the nearest town. Grant Wood's famous "American Gothic" painting takes its name from the upper window in the farmhouse behind the couple. The arched window was a popular 1880s design element sometimes known as "carpenter gothic."

The Sears Catalog Home that sold from 1908 to 1940 supplanted the remaining sod homes and most of the log homes. These complete homebuilding kits included lumber and plans. The "balloon style" framing architecture could be erected with a small construction team of family members and friends. Decorative elements were conservative, reminiscent of late Victorian esthetics. The double hung sash windows of the Sears Catalog homes are the most common residential window type in the United States. Sears Catalog homes remain popular for their better than average quality.


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. 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 twentieth 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.

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, 792 ft (241 m), it was the world's tallest building until 1930. 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. Security concerns following the attack on the nearby World Trade Center have closed the lobby to public viewing. 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 twentieth century architectural styles. Second place finisher Eliel Saarinen submitted a modernist design. An entry from Walter Gropius brought attention to the Bauhaus school.

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.

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. One of his best-known buildings, however, is a public one: the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

European architects who emigrated to the United States before World War II launched what became a dominant movement in architecture, the International Style. Perhaps the most influential of these immigrants were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), both former directors of Germany's famous design school, the Bauhaus. Based on geometric form, buildings in their style have been both praised as monuments to American corporate life and dismissed as "glass boxes." In reaction, 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.

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 skyscaper hotel in the Western Hemisphere.

Modern American governmental buildings and skyscrapers have a distinct style known as Federal Modernism.


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.

ee also

* United States
* Architecture
* Architectural style
* Culture of the United States
* Hawaiian architecture
* Chicago school (architecture)
* List of America's Favorite Architecture according to the AIA
* Octagon house
* Albert Levy, 1870's American architecture photographer

External links

* [ History of American Architectural Building Styles]
* [ Colonial Williamsburg]
* [ Columbia Encyclopedia]
* [ century-rhode-island-structures.html 17th century Rhode Island Structures]
* [ Historic Indiana Architecture]
*Reiff, Daniel D. " [ Houses from Books] ", Penn State Press, 2001 ISBN 0-271-01943-3


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