Dutch Colonials Are the Unsung Hero of American Residential Architecture

published Oct 27, 2022
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The city block I grew up on in Richmond, Virginia, featured just three styles of homes. There were small, one-story brick rectangles — not quite long enough to be considered ranches — and a handful of two-story homes. Every other two-story home, including ours, had shingles covering the top half and asymmetrical windows popping out of a subtle take on a gambrel roof. I loved trying to draw that house as a child, but never knew quite how to describe it — until my parents sold just before I went to high school. 

As I scanned the MLS listing, I saw two words next to “style.” Dutch Colonial.

With a budding interest in architecture, I was captivated. I’d never been to Europe, but this sounded fancy. And historic! What could be better? 

Now I realize we were a little too far South to have lived in a true Dutch Colonial, but it started a lifelong love affair. Dutch Colonials fill some of the most charming towns and suburbs throughout the Northeast, and I always have my eyes peeled for a well-maintained example. Whenever I visit family in New Jersey, I’m charmed by the winding streets of pristine lawns and nearly 100-year-old Dutch Colonials sprinkled amidst the Cape Cods, American Foursquares, and intricate Victorians. 

The Dutch Colonials seem like something out of a storybook, with their perfect shingles and sloping roofs. They’re cozy and picturesque, almost like a vision from a painting, hosting moments of Americana during the summer, flowering gardens in the spring, autumnal leaves, and in winter, candlelit holidays. They’re more interesting than a traditional Colonial, but still maintain a heavy dose of nostalgia.

To find out more about this slightly under-the-radar mainstay of American residential architecture, I talked to three architectural history experts for their take on these classic homes.

What is a Dutch Colonial?

Architect John Kirk, a partner with the firm Cooper Robertson, happens to live in a Dutch Colonial. It dates back to 1890, around the time the style first started to see its popularity grow.

“The defining feature of a Dutch Colonial building is the gambrel roof form: a dual-pitched roofscape beginning with a steeply vertical slope, capped by a more shallow pitched roof,  often punctuated by dormers in the lower, more steeply pitched, portion of the roof,” he explains.

What is distinct about the gambrel roof, compared to other gables, is that it contains more livable space. “What appears to be a one story building capped with an over-scaled roof is, in fact, a two-story building,” Kirk adds.

What’s the history behind Dutch Colonials?

Eugene Colberg of Colberg Architecture explains that the style dates back to the 1700s. “The Dutch Colonial style was a tradition brought from the Dutch settlers and immigrants. Wherever they were, this style home was built,” Colberg says, including places like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and others.

While today we often see Dutch Colonials in brick or combinations of brick and wood, Sona Kyselica, project architect with Charles Diehl Architect LLC, says, “The earliest Dutch Colonials were simple folk houses with stone walls and gable roofs. Roofing was thatch, tile, or slate. As the style developed during the 1700s, wood shingle was more commonly used as a roofing material.”

Kyselica also notes that many of the early Dutch-dominated towns of the 1700s eventually gave way to English influences. “Dutch doors, with their simple paneling and split top and bottom, were replaced by Georgian-style doors and door surrounds. Early leaded casement windows were replaced by double-hung windows with larger panes,” she says.  

Centuries after the Dutch Colonial was first introduced to the American architectural lexicon, the style saw a resurgence throughout the same areas where it originally gained popularity. Colberg explains that this was seen both in civil and residential structures, perhaps in correlation to a surge in nostalgia.

Today, you’ll find great examples of Dutch Colonial architecture throughout New York and New Jersey, notably in Albany, Brooklyn, Bergen County in New Jersey, and Rockland, Ulster, and Dutchess Counties in New York, explains Kyselica.

Visit any town in the Northeast and go just a block outside of the city center. I guarantee you’ll find tree-lined streets, maintaining memories of when every house on a block looked different — and, on those streets, you’ll see charming houses with sloping, shingled roofs and dormer windows, reminiscent of the quintessential Americana vision.