Quick Guide: What Classic American Homes Look Like Across the Country

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Jessica Williamson)

The housing stock in America may be just as varied as the population here, particularly in older areas where people have been building for hundreds of years as waves of settlers brought influence from their native countries. Different styles and trends have prevailed over the years, and of course, no city or region is defined by just one style, but certain geographic areas definitely do have a common thread running through their local architecture and design.

I spent almost three years working at This Old House, where vintage buildings were prized for their individuality and quirky charm. Back in the day, we used to scout all 50 states for the best old house neighborhoods, so I remember a thing or two about what kind of construction was where. So without further ado—and in appreciation of American design—here’s a quick and super simplified guide on what architecture tends to look like in some specific spots – either regions or specific cities – across the country.

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New York City

Let’s start things off in New York City, which is known for its brownstones, or side-by-side structures that were built upward (as opposed to outward) to house the growing urban population in the 1800s. They take their name from the finish of the sandstone on their facades, but oddly enough, brownstone colors can vary depending on the quarry the stone is sourced from. The big take home on these and other buildings in the tri-state area and beyond is the inherent classicism that comes from the early settlers that often looked to European architecture as a blueprint of sorts.

“East Coast/New York design often has an inherent classicism derived from its architecture, whether it’s a shingle style home on Long Island’s East End, a West Village townhouse or an Upper East Side pre-war apartment building,” says Susan Galvani of Spruce. “Even the most contemporary twists on these spaces typically pay homage to their traditional roots in various ways such as an exposed brick wall, preserved wooden ceiling beams and original plumbing fixtures.”

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New England

New England architecture has similar traditional undertones, as much of the building that took place here during the Colonial years was inspired by simple English cottages. This region is known for their cape and saltbox houses, styles defined by their plain fronts and sloping roofs—the Saltbox much steeper than the Cape’s gable. These features were more function than form, with their characteristic central chimneys and cedar shingles providing warmth during the harsh winters.

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The South

Heading south, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore are best known for their simple row houses, and below the Mason Dixon Line, you’ll find stately colonials that often feature wraparound or front porches, particularly states like Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. “Southern design is best explained as more of a feeling than a tangible design element or genre,” says Elizabeth Demos, a Savannah-based decorator and interior stylist. “It is authentic, collected, classic, rooted in history and hospitable.” Yes, some of the buildings may be fancy, but Demos says shared spaces are at the heart of Southern buildings— porches, parlors, dens, docks, terraces, eat-in kitchens and large dining rooms.

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Down at the tip of Florida, Miami’s colorful and playful buildings hold up a mirror to the city’s beach culture and Latin roots. Modernism arrived in Miami just in time to include the Art Deco movement, so there are a lot of bold, geometric shapes and pretty pastel colors going on in the buildings that line the world famous Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and beyond.

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New Orleans

Moving westward, you can’t talk about New Orleans without mention of their bounty of cute shotgun homes, where rooms are laid out in a line, one behind the other, with doors at the front and back ends. These structures are kind of like a precursor to today’s tiny homes, since they’re typically only one story and no wider than 12 feet or so. Sadly, Katrina wreaked havoc on some of these guys, but you can still find some beauties that have been lovingly restored.

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Chicago is a mixed bag of architectural styles. From bungalows and two-flats to Greystones and skyscrapers, there’s something for every kind of architecture lover in the Midwest.

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The Southwestern landscape, and Sante Fe in particular, may be dominated by low-slung, Pueblo style adobe structures, but the region also has its fair share of Italianate, Victorian and California Mission-influenced buildings, as well.

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San Francisco

Out on the left coast, things are definitely more relaxed and varied. You can count on San Francisco for a bevy of eclectic Victorian homes, perhaps best exemplified by the “Painted Ladies” that probably got beamed into your household every T.G.I.F. on the opening credits of Full House.

And that, folks, is a crash course in American housing stock. What are your local landmarks, buildings and home styles?