The Homes that America Built: A Crash Course in Favorite American Architecture Styles

published Jul 4, 2017
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(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

I have this argument with friends every now and again: What’s “American” food? The question inspires a lively discussion, with a lot of suggestions but no real consensus. (It usually comes down to hog dogs or Southern-style barbeque.) Nailing down American food is a tough thing because there is so much of America. So many people and cultures and styles that manage to blend together and evolve over the (few) centuries the country’s been around.

But the bigger problem, from my perspective, in identifying what’s “American” is that it’s tough to see, from our perch within the states, exactly what prototypically represents us to the world. You don’t quite understand that the entire rest of the planet has no idea what “ranch” flavor is, until you spot a bag of Doritos labeled “Cool American” in the U.S.A. aisle of a Tesco supermarket in London. It’s just so familiar—you can’t grasp a reality where ranch dressing is a novelty.

And what’s even more, is that near-sightedness gets a little micro within the states themselves. Until you move away from Louisiana, you might not ever realize exactly how unique the shotgun house layout truly is to New Orleans. Or the brownstone to Brooklyn. So in the name of fun, education and, yeah, a little perspective, here’s a brief rundown of some of the residential architecture you’ll spot across America:

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Shotgun Homes in New Orleans

Wikipedia defines this house style as “a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than about 12 feet wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house.” In other words, you could shoot a shotgun from the front door to the back and not pass through any walls. The layout, which requires you to pass through rooms to get to other rooms, favors space efficiency over privacy, and may have been brought to America from Haitian immigrants who settled in the Mississippi river delta.


Lowcountry Homes in South Carolina

Just picture The Notebook and you can understand the appeal of living life in a romantic lowcountry home, shrouded in columns with double-stacked wraparound porches. But as beautiful as they are, the style is built for practicality in the humid Southern heat: “To take advantage of the summer Southern breezes, the houses had tall ceilings for the heat to rise and porches on the south to shade the interior and create a place of respite from the heat,” Jane Frederick of Frederick + Frederick Architects told Houzz. “”The first floors were raised off the ground to keep out the floodwaters and to allow breezes to circulate under the house.”

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

Coach Houses in Chicago

The term “Coach House” refers to a secondary, separate structure that shares a lot with a primary residence. They’re usually tucked behind the main house and, for that reason, can’t often be spotted from the street—but they’re there, littered all over historic Chicago neighborhoods. The coach house’s original purpose was as a home for the main house’s carriage driver and storage for the horse and buggy. But today, they’re dwellings all their own (although since 1957, it’s been illegal to build coach houses in Chicago).


(Image credit: Pablo Enriquez)

Brownstones in Brooklyn

Brownstone refers literally to the stone itself used to build these iconic New York City residences. In the nineteenth century, brownstone from nearby Connecticut was cheaper than “the customary and preferred white marble or limestone,” according to, and used to construct stoops, doorway trim and window details in the federal and Greek revival styles that were so popular in the time. Eventually, brownstone became the trendy stone itself, and was used all over the city to build row house facades. It became so popular that now we use the term Brownstone to describe the townhomes themselves, all over the city—even the ones crafted with limestone and brick.


(Image credit: Lindsay Tella)

Victorian Row Homes in San Francisco

Victorian-style homes can be found all over the country (and are actually the most popular in the Northeast), yet we’ve come to associate them with San Francisco thanks to one iconic stretch of row homes: The Painted Ladies of Steiner Street. Wikipedia offers some insight on when and where they came to be (“About 48,000 houses in the Victorian and Edwardian styles were built in San Francisco between 1849 and 1915, and many were painted in bright colors.”) but not why. Curbed suggests that this style of home was just trendy during the time San Francisco was “transitioning from a one-horse- town to urban metropolis during the Gold Rush. The ornate detailing and revival styles were still extremely popular during SF’s reconstruction, which is one of the reasons why the City is so well known for it today.”


(Image credit: Jessica Kirsh)

Cape Cods in New England

Like Victorians, the footprint of Cape Cod-style homes spreads well across the country. But being that they’re, you know, named for the hook-shaped peninsula of Massachusetts, it makes sense that we’d associate this style with New England. Wikipedia defines the architecture as “a low, broad, single-story frame building with a moderately steep pitched gabled roof, a large central chimney, and very little ornamentation,” adding that “the simple symmetric design was constructed of local materials to withstand the stormy, stark weather of Cape Cod.”