Homestead House by Clem Labine

Reference: The Old House Journal—March 1982

Along with the American Foursquare there is another type of “plain” house that puzzles old house lovers who strive to name the style of every building. If the house were situated in the country, many would call it a farmhouse. But if you found it on a city street or in a suburb, “farmhouse” would hardly do.

The Old House Journal named this type of structure the Homestead House. This name recognizes both the functional and historical roots of he style. The dictionary defines homestead this way:

“Homestead: The seat of a family, including the land, house and outbuildings; especially a dwelling retained as a home by successive generations.”

The Homestead House was built as a home by successive generations of Americans. The Homestead Houses that were built in America in 1920 were not revivals; they were a continuation of a building tradition that had its beginning in the 1700”s.

The origins of the Homestead House are easy to see: It was designed to provide economical shelter for rural working families. The two-story construction gave maximum floor space under a single roof. The straight walls and simple gabled roof were easy for part-time housewrights to build. The lack of ornamentation reduced construction time and kept maintenance to a minimum.

During the Victorian era, the Homestead House remained strictly a rural style; its simple lines were to unsophisticated for the style-conscious urban homebuyer. But by the beginning of the 20th century, there was a massive shift in taste. Buyers were more concerned with comfortable, functional, “sanitary” houses than with the romantic structures that summoned up images of bygone days. Simplicity and honest were the fashion.

Thus, in the early 1900’s, there was a market in city and suburb for the Homestead House. Fitted with electricity, indoor plumbing, servantless kitchen, and indoor bathroom, the Homestead House became “modern” dwelling . . . and in fact displayed most of the features founding today’s new homes. So the house that had lived in the country for a century moved to the suburbs. It became home not only to the farmer, but tot he urban working class.

The clapboard exteriors of Homestead Houses usually have simple vertical and horizontal boards that delineate corners, windows, eaves, etc. At the turn of the century, most Homestead Houses got a two-tone paint job so that trim boards would stand out in contrast to the rest of the body. Often, two shades of the same color—such as green—would be used; the light color for the body and the darker shade for the trim. Another popular color combination was reddish yellow for the body, brown for the trim, and red for the sashes. The book A Century of Color shows a number of color combinations that would be appropriate for a Post-Victorian Homestead House.

The basic Homestead House has two storeys, a rectangular plan, and a simple gabled roof. Sometimes there are dormers projecting from the roof. The exterior is quire plain often-just clapboard siding and simple cornerboards. In addition to wood frame construction, the Homestead House can also be built of brick or stone. On the Basic Homestead House, the entry door is on the gable end. There’s usually a porch extending the full width of the front façade.

The TriGabled Ell is a common variation of the basic Homestead House. Also two storeys, the plan consists of two intersecting rectangles forming an ell. The extra leg on the house provides additional opportunity for sunlight, cross-ventilation, and visual variety. The roof has three gables, hence the name. A porch may connect to one, two or three sides of the house. A common configuration is to have the porch tucked into the space formed by the two legs of the ell.

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