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American Foursquare—Subtype of Prairie House Style

The Old-House Journal, February 1982 by Renee Kahn

The American Foursquare is probably the most common—and least understood—of all of the houses built after the turn-of-the-century. Most architectural stylebooks ignore it completely. The few that take note of it refer to it merely as “the box” or “the classic box.” And none have chronicled the central role it played in Post-Victorian architecture. Yet this is the house—in its several variations—that is the common denominator in countless neighborhoods across the United States.

Many people refer to the American Foursquare as a “plain” house. Yet the apparent plainness belies the richness of the philosophy and history behind the style. The American Foursquare possesses the simplicity and honesty that epitomizes the turn-of-the-century striving for “the comfortable house.”

The American Foursquare appeared during the first decade of the 20th century, and its popularity lasted well into the 1920s. During this era, although the grand public architecture still paid homage to Beaux Arts classicism, the modest homes of the middle class achieved a simplicity and honesty that had not been seen for almost 100 years. Public taste was undergoing a reaction to the decorative exuberance of the Victorian era, and was seeking a respite in humble materials and unadorned surfaces. This newfound simplicity is evident not only in the Foursquare, but also in such other house styles as the bungalow and Prairie.

The Movement Toward Simplicity

Practical as well as philosophical considerations lay behind the movement away from excessive ornament, and the Foursquare was essentially an inexpensive way to provide large amounts of comfortable living space. A 30-foot by 36-foot house could easily contain four bedrooms, a living room, one or two baths, and ample hallways on both floors. This is to say nothing of the spacious attic under the hipped roof, and the basement.

Although its contemporary, the Bungalows, was chided for being “the least house for the most money,” the Foursquare was quite the reverse. The square plan enabled a minimum of land, foundation, and roof to enclose a considerable amount of space. Flat unbroken walls, unadorned exteriors, turretless rooflines, and ginger-bread-free porches were less expensive to build and maintain than the picturesque complexities of the Victorian era.

A Few Ornamental Details

Although plain by comparison with its predecessors, the Foursquare was not without historic elements. Bradford’s &ldquo“Portfolio of Plans,” a popular builder’s handbook published in 1909, shows a wide range of stylistic influences. A watered-down version of Colonial revival appears to have been the most popular, although Tudor and Craftsman styling is also quire common.

Windows were one of the few building components of the Foursquare where variety was encouraged. A Palladian window could suggest Colonial restraint and elegance. Elongated, diamond-paned sashes used in combination with undivided sheets of plate glass hinted at Tudor ruggedness. Stained glass hall lights and dining room transoms were a holdover from the medievalism of the Queen Anne period of the previous two decades. For window treatments, the protective shutters and heavy draperies of the Victorian are were abandoned in favor of light curtains and window shades. Awnings were a common and efficient way to screen out the summer sun. In keeping with Sullivan’s dictum that “form follows function, “window placement reflected the needs within the structure, rather than being purely symmetrical for symmetry’s sake.

Exterior Materials

On the exterior, the Foursquare reflected the trend towards plainness and “natural” materials. The foremost spokesman for this movement was Gustav Stickley, trough his magazine, “The Craftsman,” Wood, the traditional American building material, remained popular, although sometimes in the form of wood shingles rather than clapboards. Stained dark, these rough-hewn shingles were meant to create a hand-crafter appearance.

Concrete products began to challenge wood as the material of choice for exteriors. As far back as 1850, Orson Squire Fowler, the developer of the octagon house, had considered concrete (or “grout,” as he called it) ideal for dwellings. “Nature’s building material,” he calls it—cheap and inexhaustible.

By 1905, American had a well-developed technology for making concrete blocks—usually hollow for economy, insulation, and waterproofing. Although the use of concrete dated back to Roman times, it was always considered an inferior material and was logical, therefore, that when concrete blocks began to be used for houses such as the Foursquare, they would be made to look like stone. Blocks shaped like rough-cut stone became popular, as did rusticated varieties with beveled edges.

By 1910, however, builders began to show increased interest in stucco. Although its initial cost was slightly more than wood, it required little or no maintenance, and could be tinted delicate pastel colors when wet. Stucco was applied over a variety of surfaces, including masonry block, brick, or wood lath. At times, a lightweight metal frame, referred to as “metal lumber,” was used under stucco.

Stucco permitted considerable creativity. Its surface texture could be readily varied. No two workmen applied it alike; in fact, each mason had his own “handwriting.” Shapes could be pressed into it while wet, as could color tiles or pebbles. Although many stucco-covered houses are presently painted white, a soft beige-brown appears to have originally been the most popular color.

A Porch a Necessity

The front porch was considered a necessity for the American Foursquare. Most have a porch that runs the full width of the front elevation. Less often, the front porch will stop a few feet short of either side. The turned and chamfered columns of the Victorian porch were discarded in favor of paneled, boxed-in posts, or else the unfluted version of the Doric column know as Tuscan. There was a preference for slat, stick, or filled-in railings.

The front door of the American Foursquare was in keeping with the relative plainness of the rest of the exterior. The most popular version appears to have been a beveled panel of plate glass, with tow or three horizontal wood panels underneath. Another popular door style had an elongated oval glass, beveled and set with a delicate beaded molding. Long rectangular panels of clear glass were also quire common.

Interiors

Although Colonial influences dominated most interiors, the Craftsman style also had considerable impact. Classical symmetry was abandoned in favor of a variety of floor plans, no one of which appears to have predominated.

American Foursquares had central halls, side halls or no halls. If the stairway was off to one side, a rectangular stained glass hall window lent it an air of importance. Stairway balusters were either turned in a neo-Classical manner, or were oak sticks of the Craftsman variety. Paneled wainscoting and ceilings lent an appropriately “medieval” air, as did the highly varnished oak floors.

Furniture, too, was simplified, omitting the lavish pattern and ornamental detail of the Victorian period. Plain brown leather replaced heavy brocade, and eclecticism was limited to “medieval” reproductions, or quasi-“Colonial” styles.

It is not uncommon in Hyde Park to find an American Foursquare with first and second exterior floors clad in different material.

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3323 Campbell Street

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