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Discovering the Timeless Appeal of Georgian Style

By Rob Leanna Our 18th-century originals are confined to the thirteen Colonies, but Georgian style flourished again, more widely, during the height of the Colonial Revival. Georgian design—symmetrical, well-proportioned, simple yet substantial and vigorously detailed—is...

Drawing after a late Georgian- period house in Taunton, Massachusetts.

By Rob Leanna

Our 18th-century originals are confined to the thirteen Colonies, but Georgian style flourished again, more widely, during the height of the Colonial Revival. Georgian design—symmetrical, well-proportioned, simple yet substantial and vigorously detailed—is timeless and uplifting.

Rarely does an architectural style last a century, but that is the case with Georgian design. Named for the 18th-century English Kings George (1714 to 1830), the style was embraced by Colonists who gave an American twist to variants built from Maine to Georgia during those historic decades of Colonial prosperity and revolution.

The Georgian vocabulary derives from Renaissance classicism, born in Italy and flourishing in England from about 1650. Georgian architecture (often referred to here as "Colonial") shows up in northern and southern Colonies during the first quarter of the 18th century. The first high-style examples are in the South, built usually by affluent tobacco planters. Grand examples—of wood rather than brick as in Virginia—became more common in the North only after 1750.

The elaborate Lady Pepperrell House (1760) at Kittery Point, Maine, was a favorite study piece for architects of the Colonial Revival. Colors and the English paper are authentic.

During the later Georgian period, houses throughout the Colonies were more embellished. The doorway might be extended to form an entry portico; dormers and corner quoins became common; two-storey pilasters and pedimented center gables were introduced. Of the many variants of Georgian, almost all are classically symmetrical and built around a center hall.

Blockier and more assertive than the attenuated Federal style that followed, Georgian houses are, in general, robust. If it is sometimes hard, from outside, to tell a particular Georgian house from a similar Federal one, the same cannot be said on the interior. Federal interiors (after 1785 or later) are light and delicate, whereas Georgian rooms retain a Baroque feel, with heavy woodwork and carving. Entire rooms might be paneled, floor to ceiling, most often with painted pine. Doorways, especially, are decoratively framed, but elaborate plaster and wood trim was also used around windows, on ceilings, and in fireplace surrounds and overmantel treatments.

Strict symmetry, hipped roof, prominent chimneys, articulated corners, and door surround all point to Georgian style in a 1769 Massachusetts house.

The Colonial towns that became big cities after the Revolutionary War long ago lost much of their early architecture. Cities left behind during the booms of the 19th century today treasure their rare, remaining Georgian houses. These include Charleston, S.C.; New Bern, N.C.; Annapolis, Maryland; Newport, R.I.; and Marblehead, Mass. And, of course, a later generation of Georgian-style houses are those built around the country, with varying degrees of authenticity, during the height of the Colonial Revival.

The prosperous Georgian house was furnished with crystal chandeliers, ceramics of the China trade, oriental rugs, American paintings and English prints, and silver. Soft furnishings (carpet, wallpaper, and fabric) in Georgian homes were as bold as the architecture, stressing strong colors and three-dimensionality in their patterns. In comparison, Federal furnishings strayed towards the geometric and, while the palette was rich, it was not as reliant on saturated colors.

During the second half of the 18th century, several styles of furniture were simultaneously in demand. The Queen Anne style (ca. 1725-1750, or 1780 outside the cities), also referred to as Early Georgian, is recognized by its use of the cyma or shallow, S-shaped curve, especially in cabriole legs. Chippendale style is named after the English cabinetmaker who published his designs in pattern books: think of the iconic, broken-arch highboy with ball-and-claw feet. Chippendale furniture blended the Rococo with Gothic and Chinoiserie. From 1670 to as late as 1870, Windsor chairs and painted furniture were popular. A good option for owners of Georgian Revival houses is to collect Colonial Revival furniture made in the first half of the 20th century. A few extraordinary cabinetmakers continue to make museum-quality reproductions.

The Hallmarks of Georgian Style

  • Massing: These early houses are usually simple one- or two-storey boxes, two rooms deep, with symmetrical arrangement of windows and doors. Northern examples often have center chimneys; those in the South have end chimneys.
  • Roof: Nearly half have a side-gabled roof of moderate pitch. In the North, about 25% have gambrel roofs. A hipped roof was more common in the South; in the North, hipped roofs are found on high-style houses.
  • Materials: Brick dominates in the South, while wood-frame construction with clapboards or shingles is most common in the northern Colonies. Brick, stone, and occasionally wood construction is found in the Mid-Atlantic.
  • Ornamentation: The paneled entry door may have a transom, pilasters, and a crown, hood, or pediment. Cornice moulding, especially with dentils, is common. After 1750, entry porticos, quoins, and dormers show up.

Pilasters, a keystone-design arch, and dentil moulding grace Hamilton House, a Georgian mansion built ca. 1785 in South Berwick, Maine.

Georgian Types

Spanning a century, Georgian houses are diverse, with many variants related to decades of construction and region. They are of brick, stone, or wood; their roofs side- or occasionally center-gabled, hipped, or gambrel. All display classical symmetry and are based on English interpretation of Renaissance architecture.

  • THE PUTNAM HOUSE (ca. 1750, Rutland, Mass.) is typical; hipped roofs like this one are found throughout the Colonies, more so in the South. The paneled door with transom lights and a surround of plain pilasters is common. The gambrel-roofed
  • DWIGHT HOUSE is an example of a variant surviving in the North; its appearance dates to ca. 1754 (relocated to Deerfield, Mass.).
  • A particularly stylish example is LONGFELLOW HOUSE (1759, Cambridge, Mass.). Its projecting center section with pediment and two-storey engaged columns (pilasters) became a model for Georgian Revival houses built in the early decades of the 20th century. The galleried side houses of Charleston, South Carolina, also date from the Georgian period, as do blocks of brick row houses in Alexandria, Virginia.

Visit Georgian Places

Historic New England maintains nine houses dating to the Georgian era, in four states. Search "Georgian" at historicnewengland.org/visit/homes-farms-landscapes/

  • MOUNT VERNON (1735-1790s), Mount Vernon, Virginia. One façade is Georgian, the other Neoclassical; a Palladian window and Adam-style dining room date to the Federal period. mountvernon.org
  • CLIVEDEN (1736), Philadelphia, Pa. The National Trust property was the site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown. Original furnishings and documentation. cliveden.org
  • DRAYTON HALL (1738), Charleston, S.C. This Palladian-style early Georgian has had no updates or alterations and is maintained in a pure state of preservation. draytonhall.com
  • WILTON HOUSE (1753), Richmond, Virginia. Five-bay brick plantation house on the James River, operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames. wiltonhousemuseum.org
  • DWIGHT HOUSE (ca. 1754), Deerfield, Mass. (moved from Springfield, Mass.). House of an 18th-century merchant displays Boston and Connecticut River Valley furniture. historic-deerfield.org
  • LONGFELLOW HISTORIC SITE (1759), Cambridge, Mass. High-style wood-frame Georgian was the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow home 1937-1882. Collection includes 35,000 items. nps.gov/long
  • JEREMIAH LEE MANSION (1768), Marblehead, Mass. Unusually large Georgian has never had plumbing or central heating and retains original decoration, including 200-year-old English wallpapers. marbleheadmuseum.org
  • TRYON PALACE (1769), New Bern, N.C. The mansion was restored in 1951, in a town full of surviving Georgian houses. Gardens cover 14 acres. tryonpalace.org