The Colonial House Is Trending Modern

“The Colonial house is reinvented about every 100 years,” says Jan Gleysteen, a Boston-area architect. He thinks that it’s time to reinvent the enduring house style once again.

“The trend I see today,” Gleysteen says, “is that every young family wants a modern interior that’s clean, without clutter, that feels like a breath of fresh air. They don’t want traditional interiors, with a lot of separate rooms and fussy trim and ornamentation.

“But at the same time,” he continues, “they want the exterior to look traditional and to fit into a long-settled New England neighborhood. Those time-honored forms are comforting and familiar. They want traditional massing with a modern interior.”

Colonial architecture saw its first reinvention about 1870, when Americans celebrated the country’s centennial. Since then, it has never totally gone out of style; it is especially beloved in the northeast.

In New England, the Colonial house was informed by English precedent. During the 17th century, its box-like appearance was relieved by a prominent chimney and small casement windows; often the rear was extended in a long, sloping roof that formed the “salt box” shape. Unlike European houses, it was timber framed.

“The early Colonial was a simple rectangle,” Gleysteen says. “It had no dormers or gables on the front, a long shed on the back, and a central fireplace.

“As time went on and there was more prosperity, the form evolved into the two-story Georgian house, with extra molding, dentils and corner pilasters. It is an easily understood style: You live on the first floor and sleep on the second floor, which is efficient for New England. This is the basis for every American Colonial house style since then.”

Its design includes pitched gable roofs, a center entrance, and a symmetrical facade with double hung windows that can have, depending on grandeur, as few as six or as many as 20 panes of glass in one sash.

“The working person’s Georgian was the Cape,” Gleysteen says. Whereas the Georgian house measured two stories, a Cape is one-and-a-half stories, with a simplified façade. A Cape Cod house has a pitched roof, while the vernacular Cape Ann version features a gambrel roof.

In response to today’s shifting aesthetic, Gleysteen designed a spec house he calls “Modern Colonial,” which combines the pitched roof, symmetrical window composition, and center entry of the traditional form with modern styling. Modern elements include oversized clapboards, vertical board and batten siding on the gables, canopied entry roofs, and man-made materials. The result, recently completed on a quiet street in Wellesley, a Boston suburb, looks, from a distance, like a time-honored Colonial house. Closer inspection reveals its contemporary roots.

The interior follows a traditional center entrance floor plan, but features contemporary elements such as plaster soffits with cove lighting, metal railings, a horizontal gas fireplace, a wall sheathed with weathered wood, and a lack of moldings or decorative millwork.

“Everything is abstracted, simplified,” Gleysteen says. “There are no layered crown moldings, there is no wallpaper. When you subtract, you modernize.”

He recently sold this spec house and hopes to build many more, refining the design with successive versions.

“The problem with modernism,” he says, “is that it is so spare. This retains the comfortable warmth of familiar shapes while it compliments the traditional neighborhood in a town like Wellesley.”

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