What style house is this?
August 1, 2011 9:17 AM   Subscribe

We're buying a house built in Boston in 1915 and are trying to find out the style (i.e. Folk Victorian) of the house.

We're buying a fixer upper in a neighborhood of Boston this week and are trying to pinpoint the style of architecture. The house was built in 1915, per city records.

Here is an image of the front of the house and here is the driveway and little garage.

Yes it's vinyl sided in an ugly way, but changing that will be a bit in the future. We will be fixing up the porch a bit and would like to get rid of the wrought iron, but are trying to figure out what this house would've had originally.

There's a small stained glass window in the stairway going up to the second floor, but otherwise it's a very simple house without much architectural flourish. The kitchen is a bad late 60s re-do so we'll be making changes there too. We're thinking of a farmhouse porcelain sink, white cabinets and a butcher block counter top, but again... don't want to do anything too weirdly different from how this house started out.

It has kit/livingroom/diningroom on the first floor and 4 rooms and a full bath upstairs. No fireplace, unless there's one covered up by a wall--we haven't had enough time inside to investigate that yet.

Any ideas about this style of house would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by jdl to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think in realtor terms it would be classified a colonial. The front porch probably had an open rail and baluster or was a low wall covered in either clapboards or shingles (whichever is under the vinyl. Whatever you do don't use Pressure treated wood for the finish work. That's just so wrong.
posted by Gungho at 9:44 AM on August 1, 2011

I have heard this style referred to as a "New Englander," although there is apparently some disagreement about whether or not this is a real term.
posted by suki at 9:52 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Growing up in NE, we'd call them mill houses, as in "mill worker" houses, 'cause they were usually built within walking distance of the factory. Doesn't seem to be a term of general use. Three-deckers on the main streets, these on the side streets. Colonial or Colonial Revival doesn't seem right to me, 'cause they do usually have a bay window or a little bit stained glass to dress them up.

This Sears home is in the same general style

And looking through Sears catalog archives of the time might give some good ideas of how the kitchen would have been done.
posted by bendybendy at 10:10 AM on August 1, 2011

re trying to figure out what this house would've had originally.

Probably painted shingle (not cedar shingle). Walk around the neighborhood and you should be able to find other houses with painted shingle siding. Your original siding may even still be there under the vinyl -- cheaper to cover it over than to replace it. (Not that I mean to imply that you can just take off the vinyl. One of the problems with a 100 year old house is that a lot of the materials they used then were durable. . . they'd last for a 100 years. Oh, well.)
posted by endless_forms at 10:15 AM on August 1, 2011

Well, the stained glass and the little bay window, along with the hipped roof garage with vertical windows make me think it might be a very simplified (or greatly altered) Queen Anne. A more high-style version of your house might have looked something like this. I bet your porch originally had some Queen Anne decorative elements, and there may be some simple patterned shingles under the vinyl. Look around your neighborhood for less-altered versions of your house.

That said, I don't really like applying style names to most simple houses, as they were so watered down, even when originally built, that the name of the style really has no meaning. I'd recommend furnishing your house in a way that is pleasing to you, rather than worrying too much about what would have been there originally, because without finding some evidence of what was once there, you really can't know for sure.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:48 AM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The dilemma is that you want to know what style the house was, to recreate the details, but the details are how you tell what kind of style it was. The siding has erased any decorative trusses, and the porch rework has removed any hints in the columns or in the railing.

If you just want some ideas of how that house could look, search for photos of Stick style. You could also try looking around the neighborhood for houses that are in a more original condition.
posted by smackfu at 10:51 AM on August 1, 2011

See if your library has a copy of "The Field Guide to American Houses". I bet you can find a style match in it.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 11:04 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

That is pretty much the standard style house in Waltham, Mass (a former mill town). Maybe check the real estate listing there and see what the local realtors call it?
posted by zippy at 11:08 AM on August 1, 2011

I say this every time I ask a question here, but I'd like to mark these all as best answer so far.

This is super helpful. I know that the house is probably a watered down version of a certain style and these links and books will really help. Love the link to the Sears catalog, too.

@zippy -- you're right. I grew up right next to Waltham and this does look like houses there. Good idea.
posted by jdl at 11:15 AM on August 1, 2011

As mentioned by rebeccabeagle, The Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester is a great book for this kind of thing, but the house in question here has so few stylistic indicators (either because it was originally built in a very vernacular style or because the details were removed or hidden over the years) that that book (and others like it) may not be very helpful in this case. I think your best bet for figuring out what this house looked like is either within the house itself (removed porch columns piled in the basement or garage, maybe?) or in other houses in the neighborhood. Sometimes you can build up a kind of composite sketch by looking at several similar houses -- one where the porch remains, another where the siding is original, etc.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:33 AM on August 1, 2011

I have a copy of A Field Guide to American Houses - quickly looking this up, the best guess is exactly what you've said, "folk Victorian".

Your house has:
front gable (that is, from the front you see the triangle shape of the roof's gable-end)
fairly steeply pitched roof
front porch with roof, which runs half the width of the house
bay window bump-out on first floor
original windows on the second floor? with split top pane?

Folk Victorian, subtype: front gabled roof, two-story. The guide says this form is most common in the northeast.
p. 309 ff has a bit on what architectural details are characteristic.

Of all folk Victorian houses:
"Identifying features:
Porches with spindle-work detailing (turned spindles and lace-like spandrels) or flat, jig-saw cut trim appended to National Folk (post-railroad) house forms; symmetrical facade (except gable-front-and-wing subtype); cornice-line brackets are common. [...]

The style is defined by the presence of Victorian decorative detailing on simple folk house forms, which are generally much less elaborated than the Victorian styles that they attempt to mimic. The details are usually of either Italianate or Queen Anne inspiration; occasionally the Gothic Revival provides a source. The primary areas for the application of this detailing are the porch and cornice line. Porch supports are commonly either Queen Anne-type turned spindles, or square posts with the corners beveled (chamfered) as in many Italianate porches. In addition, lace-like spandrels are frequent and turned balusters may be used in porch railings and in friezes suspended from the porch ceiling. The roof-wall junction may be either boxed or open. When boxed, brackets are commonly found along the cornice. [...] Window surrounds are generally simple or may have a simple pediment above. Most Folk Victorian houses have some Queen Anne spindlework detailing but are easily differentiated from true Queen Anne examples by the presence of symmetrical facades and by their lack of the textured and varied wall surfaces characteristic of Queen Anne. [..].

Like that of the National Folk forms on which they are based, the spread of Folk Victorian houses was made possible by the railroads. The growth of the railroad system made heavy woodowrking machinery widely accessible at local trade centers, where they produced inexpensive Victorian detailing. The railroads also provided local lumber yards with abundant supplies of pre-cut detailing from distant mills. Many builders simply grafted pieces of this newly available trim onto the traditional folk house forms familiar to local carpenters. Fashion-conscious homeowners also updated their older folk houses with new Victorian porches. These dwellings made strong stylistic statements and are therefore treated here as distinctively styled houses, rather than pure folk forms. After 1910, these Symmetrical Victorian houses, as they are sometimes called, were replaced by the Craftsman, Colonial Revival, and other fashionable eclectic styles."
Your house differs from what the book says about folk Victorian in that it's not symmetric, but even their own photos of front-gabled folk Victorians are not symmetric -- the door is always on one end of the porch, not in the middle. In the photos they give the porch does usually run the full front of the house, unlike yours.

So - despite its asymmetry, I think the best match in the Field Guide is folk Victorian. Looking at the pictures of the distinct Victorian styles, it's closer to Queen Anne than any of the others, IMO. So you could probably take your pick of details (from eg a front-gabled Queen Anne) to add. The book is worth getting for its abundant photos and nice clear line drawings of the different characteristic architectural add-ons. Your library almost certainly has a copy.

Note about "colonial": I think a real estate agent might conceivably call this a colonial, just because that's one of the most common names people look for on real estate search sites, but it's NOT like the canonical Colonial Revival examples in the field guide illustrations. On all of those, the roof is side-gabled (even where it's a gambrel or hipped roof, the roofline is parallel to the street and you don't enter on the gable-end side), and yours is front-gabled. (There is a single photo of a colonial revival with front gable. It's a narrow city house similar to yours, but the roof is much less steep and it doesn't have the Queen Anne-ish bay window bump-out on the first floor.)

Another possibility for discovering the actual details your house used to have, eg paint colors (or at least which areas were dark vs light) is to look in city records, historical society, etc and see if you can find a photo of your street from the 1915-1950 era.

You can also find paint color catalogs from that era - if you follow the links from the Sears catalog house link above you'll probably find these.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:24 PM on August 1, 2011

About the kitchen: look around online and you'll see kitchen catalogs and photos from that era. Prior to the introduction of modern appliances, kitchens were quite different and you may find that you'd rather have a functional modern kitchen with easily-cleaned surfaces and a layout that makes sense for fridge, microwave, dishwasher, whatever else you want to get in there that they wouldn't have had. You can preserve the historic feel through paint colors and other things like that.

Also be sure that you check the electrical wiring out and set aside money for any fixes you'll need to make to bring that up to date. Old wiring can pose a problem for getting homeowners' insurance, and your mortgage will typically require that you have insurance immediately, so you may be required to fix the electrical first.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:30 PM on August 1, 2011

Yeah, I came in to sat what Lobster Mitten did. Its spot on Folk Victorian. Folk Victorian is almost anytime you see a rather plain, older style that looks like its been gussied up a bit. 1915 is just about right for that too. So throw some brackets and gingerbread on that baby and call it a day.

"A Field Guide..." is an awesome resource for this kind of stuff, please, pick it up or check it out. Buying an older house is an adventure, you might as well read up on it.
posted by stormygrey at 1:23 PM on August 1, 2011

@Wordwoman Thank you so much for that link. It took me to the permits database for the City of Boston. I found out that the street used to have a different name and that this house was probably built a little bit before 1910. The "hen house" (now part of the garage) was built in 1907 and someone is living was in the house already in 1910 on the census.

@LobsterMitten - You're amazing for looking this up for me. Thank you!
posted by jdl at 2:10 PM on August 1, 2011

What neighborhood are you in? There is often a historical society somewhere in the vicinity. Jamaica Plain has a great one.
posted by barnone at 5:04 PM on August 1, 2011

@barnone Roslindale. Their online presence isn't great... I'd like to volunteer there once I get through the bulk of wallpaper removal, painting and such. JP's is so awesome, Rozzie needs to be brought up to speed!
posted by jdl at 7:30 AM on August 2, 2011

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