Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Dating with Style: 20th Century Housing (Part I)

By Rachel Dworkin

Like clothing, architecture has fads, trends, and fashions.  Some architectural fashions are based on concrete things like available building materials or new techniques, while others are based on more nebulous things like historical anniversaries and politics.  Just as clothes can help date photographs, architectural fashions can be a handy tool for dating a building. Unfortunately, architectural fashions can last for decades, but it still provides a nice range. Back in 2014, I did a piece on 19th century residential styles and it’s time to talk about the 20th

 There is no clear, crisp dividing point between 19th and 20th century fashions. Some trends which started in the 1890s, or even the 1880s, continued on well into the 20th century. Some even had a comeback! I discussed Queen Anne (1880s-1910s) in my last post, but there were other movements which began in the 1890s which had a larger impact on the 20th century. I will be focusing only on those styles of home found in Chemung County, so, if you were looking for Pueblo Revival, you’ll be plum out of luck.

The Eclectic Movement was the major trend in architectural styles from the 1890s through the start of World War II. It focused on reproducing earlier historic styles, mostly found in Europe. It began with European-trained architects designing landmark homes for wealthy clients. The development of thin brick and stone veneer in the 1920s made it easier for middle-class homeowners to ape these styles. Some types of Eclectic homes found in Chemung County include Neoclassical, Tudor, French Eclectic, Italian Renaissance, and Colonial Revival, with Tudor and Colonial being the most common.

Neoclassical is designed to evoke an ancient temple with a full-height front porch supported by classical columns and a symmetrically balanced façade.  It was popular from about 1895 to 1950, and there are some lovely examples in West Elmira. 

Neoclassical home on West Church Street

Tudor was designed to evoke late Medieval English housing. It featured a steeply pitched roof, usually side-gabled, often with a prominent forward-facing cross gable. Tall, narrow windows with multiple panes are common, as are massive, accentuated chimneys, and decorative textures like brick or stone veneer or stucco with half-timbering. This style was popular from the 1890s through 1940 and is the second-most common type of house found in West Elmira. 

Tudor on Hoffman Street

French Eclectic was designed to look like a French farmhouse. They have steeply-pitched hipped roofs with upward-flaring eaves. The walls are usually brick, stone, or stucco. They occasionally have towers. There are a handful of these in West Elmira and Strathmont Park. 

French Eclectic home on Hoffman Street

Less common in Chemung County are the Mediterranean Eclectics including Italian Renaissance and Spanish Eclectic. Both were designed to evoke rural architecture in Italy and Spain respectively. Both have low-pitched roofs covered in ceramic tiles (or something meant to resemble them), but Italian Renaissance have hipped roofs with wide eaves while Spanish have side gables with no eaves. Italian Renaissance usually have columns, arches, or both around the front doors, while Spanish Eclectic tends to have them around first floor windows. There are maybe two of each in the county.

Italian Renaissance home on Maple Avenue

Colonial Revival is the longest-lived of all the Eclectic Movement styles. It was spawned by the 1876 Centennial and a renewed interest in Colonial-era housing from along the eastern seaboard. It is designed to strongly resemble Georgian (1700-1780) and Adams (1780-1820) styles. Some key characteristics include a side-gabled roof, a relatively plain facade with an accentuated front door, and symmetrically hung windows balanced around said door. The style remained popular from the 1880s through the 1960s, but with subtle changes over time. Colonial was the most popular style in Chemung County’s expanding suburbs during the inter- and postwar years. 

Colonial Revival home on West Church Street

Competing with the Eclectic Movement, which drew inspiration from the past, was the Modern Movement, which was more forward looking. These styles include Prairie, Craftsman, Modernistic, and International, with Prairie and Craftsman being the most common locally.   

Prairie was largely based off of the works of Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples. The first Prairie house was Wright’s 1893 Winslow House and the style quickly spread from there thanks to architectural pattern books put out by Chicago publishers. The style flourished from 1905 to 1915 and is abundant locally in portions of West Elmira and along Maple Avenue. Prairie homes are two stories with one-story wings, porches, or car ports, often with massive, square supports. The roofs are usually hipped and low-pitched with wide, overhanging eaves. 

Prairie Home on West Water Street

Craftsman are my personal favorite 2oth century architectural style. It was developed in 1903 by California architects Charles and Henry Greene. Their work was popularized by various architectural magazines and pattern books. You could even buy pre-fab Craftsman packages which you would then assemble yourself like Ikea furniture. The houses were small, usually one-story, but with the occasional partial second-story. They have low-pitched roofs with wide overhanging eaves, large front porches, and all the beautiful interior woodwork your heart could desire. They tended to either have front gabled roofs or hipped ones. The style flourished briefly from about 1905 through the 1920s and then fell out of favor in the 1930s. 

Craftsman homes on Riverside Avenue

There are no examples of Modernistic in Chemung County, but there is an International style house in Strathmont Park. The style was brought to the United States in the 1930s by avant-garde European architects fleeing the rise of fascism. International style is characterized by a flat roof; smooth, unadorned walls with windows set flush against outer walls; and weird, asymmetrical facades. For various reasons, they’re super rare and usually built as statement homes for the wealthy, but a lot of elements were later integrated into later post-war styles.

International Style home in Strathmont Park

The Great Depression put an end to a lot of residential construction in Chemung County, but there was another housing boom following World War II. This boom often featured new styles I will talk about in my next blog post. Stay tuned!

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