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The Evolution of the American Home: Architectural Styles Through the Decades

American architecture has followed a unique path throughout history. With different climates and raw materials on hand from those found in Europe, the home styles needed to change in order to adapt to the American land and the American people. Let’s take a look at some of the distinctly American architectural styles that have shaped what “home” looks like over the years.


Prairie (1901-1917)

The Frederick C. Robie house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image credit: Wikipedia

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright introduced the Prairie home in the very early 1900s. Intended to be built in large, wide-open, flat spaces, the structure of the house was long and low, and it introduced a new, open floor plan that connected a series of rooms into a continuous space. These features were meant to mimic the land upon which the home was built. Wright’s Prairie style can be considered the forerunner to the American foursquare, bungalow, and Craftsman styles.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • One-level homes with open floor plans

  • Low-pitched roof with large overhang

  • Long rows of windows

  • Boxy

  • Horizontal lines

  • Japanese influence seen in hipped roofs and porches


Revival Styles (through the 1940s)

Beautiful two story colonial home.

In the early part of the 20th century, Americans were still looking mostly to Europe for architectural inspiration. Also known as the “Eclectic Era” of American architecture, builders had a wide variety of styles to choose from, modify, and meld together.

Types of Revival Styles:

  • Colonial

  • Tudor

  • Neoclassical

  • Italian

  • Spanish

  • Mission

What about Victorian-style homes? (1800s-1910s)
Victorian architecture is basically a hodgepodge of the best features of the ornate styles of the past, such as Gothic, Queen Anne, and Romanesque, modernized by bright colors and lots of “gingerbread” ornamentation.


Ranch/Rambler (1920s-1970s)

Typical American Ranch home.

This is truly an all-American architectural style. With the rise of car culture in the mid-20th century and the exodus from the cities to the suburbs, families had access to more land, so a sprawling one-story home was a perfect fit. (And don’t forget that two-car garage!) For residents of the West and Southwest, ranch houses merged their inside lives with their outdoor activities via large sliding doors leading to a back patio, big windows, and lots of natural light. In the 1950s, this was the most popular style of home: Nine out of 10 new homes were ranchers, according to Slate. As they spread across the country, modifications were added to fit different climates, building materials, and lifestyles.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • One-level homes with open floor plans

  • Unadorned façade

  • Often built on concrete slabs

  • L- or U-shaped and asymmetrical

  • Low-pitched or flat roof with wide eaves

  • Sliding-glass doors and large windows for lots of natural light

  • Attached garage

  • Back patio


Cape Cod (1920s-1950s)

A Cape Cod-style home with steep roof.

Developed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, these homes are built to withstand the harsh New England weather. Low and squarish, simple and cozy, Cape Cod homes are usually 1.5 stories, with the master bedroom on the first floor and secondary bedrooms upstairs.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Symmetrical

  • Central chimney with brick fireplace

  • Steep roof

  • Centered front door

  • Multi-paned windows with shutters


Mid-Century Modern (mid-1930s-1960s)

A modern take on mid-century modern.

Simplicity and appreciation of nature characterize the mid-century modern style. It was making a bit of a comeback in the 2010s, but that was mostly the furniture, which shares the clean, straight lines of the home style and is also made using materials that became accessible post-WWII, such as plastic, metal, and vinyl. Mid-century modern style looks to integrate the indoors and the outdoors, often with an atrium or interior courtyard.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • One-level or split-level homes with open floor plans

  • Post-and-beam construction

  • Clean lines melded with organic shapes and curves

  • Minimal ornamentation

  • Low-pitched or flat roof

  • Lots of glass

  • Use of both traditional and non-traditional construction materials

  • Promotes outdoor living


International (1940s-1970s)

Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Image credit: Britannica

This architectural school grew out of the German Bauhaus art movement of the early 20th century. Lack of ornamentation is a defining characteristic of the style; in fact, you could call an international-style home a “square block dropped into nature.” It foreshadowed the industrial look of the late ’90s and early 2000s. The use of cantilevered construction — where the structure is only fixed at one end, leaving the other end hovering over the ground — was intended to instill a sense of ease and weightlessness.

Distinguishing characteristics:

  • Concrete, granite, and steel are primary construction materials

  • Exposed framing

  • Large single-pane windows

  • Rectangular

  • Emphasis on simplicity


In the 1980s, postmodern McMansions with mirrored closets dotted the countryside; the ’90s saw new technology render possible buildings that could only be conceptualized in the past; and since 2000, we’ve been enjoying contemporary-style architecture, which borrows heavily from the art and architecture of the past and mashes up many different design elements while concentrating on sustainability and energy efficiency. Don’t be surprised if you see a mix of styles all in one building the next time you start homeshopping!



Redfin | This Old House | Britannica | | The Spruce | Docomomo US | Architecture | Architecture Styles | L.A. Times | Plum Deluxe | Slate

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