Updating Your Colonial House?


Contact us for authentic Colonial period design, preservation, restor­ation, renovation and remodeling services.
Georgian house drawing. Drawing: Victoria Heritage Foundation.

We specialize in updating period homes while preserving the feel, style and craftsmanship of the historic era. Seamlessly incorporate a modern kitchen, bath or addition into your Colonial home.

The Colonial Styles:
Georgian and Federal Architecture
J. M. Edgar, CMC, CRC

Colonial styles developed in England between 1720 and 1840 and were imported into the then English Colonies in America by English Settlers. The kings of England during this period were the four "German" Georges of the House of Hanover who collectively reigned from 1714 to 1830, so the architectural style that emerged during their reigns became known at the "Georgian" style.

Georgian architecture style was intended to reflect Renaissance ideals made popular by Sir Christopher Wren, Britain's most famous architect of the 17th century. It was a simplification of earlier, more ornate Baroque styles. Typically rectangular and symmetrical, two rooms deep and two stories high (Four over Four) with one or more chimneys extending through the roof or at either end. Brick or clapboard with the rarer shingle siding are the usual exterior finishes. The classic double-hung window was first used with this style. English Georgian featured hip roofs while in American the gable-end roof was more common. High-style Georgian homes often contained an oval or round parlor, the most famous of which is the Oval Office in the White House — originally intended as a sitting room or parlor.

The Georgian variation known as the "Federal style" was developed in Scotland by architect Robert Adam. It came to be known as the "Federal" style by Americans eager to divorce themselves from everything British after the American Revolution. In England it is remains the "Adamesque" form of the Georgian style. Its main identifying feature is an elaborate entry way with classical detailing and commonly a Palladian window at the center of the second story. The main entry door is usually centered on the front façade with a semi-circular or elliptical fanlight window above it and often flanked by leaded glass sidelights. The door is typically framed with simple pilasters and a broken triangular pediment. The entry pediment was often extended to create a porch. The porch may be rectangular or elliptical and is often supported by groupings of slender, simple Doric columns. The use of classical elements such as columns and arches is typical of the Colonial period. The front facade is symmetrical. The area to the right of the entry was a mirror image of the area to the left. This rigid symmetry is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Georgian houses.

A number of variations of the Georgian house developed in the Colonies. The Cape Code is a single story version of the Georgian style as is the Saltbox house common in New England.

During the colonial period, Nebraska was not even a name known to the Colonists, much less a place. All of the classic colonial houses built here in the late 19th century were part of the Colonial Revival movement. The movement began about 1870 and was given considerable momentum by the 1876 Centennial Exhibition which awakened Americans to their colonial traditions. Colonial revival architecture while loosely based on the architecture of the colonial period, became much more elaborate with highly decorated facades and elaborate pediments. Characteristically it featured a ridge line that ran parallel to the street, a central entry portico and symmetrical windows on both sides. The movement spun off a variety of sub-types, including the Dutch Colonial style characterized by its gambrel roof and curved eaves.

Colonial-style houses are still being built, and the Cape Cod style became nearly ubiquitous as the most common postwar house built in America. The "Colonial" style common in modern housing is a very distant descendent of the original Georgian Architecture, stripped of most Georgian style elements and incorporating many features of the modern Ranch style. See Postwar Styles: Cape Cod, Colonial and Ranch for more information on Post-War styles.

Colonial Interiors
You would not want to live in an actual colonial house. With no kitchen, no bathrooms, and no closets (See Beyond the Closet — 21st Century Storage Solutions) life would be a little more challenging than we are used to today.

While we know what a colonial parlor probably looked like since they are represented in period drawings and woodcuts, the "colonial" kitchen and bath are modern interpretations. The actually colonial bath was a tin tub in front of the fireplace. So, since there were no kitchens or baths as we know them today, we have to imagine what the rooms might have looked like if our Founding Fathers had owned toilets, microwaves and dishwashers. American colonial style blends English Georgian elements with American informality for a more relaxed atmosphere than the stilted English parlor.

Interior decoration was spare, and primarily relied on paint for color and plaster for texture. Paneled walls, wide moldings, oriental rugs, wing chairs, Chippendale and Queen Anne furnishings, damask fabrics and elaborate draperies (needed to keep out drafts) are the hallmarks of the Colonial interior style. A grandfather clock fits in very well.

Moldings are usually wide, deep and painted. Painted crown and chair moldings are common. (Stained woodwork is a modern interpretation -- but still fits well.) Ceiling beams would not be out of place. Door and window trim is simple with flat or gently curved moldings suitable for hand shaping. All windows were trimmed with a stool (inside sill) and apron. Floors are oak (for parlors and "public" rooms) and pine wide-plank wood for family and utility rooms. Stone was common in entries, kitchens and baths. Ceramic tile as we know it today did not exist in the colonial period, but was used rather lavishly in Colonial Revival houses.

The Colonial Kitchen
The kitchen style most compatible with this architecture is, naturally, a Colonial or Traditional style. This style includes a wide range of features and finishes and is very adaptable to your personal tastes.

Cabinets
Colonial cabinets typically feature raised panels intermixed with glass small-lite doors, either curved or flat top, in cherry, hickory, maple, oak, or painted wood. A more exotic domestic wood, such as birch or chestnut, is also a good choice. Imported woods are not. Beaded door styles also work well. Door styles and finishes can be mixed and matched for special effects. It is very common to see painted and stained cabinets in the same kitchen. Tall wall cabinets should go all the way to the ceiling in at least a few spots. Soffits, if any, should be shallow. Feet on cabinets rather than recessed toe kicks make the cabinets look less "built-in" and more like the furniture common in early colonial kitchens. For more information see "Cabinet Basics.". For more examples of colonial cabinet door styles, see Cabinet Door Styles.

Countertops
The classic Colonial counter top is soapstone, but granite and laminate (especially laminate that looks like granite or soapstone) also work well. Tile countertops are fairly unusual (For more information see "New and Traditional Countertop Choices"), but were used during the Colonial Revival along with typical Victorian Era countertop materials, wood, zinc, and enameled porcelain. For more information see The Victorian Styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic Revival and Eastlake.

Flooring
For flooring, wide plank pine, or true linoleum are the first choices. Other wood floors, such as strip oak would have been common during the Colonial Revival. Ceramic and stone are also good. The look of wide plank wood using modern laminate flooring is also an option. For more information see "Flooring Options for Kitchens and Baths.")

Moldings A simple crown molding with a chair rail are the finishing touches. These usually are stained or painted to match the cabinets.

Most Requested Feature The most requested feature in a Colonial Kitchen is a working fireplace. In early American homes, the fireplace was not only the main heat source in the house, but also the cookstove. The huge open wood burning hearths of yesteryear are out of place in modern homes, but nothing produces a feeling of coziness like a working fireplace. Today's natural gas or LP units are safe, efficient and can be remote controlled. Designed just to warm up the kitchen, these units are usually more compact than living room or great room fireplaces and may be vented through the wall rather than up through the roof using an expensive multi-story stove pipe.

Victorian Styles
Victorian house styles flourished in post-Civil War 19th century American. The trend throughout the later part of the 19th century was toward more ornate homes showcasing the increasing wealth produced by the Industrial Revolution. Mass production processes had made even very elaborate ornamentation relatively inexpensive, and the expansion of… (Continues…).


Need to know more about kitchen and bath design? Try these articles:
  • Adapting a Kitchen to a Budget
    A terrific kitchen does not have to break the bank. We may have to get creative and even make a few compromises, but you will end up with a wonderful kitchen that will serve your needs for years to come.
  • The Bathroom Revolution
    The role of the bathroom is changing rapidly. The importance of the bath in our homes has grown dramatically. Spacious rooms, closeted toilets, double bowl lavatories, whirlpool tubs, and recently large walk-in showers have found their way into our homes. No longer just a functional room, the bath is becoming a retreat. How can you modernize your bath into one of these gracious rooms? Find out here.
  • Behind the Scenes — The Hidden Kitchen
    Behind the beautiful new cabinets, under the sparking countertops, beneath the gleaming tile floor are the invisible bones and sinew that make the kitchen work - electricity, venting, heating and plumbing. Find out all that's needed behind the scenes.
  • Cabinet Basics
    Oak, maple, hickory, ash, cherry. Faced and unfaced. Framed and frameless. Custom, semi-custom and manufactured. MDF, Melamine, Thermofoil, even steel. So many choices. How do you pick the cabinets that are just right for you? Click here to find out.
  • Creating More Bathroom Space
    Our fondness of open spaces within the home doesn't end at the bathroom door. Unfortunately the acreage needed to create that spacious feeling just is not available in many older bathrooms. Often the key to updating a bath is creating more space — or at least the illusion of more space. This article examines where additional space can be found both outside and inside your existing bathroom.
  • Designing Efficient and Effective Kitchen Lighting
    The kitchen uses a lot of energy for lighting. While remodeling your kitchen, you have the perfect opportunity to create a highly efficient lighting system.
  • Finding Some More Kitchen Space
    Learn where to get more space, or at least the feeling of more space for your new kitchen.
  • Flooring Options for Kitchens and Baths
    Wood, stone, vinyl, ceramic tile, laminated flooring. What are the pros and cons of each? Learn the fundamentals of kitchen flooring.
  • How to Measure Your Kitchen
    All the steps required to measure a kitchen explained and illustrated. Learn to measure like a pro.
  • Mise en Place: What We Can Learn from Commercial Kitchens
    Organized to prepare a large variety of appetizing meals at a moment's notice, we can learn a lot about kitchen efficiency from studying commercial kitchens.
  • New and Traditional Countertop Choices
    Is solid surfacing, laminate, stone or tile your best choice of counter top? Or maybe something more exotic. Take a look at the incredible selection of modern counter top materials.
  • Off the Wall Kitchens: Living Without Wall Cabinets
    Wall cabinets are unquestionably useful storage, but with drawbacks. A major disadvantage is that wall cabinets make a kitchen seem smaller by closing in the space at eye level — which is where we subconsciously judge how large the space around us is - and limit the number and size of windows in the kitchen. Can your new kitchen do away with wall cabinets? Probably. Find out how.
  • The Rules of Bathroom Design
    The Kitchen and Bath Association has published guidelines for designing a safe and functional bathroom. Created and maintained by a panel of expert designers, these recommendations should be closely followed in any kitchen plan.
  • The Rules of Kitchen Design
    In 1944 the University of Illinois conducted a study of kitchen design and developed fundamental design principals that are still very much in use today. Here are the rules for designing great kitchens.
  • Selecting Bath Fixtures
    The choices of bathroom fixtures are a little overwhelming. Tubs, showers, sinks, faucets and toilets come in so many shapes, sizes, colors and with such a great variety of features that choosing the right fixtures can be a challenge. Here are some guidelines and suggestions.
  • Sources of Supply: Faucets
    Thinking about buying a faucet? Before you do, see our list of major faucet manufacturers with ratings and guidelines on what to look for and how to select a good, lifetime faucet.