You’re never too far into wandering before a certain desire strikes. Look out at the diverse steel-and-stone crowd of a skyline, and soon enough when becomes a burning question. WHEN was that majestic house or funky tall building built? WHEN did they put THAT there?
And of course Why follows close behind, morphing, as it will, into complex-er territories. WHY is that building shaped like a bell?, WHY does a roof look so funky? WHERE are the windows?, WHAT was life like for tenement workers?
We understand that so much of an adventure’s excitement comes from curiosity, and we want to feed that fire by offering a layman’s Architecture Guide that could apply to nearly every city in America. So read, memorize, print, or take with you the next time you’re on the streets pinning down decades in an effort to paint the town Familiar. At the very least, we hope this reference will enrich your city experience by drawing your eyes to the details that make life — and exploration — so sweet.
Part 1: If These Walls Could Talk
We’ve all heard the phrase, but this time we’re going to put on our Studio Engineer ears to learn what the (exterior) walls really do have to say. Read on to discover how the outside walls of a building can provide clues to its birth-era.
White brick — This became very popular in the Post-War 1950’s and is still used in some parts now. So, if a building has white brick, it’s safe to say that either it was repainted, or the building was built after World War II.
Faux stone — “Knock-knock!” “Who’s- whoa, that rock sounds HOLLOW…” Well, that’s a big origin clue. Because the earliest appearance of faux stone generally occurs around the turn of the 19th century, it’s safe to say that this wall was likely built sometime in the 20th century or later. This type of facade came into practice as other materials, such as steel and concrete, allowed for once-foundational materials to become decorative, in turn providing the aesthetic on a budget.
Cast-iron — Take a refrigerator magnet around town and try this one out. Especially fun in SoHo of New York City — if the magnet sticks to a columned frame, it was likely built between 1840-1880, during the time of mass-produced cast iron. These frilly molded materials were a cheap extension of the revivalist period in America, providing industrial buildings with high ceilings and large windows that let in lots of light. However, cast iron proved to buckle in the heat without the help of brick encasing, and this short-lived trend gave way to the sturdier age of steel.
Structural Brick — Is the brick on your building structural? How to tell: If the brick pattern has headers (the smaller, side-squares of the brick) showing , it means the brick is sideways, thus the wall is wider, and it was built to create a thicker load-bearing wall. The most popular style in the States is the Common Bond brick pattern, where a row of headers appears every 5-7 stacks. Look around ANY city and you’ll start to see this pattern everywhere. Structural load-bearing brick walls were much more common before the age of steel reinforcement, which started around 1850 and took a few decades to become the norm in the States. After that, you’ll see more of the shallower Running Bond without headers.
Concrete blocks — If the building is built with cinder blocks, it can’t be older than the 1837 — because that’s when the first concrete block house was built on Staten Island.
Brownstone — This was cheaper than brick and started off as a lower-income solution around the 1800’s, but it became much more popular in the Romantic Movement, when dark/earthy materials were in favor, and reached its peak in 1860. Most New York brownstones were built in the 19th century.
Patterned brick — Reached a peak of popularity in the Victorian Era. So if you’re seeing an intricate brick pattern on the walls, this is a big clue. Flouncy!
Corner Quoins — A quoin is the extra large brick on the edge of a facade. It’s like the icing corner on a gingerbread house, and if it’s on your building, it often points to the Victorian Era 1860’s-70’s.
Who Are Log Cabin People? Summit Daily has the answer!
Part 2: A Building is a Building is a Building
Now step back, and let’s see if any of these obvious foundational clues provide any insight to a building’s era.
Flat and wide — This hints at the Prairie style, a horizontally-based type of organic architecture introduced to many Americans by Frank Lloyd Wright. His low-slung movement swept the home market and hung on for decades — particularly huge in the 50’s, but around 1900-60’s.
American Foursquare — This was found everywhere in the 1920’s. Basically, a boxy house with a low pyramidal roof. This is an offshoot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style.
Townhouse — A 4 or 5 story building constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries for families who usually lived in all levels, these are often converted to multiple units.
Big and beautiful — If the building you’re looking at is huge, extravagant, and has a focal piece in the main entrance, these clues point to the Beaux-Arts movement, which really hit the U.S. from 1880-1920.
Terraced — If the building is terraced, it could be a nod to the Victorian era, starting in the mid-18oo’s and continuing into the early 20th century, specifically 1837-1910.
Walk-up or Tenement Style Building — If the building you’re studying is 5 to 6 stories tall, with 4 apartments on each floor, usually with a 3 room shape (nothing over 11′ x 12’), and no elevator — it was likely built in the 1800’s, circa 1840-early 1900’s.
Dumbbell shaped tenement — These “Old Law” or dumbbell tenements were shaped like a dumbbell due to an airshaft in the middle which allowed every room to have a window. If a place has this shape, it was most likely built when the law was in effect between 1879-1901.
Part 3: That Roof ThoWhile you’re outside, check the roof. Styles for roofing have changed immensely over the years. Materials, slopes, and general shape can give a great indication of a building’s age.
Gable or Pitched — Classic America. Resembles the letter A. This tells you nothing about the era your house was built, because it has always been done! 😉
Cross Gable — This happens when you have an L-shaped, or + shaped house. When two gables intersect. Very typical of Greek Revival and Victorian Styles (ie Gothic or Queen Anne). Generally popular in the 1800’s.
Flat Roof — Perhaps a slight slope but… not a very practical roof for heavy rain and snowfall. Popular during the Italianate period (late 1800’s).
Hipped or Hip roof — Short slope down, low pitch but they don’t all meet in the middle. Very popular with Prairie and Craftsman styles of the early 1900’s.
Pyramidal — Hipped roof that meets at a point. Very popular on American Foursquare homes (1900s-1920’s)
Conical — Not to be confused with comical. The cone look was typical of Victorian Houses. 1830’s-1900.
Round Roof — Domes were big in the 1950’s, but we also see them in some Beaux-Arts buildings, particularly in the Second Empire 1852–1870 style in the late 1890’s.
Mansard, or Second Empire Style — Two slopes on each of the four sides. The lower is steeper than the upper, and often curved inward (concave). Windows are often set in the lower slope. The upper slope is usually unseen. Allows for living space in the attic. Brought back in the mid Victorian Era especially from 1860’s-1880’s.
Decorated Roof Line & Slate Roof — Slate was a common building material in the Victorian era 1937-1910
Gambrel or Dutch Roof — Features two different roof slopes, like a barn almost. Often gables (the A shaped roof) on the ends with dormers (window protrusions) built into the steeper lower slope. These go as far back as the early 1600’s but few are seen after the 1800 mark.
Part 4: Chimneys and Fireplaces
Metal center, fake brick or wood surrounding — Mostly in newer houses. This is most of everything after the 60’s. We often don’t even need chimneys for heat these days, but we especially don’t need a fat brick casing for what is usually a smaller metal flute. But that’s design for you!
Newer brick, horizontal, broad fireplace — 1950’s on. It’s like they forgot about the 17th century bigger-isn’t-always-better lesson. These were built to fit in with that hot new ranch style, and often not a necessity to heat the house, thanks to the mass central heating gig. Lots of deeper fireplaces too, and again we see fireplaces on the outside of the house for the first time since the 1700’s.
Fancily decorative chimney, often a thinner, taller stack — Probably getting into the late Victorian era (1890’s). This takes us all the way to the 1930’s.
Decorative chimneys but small, simpler fireplaces, more geometric shapes than floral — As a mid-Victorian trend, this starts to happen around 1860’s on.
Stout square chimneys with very ornate, floral fireplaces — (1837-1860’s) Early and mid-Victorian. Chimneys here are still generally part of or inside the exterior walls.
Lots of fireplaces in the house — Also very Victorian. Show-offs.
Exterior chimney built into edge of roof — Circa 1796, chimneys were still built into the exterior walls, but the invention of Rumford fireplaces made it easy by building the chimney right over the fireplace instead of having to direct the smoke.
Sloping exterior brick chimneys — Many early chimneys are placed on the outside of the house, often not even attached to the roof, narrowing as they go up — these are often, but not always, built before 1796.
Part 5: What’s in a Window
While many of these clues are visible from a distance, a few of them require up-close attention to detail. Meaning, if you don’t have access to the building you’re investigating, don’t do anything we wouldn’t do.
Aluminum sealed window — If the window frames are metal, but your fridge magnet doesn’t stick to them, the building was probably built in the 1970’s or later.
Spring-based vs. pulley-based windows — Does your window have two sashes (sliding window panes), one on top and one on bottom? These were made to allow heat to escape up top while breezes can come in at the bottom. Pulley-based sash windows are old-fashioned, usually framed in wood. The pulley itself is usually visible. Most household windows used this system of cords, pulleys and weights from 1780’s up until the 1950’s, when the spring was constructed. So if you don’t see a pulley, a spring holding the sash in place hints that yours were constructed after the 1950’s.
More panes on the top than the bottom — This was very common during the late Victorian Era, circa 1880’s, 1890’s (Queen Anne style).
Bay windows — The Bay came straight out of the Victorian Era, very popular anywhere from 1830’s-1900, and most made after that are a nod to the time.
Casement Windows — These are hinged with brass or steel latches. Congratulations, your windows tell you NOTHING about the building’s origin, as this one’s been around in the States since the window history of Ever.
Iron frames — There were some playful ironwork patterns during a Gothic Revival from 1830-1860, but iron frames weren’t widely popular until the 1900’s. So if you have iron frames, you can at least assume that your windows were built after 1850, but likely a product of the early-to-mid 20th century.
Tuberculosis windows — Does your building have a strange window in a wall leading to another room? An indoor windowed wall was usually placed in every room of a tenement to abide laws to prevent the spread of TB — you’ll find this built into tenement-style buildings from the 19th century up to 1901. (Lots in the Lower East Side of New York!)
Margin lights — If you have a border of thin panes on each side of the window, you’re looking at a trend that was common during the Regency era. The size of windows grows around this time and there is often playful iron framework (Gothic Revival) 1810’s to 1840’s.
Arched, stone decorative frames — Gothic Revival circa 1840’s and after.
Square, plain, small windows right up to the roof — Dates back to the Colonial era. In the Colonial times windows were great for light, but bad for letting heat escape, so we see smaller windows from this era.
VERY thin, tall and built into a castle — Sounds Medieval. Your building was built for defense. Fun fact: You can probably shoot an arrow out of your tiny thin window.
And there you have it. A very comprehensive list of What Was Built When. So next time you’re flaneur-ing about a city, take this list with you. Before you know it, you’ll be dropping dates on every structure in sight.
P.S. Are you an architecture expert? Do you see anything we could add to this list? Let us know in the comments and we’ll be happy to update it for the good of all building-lovers.