What Style is My House?

It comes as no surprise that we wish to classify our buildings. We frequently found it useful and important to categorize and classify the world around us as a first step in understanding it. There are a number of ways to categorize buildings which can be helpful. One is functionally. This is usually pretty straightforward. A structure is a dwelling, a store front, a factory, and so forth, or some combination. Another useful classification is how a building relates to its surroundings; houses are described as free-standing, attached, or semi-attached. Other classifications that are useful are construction (such as solid masonry, balloon frame, timber), and form (e.g. hall & parlor).

Style is perhaps the most difficult of these classifications. Knowing more about the style of architecture can often be helpful in describing the building, understanding its context, and making sure things stay in keeping with what was intended. But instead, frequently it leads to confusion, misleads, and provides no greater understanding of the building. These may be avoided by recognizing the limitations of style. First, that “style” has as much to do about art, culture, and creation as as it does with methodology. In this respect styles resist neat categorization. Second, that different people apply different meaning to the word “style.” For some, it describes the whole approach to a design, while for others, only the superficial appearance.

This dichotomy is particularly troublesome for people trying to make sense of older houses. Most architectural field guides concentrate on appearance while most architectural historians concentrate on the fundamental underlying design approach and its resultant characteristics. The following provides a summary of the main architectural concepts used during the periods of suburban development in West Philadelphia. It is not a style guide per se, but some background to help make sense of both the style guides and the architectural histories.

Exhibit by Matthew Grubel, 2008