American Foursquare House Style

Updated on February 7, 2012

The American foursquare house is present in almost every urban neighborhood developed in the first half of the 20th century. Due to its inexpensive, yet practical, spacious, and attractive design, the American foursquare became the dwelling of choice for families with modest means looking to buy or build new homes across the United States.

Depending on where you live, the American foursquare house type is also referred to as “American Basic,” "Builder's House," “Square House,” “Box House,” “double cube,” “double-decker,” and even “American Farmhouse,” which is a misnomer, as most of these homes were built in cities. Due to the high number of these houses, they also became known as “National Houses.”

American Foursquare House, Washington, DC 20011
American Foursquare House, Washington, DC 20011

Overall Design of American Foursquare Houses

The American foursquare design is not really square. Its rectilinear proportions, square plan, low-hipped roof, and plain facades, are actually the main characteristics of early prairie homes of the Midwest constructed and popularized by the Prairie School architects.

As cities in the U.S. began to grew, and land values skyrocketed, urban areas were crammed with narrow lots, mostly rectangles with the short side facing the streets. So American foursquares showed a tendency toward a narrower front and back and longer sides to fill the site.

With the expansion of cities, greater flexibility in building could be achieved. Consequently, foursquare houses could grow in size and often displayed features of ornamentation. According to a well-documented pattern, square houses situated closer to downtowns are usually smaller and less ornate, while the ones located in outlying neighborhoods and suburbs are larger and more decorative.

American Foursquare House, Florida
American Foursquare House, Florida

Features of the American Foursquare House

The American foursquare's most important indicator is its cube-like shape, which basically makes it an efficient, self-absorbed box. Despite all the wings, porches, bays and other appendages the building might feature, the basic shape always remains this apparent box.

The upper perimeter of the house is followed by broad, overhanging eaves, which provide shade for the second story and its bedrooms as well as a settled look for the whole building. The roof-lines proceeding from these enlarged eaves tend to be a pyramidal shape. Due to the inexpensive design, chimneys rarely add to the aesthetic experience, usually made of brick or concrete. An extended front dormer, often hipped like the roof, became another trademark of the American foursquare and streamlines light and air into the attic.

The house features simple, double-hung, often irregularly shaped windows easily opened for maximum ventilation. The lower portion is usually a sheet of plain glass, while the upper half is made up of smaller panes united in a single frame, divided by thin muntins. The purpose of the windows is obviously to let the light and air in.

Most American foursquares have a more or less decorative porch across its front. They vary from a simple raised floor with a plain roof over it to classy classical columns and railings holding an ornamented roof that comes with friezes, garlands, and fancy shingles.

American Foursquare Floor Plan
American Foursquare Floor Plan

American Foursquare Interior

What sells American foursquares is their interior arrangement. In these two-story homes, the 1st floor houses a spacious living room, a formal dining area, a den, and an airy, well-equipped kitchen with pantry. The 2nd floor usually contains four large bedrooms, each with its own closet.

Even more livable space is provided by the attic that could be used for storage or still more rooms. The full basement with a bare earth floor and no living amenities usually contains the furnace and accompanying coal bin.

As demand for this type of home increased, it became more sophisticated. Simple clapboard walls evolved into brick or shingle facades, and towers, vestigial turrets, and bays sprang out of the basic cube. Sometimes, the hipped roof has a widow’s walk at its apex, or a balustrade above the overhanging eaves.

The market was flooded with catalogs of simple plans, offering a mass-produced house to anyone. Merchandisers like Montgomery Ward, Sears and Roebuck, Aladdin, Gordon Van Tine, had offered dwellings in kits for a long time, their box houses promptly became some of their most popular models.

Modern Home No. C227 - The Castleton  from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog, 1921
Modern Home No. C227 - The Castleton from the Sears Modern Homes Mail Order Catalog, 1921

Although, after World War II, American foursquare style houses were no longer constructed, in many eastern American cities, they remain the dominant residential design. It has been suggested that the foursquare is really a modern-day version of Georgian mansions made more practical. Although this may not be true, at a time when middle-class Americans wanted more spacious homes and larger lots, the box house satisfied most desires.

American Foursquare, Athens, Ohio (Video)

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      • Bldg an Architect profile image

        Bldg an Architect 6 years ago

        Great hub! I love reading about housing types.

      • phdast7 profile image

        Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

        I have come across this twice now and absoluteley found it fascinating both times. What a slice of Americana. Great Hub. SHARING

      • poshcoffeeco profile image

        Steve Mitchell 6 years ago from Cambridgeshire

        I love the individuality of American homes and the large open plan living they provide.

      • Haunty profile image
        Author

        Haunty 6 years ago from Hungary

        Thanks, ladies! I can't help but agree. I love older homes and would love to live in one.

      • KimberlyLake profile image

        Kimberly Lake 6 years ago from California

        I live in a four square home built in 1928. I love the feel and space of my home. This is a great hub. Very interesting.

      • ChristinS profile image

        Christin Sander 6 years ago from Midwest

        some beautiful hubs featured here. I've always loved older homes and would love to live in a home that looks just like some you've highlighted here. Nice hub! Interesting.

      • profile image

        iamaudraleigh 6 years ago

        I like. Home hubs! I have not seen many like this...keep them coming!

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