The American House – Class at Brookline Adult Ed

That's me in front of my family's first house. Even then I was a house enthusiast.

That's me in front of my family's first house. Even then I was a house enthusiast.

I’ve always loved course catalogs and typically find all sorts of classes that sound appealing. Seldom though has a class seemed so much up my alley as The American House offered in the Winter term at Brookline Adult and Community Education.

The American House is a three session class taught in January by Stephen Jerome.  Jerome is a specialist in historic preservation and design and a trustee of the Brookline Historical Society.

“In Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America, author Gwendolyn Wright states: ‘From the first frame house in New England to the latest condominium in the Sunbelt, our houses have been filled with our images of ourselves, our myths, and often the images our neighbors, our government, or our employers have projected for us.’

In this course, we will unravel the myths and meanings of the American house, using the houses themselves as our text.

  • How has the builder-client relationship evolved over time?
  • Who were the first American architects?
  • What are the myths and realities of such legendary houses as The House of Seven Gables and Scarlet O’Hara’s Tara?

These questions will be explored in this overview of Classic, Romantic, high-style, and vernacular house forms that have shaped and continue to transform the architectural environment.

By the end of the course you will be familiar not only with the names of architects and styles of houses, but also with the issues of cultural continuity that have shaped the American house for over three centuries.”

As someone who’s been obsessed with houses since a very young age, I was quick to sign up for the class.  Classes fill up quickly – you can sign up by phone at 617-730-2700 or on the web at

The American House will be offered by Brookline Adult Ed at the Brookline High School in January 2010.  The class begins on January 14th, 7 – 9 pm and costs $85 for three sessions.

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The Shingle Style – Architectural Styles in Cambridge

The Shingle Style, a quintessential American architectural style in the Victorian period, was popular from 1880 to 1920.  Its roots were in the coastal resort towns of the Northeast where large Shingle Style cottages, designed by leading architects of the period, were built on the coast of Maine, Cape Cod and Long Island. 

Shingle Style House on Avon Hill in Cambridge MA

Shingle Style House on Avon Hill in Cambridge MA

Cambridge has a number of examples of the Shingle Style on Avon Hill and in the Brattle Street neighborhood. My favorite is the beautifully preserved, Hartwell and Richardson designed, Yerxa-Field house at 37 Lancaster Street on Avon Hill, pictured here.  It has an extraordinary carriage house as well.

The emphasis in this style is the surface of the house – the shingles cover the house in a continuous wrap – almost a skin of sorts.

Other Features of the Shingle Style:

  • Houses are typically rectangular in shape and asymmetrical in design
  • Houses were large and rambling and rustic and informal in feel
  • Roofs were gabled, hipped, or gambrel
  • Shingles wrap around corners, there are no cornerboards
  • Details were often Colonial Revival or Queen Anne in style
  • Windows typically have multi-panes above a single pane sash
  • Shingles curved into recessed windows
  • Large, prominent chimneys
  • Towers and projecting bays are common

Other House Styles Found Around Cambridge:

The Bungalow

The Greek Revival

The Saltbox

The Triple Decker

The Cape

The Second Empire Mansard

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Greek Revival Door Styles

Doorway on a Brattle Street House in Cambridge

Doorway on a Brattle Street House in Cambridge

While on the What Style Is It? architecture tour during Cambridge Discovery Days we came across this excellent example of a Greek Revival door style on Brattle Street in Cambridge Massachusetts. 

The Greek Revival period in American architecture dates from about 1825 to 1860.  This house was built in 1852.

What appears to be the original door provides an example of some of the most common features of Greek Revival door styles:

  • There is a full transom window across the top
  • Sidelights flank the door
  • Plain columns support the classic entablature – the overhang above the door
  • The door itself has four panels
    Shutters for Greek Revival Sidelights

    Shutters for Greek Revival Sidelights

    – two longs panels above, two short panels below

  • Greek Revival doors also included single panel or two panel styles
  • Sometimes doors were paired

I couldn’t help but snap the photo at right of the door on this red painted Greek Revival house in Arlington. Built in 1848, with what looks like a more recent door, the door frame has the typical sidelights. I had never seen these with shutters before and I’m not certain to when these date. Nifty idea!


For a full illustration of Greek Revival door styles see Virginia and Lee McAlester’s book A Field Guide to American Houses.

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Architect Royal Barry Wills in Cambridge


Houses for Good Living by Royal Barry Wills

Houses for Good Living by Royal Barry Wills

Royal Barry Wills has been one of my favorite architects since I was a child.  His historically accurate reproduction Capes, Saltboxes and Colonials warm my heart.

Growing up, my parents had a couple of his books – Houses for Good Living and More Houses for Good Living.  I would pore over these books – the classic New England houses pictured inside were my favorite house styles.

One day when I was about 10 or 11 we went for a family drive.  I’m not sure where we were – maybe Weston, or Wellesley or some nearby town – when I yelled “Stop the car!”  Down a long driveway I had spotted a Royal Barry Wills house I recognized from one of the books. Sure enough – when we arrived back home I leafed through the book and there it was.

Royal Barry Wills Architecture

Royal Barry Wills understood that it was the details that made the difference – that made a newly built Cape look like it was built in 1760, not 1960.  Some of those details he got right included:

  • Large central chimney
  • Correct pitch of the roof
  • Graduated clapboards
  • Windows with 24 to 36 individual lights (panes)
  • Clapboards set close to the ground

We are fortunate in Massachusetts that Royal Barry Wills is a native son.  Wills grew up in Melrose, attended MIT in Cambridge, and established his practice in Boston where he worked until his death in 1962.  There are houses designed by Royal Barry Wills in many Massachusetts towns.

Royal Barry Wills in Cambridge

There are two Royal Barry Wills houses in Cambridge that I know of but I was disappointed when I set out in search of them.

20 Coolidge Avenue is undoubtedly a beautiful house but it’s almost impossible to see from the street with a high fence and a garage blocking the view.  There are lovely interior photographs and a floor plan of the house in More Houses for Good Living.

Royal Barry Wills House in Cambridge MA

Royal Barry Wills House in Cambridge MA

I was really sad when I walked by 19 Old Dee Road, a handsome Garrison Colonial that Wills designed in 1940. It’s a classic house with its massive corbeled chimney and large decorative pendants at the overhang ends.  The house is undergoing renovation however- the windows have been replaced (ugh!) and French doors installed to the right of the front door (double ugh!).  While I’m sure the refurbished interior will make somebody very happy for a traditionalist the house’s current state was a disappointment.

In Search of Royal Barry Wills

It’s not easy to locate Royal Barry Wills houses from his books (despite my luck as a ten year old!) since houses are often identified only by owners’ names.  Houses by Wills are regularly noted in real estate listings though sometimes I think agents use his name almost as a generic term when describing a classic New England style house.

I’m always interested in seeing more of these picture perfect houses.  Do you have any Royal Barry Wills favorites in your town?  Let me know!



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The Saltbox Architectural Style – Houses in Cambridge and Arlington

The Saltbox – Architectural Styles in Cambridge.  The saltbox is a quintessentially New England house style.   Usually formed when a lean-to was added to a one-and-a-half or two-story house, the saltbox features a short high roof on the front of the house and a pitched roof that slopes to a one-story height at the back of the house.  Saltboxes usually have a large central chimney.  The name comes from the house’s resemblance to the early American wood box with a hinged sloped lid that was used to store salt.  The style dates from the 1600s through the early 1800s and remains popular today.   Reproduction saltbox houses – and surviving originals – can be found all over New England.

A Cambridge Saltbox - the Cooper-Frost-Austin House

A Cambridge Saltbox - the Cooper-Frost-Austin House

Saltbox Houses in Cambridge and Arlington

Though one would imagine the saltbox was a common style at one point in Cambridge’s history the only early example I am aware of in Cambridge is the Cooper-Frost-Austin House on Linnaean Street.  This is the oldest house in Cambridge with the earliest part of the home dating from 1681.  The house is now owned by Historic New England (formerly SPNEA, the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities) and will next be open to the public on August 9, 2009 from noon to 4 pm.

With its prominent location and the spacious (by city standards!) side yard, the Cooper-Frost-Austin house provides a very visible example of the saltbox style.  The trademark sloping roofline is best viewed from the corner of Agassiz and Linnaean Streets.

The Jefferson Cutter house in Arlington is a saltbox. See the side view in the slide show below.

The Jefferson Cutter house in Arlington is a saltbox. To see the saltbox side take a look at the slide show below.

In an even more prominent location, the  Jefferson Cutter  house in Arlington Center provides another unimpeded view of a saltbox’s distinctive roof line. On Mass Ave and across from the bikepath entrance on Route 60, the house, built about 1830, was moved it’s current location in 1989. It is now home to the Cyrus E. Dallin Art Musuem.  Dallin was a sculptor who lived in Arlington from 1900 until his death in 1944.  The location of the Jefferson Cutter house, set back in Whittemore Park, provides views of all sides of this saltbox style house.  It is possible to easily view the back of the house where you’ll see that the back facade looks very much like a Cape.


Do you know of any local saltboxes – old or new?  Let me know if you do.

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The Cape Cod House in Cambridge and Nearby

dormered-cape-divinity-neighborhood-cambridgeThe Cape Cod architectural style or as we call it – the Cape – is very popular in Massachusetts and New England though not very common in Cambridge.  In Cambridge it is often an anomaly – the random Cape spotted here and there – a standout on a street otherwise lined with Victorians, triple deckers, or row houses.

This classic architectural style has roots going back hundreds of years and early examples from the 1600s through the 1800s will be found in many New England towns. William Morgan, in his book The Cape Cod Cottage describes the house as:

“The Cape Cod cottage is the nearly perfect house.  A combination of necessity and tradition, the Cape Cod has been a fundamental, iconic, and enduring expression of the American home for almost four hundred years.”

In style, the Cape is a one and a half story house with a steep pitched roof.  Early Capes often had a center chimney, others, particularly those built in the twentieth century, have an exterior chimney at one end of the house.  A variant is the “half cape” with the entrance door and chimney at one end and two windows to the side. Later many of these would be expanded to full size with the other half added on the far side of the chimney and door resulting in the familiar and symmetrical facade of a center entrance flanked by two windows on each side. 

Capes in Cambridge, Arlington and Nearby Towns

In Cambridge the lovely Colonial Revival cape seen above can be found in the Divinity neighborhood.  There’s also a Cape on Hurlbut Street that always catches my eye and another part brick cape on Huron Ave.  In Cambridgeport there’s a Cape built in early 1800s for a ropeworker and renovated at the end of the 1900s by David Aposhian.  There are other Capes in Cambridge of course but I think many early capes were replaced with larger houses or buildings over the years.

Most Cambridge neighborhoods weren’t part of the revival of Capes in the twentieth century because the neighborhoods had already been built up.  Arlington, Watertown, Medford and Belmont have far greater numbers of Capes built in the 1930s and in the 1950s to 1960s.

Twentieth Century Capes

Many Capes were built in the 1930s, often in a Colonial Revival style, in neighborhoods like Arlington’s Kelwyn Manor.  These capes often have very charming architectural details – archways, built-ins, nooks, and nice hardware.

Capes Built in the 1950 and 1960s

arlington-cape-built-in-19571The next big boom in Cape style houses came in the 1950s and early 1960s during a building boom that resulted in street after Cape lined street in new neighborhoods.  This was the last period when solid, quality building materials were a matter of course even in starter homes – plaster walls, hardwood floors, and fully tiled baths.  The cape at right was built in Arlington in 1957.

My parents’ first house, bought new when I was two and a half, was one of these capes so whenever I show one nowadays to a real estate buyer I know just what to expect.  Four rooms down – a living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom and upstairs two good sized bedrooms, or every so often one large and two small bedrooms.

These capes almost always had a full bath on the first floor.  Upstairs the dormer or its absence determined whether or not there was a full bath, half bath or none.  A full shed dormer across the back expands the bedrooms and allows for a second full bath.  Sometimes a smaller dormer would be added just so a bath could be put in on the bedroom level.  An under the eaves crawlspace provides storage – and a good place for hide and seek. 

It’s always fun to see how today’s homeowners have updated the capes of the 1950s and ’60s.  Many have opened up the wall between the dining room and kitchen, installing updated counters, cabinets and appliances and transforming the space into an open, modern kitchen and dining area.  Many have made good use of the lower level and finished the basement for use as a rec room or office.  Add an updated bath or two and these houses are good to go for the next fifty years.

Capes Continue To Be Built

Capes remain a very popular architectural style in New England.  The capes being built today are usually larger than those of fifty years ago.  Modern capes often have features that are meant to appeal to today’s buyers such as an open floor plan, a great room, and a first floor master bedroom suite.

Resources for Aficionados and Owners of Capes

Here are some books about the Cape Cod architectural style:

Updating Classic America Capes: Design Ideas for Renovating, Remodeling, and Building New (2003) by Jane Gitlin has wonderful ideas for transforming an older Cape

The Cape Cod Cottage (2006) by William Morgan has an excellent essay about the Cape and a beautiful collection of black and white photographs of Capes through the centuries

The Cape Cod House: America’s Most Popular Home (1982) by Stanley Schuler is a well illustrated architectural history of the Cape style.


Other Architectural Styles in Cambridge and Nearby:

The Greek Revival
The Bungalow
The Triple-Decker
Second Empire Mansards



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Spring Hill Somerville – Somerville MA Real Estate, Architecture and History

Spring Hill MansardSomerville’s Spring Hill neighborhood is a popular option for Somerville real estate buyers given its proximity to Porter Square and its stock of handsome, architecturally significant houses.

Spring Hill History and Architecture

Much of Spring Hill was developed on former farm land in the 1840s when the Greek Revival architectural style was popular.  Many fine example of Greek Revival architecture remain and Spring Hill is a designated historic district.  Development continued as a horse-drawn streetcar line to Boston was extended through the neighborhood in the 1870s.  Other architectural styles found in Spring Hill include Gothic Revivals, Italianates, Queen Anne Victorians, and Second Empire MansardsTriple deckers filled remaining empty lots in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Spring Hill Somerville HouseSpring Hill is set high enough that you can glimpse wonderful views of Boston and Cambridge as you walk around the neighborhood. The views are even better from the houses in the neighborhood many of which are topped with cupolas.

Spring Hill, Somerville Real Estate

Real estate options for Somerville buyers in Spring Hill include single families, multi-families and condos including units in the converted Carr School on Atherton Street.

Recent real estate sales on Spring Hill from MLSpin include:

  • a Victorian three-bedroom single family on Berkeley St. sold in Jan. 2009 for $426,000
  • a Greek Revival six-bedroom house on Atherton St. sold for $580,000 in Nov. 2008
  • a six-room, two-bedroom condo on Berkeley St. sold in Dec. 2008 for $400,000
  • a seven-room, three-bedroom condo on Porter St. sold in Nov. 2008 for $550,000
  • a newly renovated 2400 sq.ft. three-bedroom condo on Benton Rd. sold for $733,750 in Jan. 2009
  • a two-family on an 8500 sq.ft. lot on Harvard St. sold for $500,500 in Dec. 2008
  • an Italianate used as a multi-family on Laurel St. sold for $830,000 in June 2008 






Spring Hill Greek Revivals

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Triple-Decker House Style – Three-Family Houses in Cambridge

West Cambridge Triple-DeckerCambridge real estate buyers will quickly learn to recognize triple-deckers if they’re not already familiar with the house style.  These three-unit buildings , also called three-families or three-deckers, are ubiquitous in Cambridge and Somerville and are also found in other nearby cities and towns including Boston, Belmont, Medford and Watertown.  Nowadays, many triple-deckers have been converted to condominiums so even if you’re not looking for investment property you’ll likely be looking at a lot of triple-deckers.

Triple-Deckers in Cambridge Massachusetts – History and Architecture

Triple-deckers were first built in the 1870s in Boston (according to some, others suggest that Fall River or Worcester was first to popularize the style) and soon became a common building style throughout New England, particularly in cities.  Three-deckers were the answer to high land costs and the need for relatively inexpensive housing options for workers. 

Mid-Cambridge Triple DeckerConstructed with three stacked identical units, triple-deckers have a flat roof, often an overhanging cornice, and frequently front or back porches – or both – on all three levels.  Typically the narrow end of the building faces the street though there are a number of examples in Cambridge where the wide facade faces forward often with bay windows on each side of the main door to the building.

As evidenced by the varying quality of interior and exterior ornamentation, triple-deckers were also constructed for those of more means as builders sought to appeal to middle-class home buyers. In Cambridge you can find simply ornamented three-deckers as well as examples with gracious foyers, handsome built-ins, transom windows, and rich paneling and trim. Exterior details reflect a variety of architectural styles including the Colonial Revival and Queen Anne.

Developers often built several triple-deckers side-by-side and some Cambridge streets are lined almost entirely with three-families including Alberta Terrace in North Cambridge, Cambridge Terrace in Porter Square, Speridakis Terrace in Cambridgeport, and Marie Avenue in Mid-Cambridge.

Triple-Deckers in Cambridge – Investment Property and Cambridge Condos

West Cambridge Three Decker HouseTriple-decker apartments have become popular as condos and many of Cambridge’s three-families are now in condominium ownership.  Builders will buy a three-family, gut it and transform the apartments – often changing the floor plans, sometimes installing a second bath, and outfitting the kitchen and baths with all the bells and whistles that today’s buyers expect.  Other triple deckers have gone through more modest upgrades and still retain much of the original feel and character.

Sale prices for the eleven Cambridge three-decker buildings that sold in the last twelve months in the MLS ranged from $485,100 to $1,055,000 with a median price of $810,000. It won’t be surprising if many of these return to the real estate market as condos as a couple already have.  Asking prices for triple-deckers currently for sale in Cambridge range from $699,000 to $1,185,000.

Sale prices of Cambridge condos in triple-deckers over the last twelve months in MLS ranged from $305,000 to $735,000.  The most expensive triple-decker Cambridge condo sale that I can think of was the $881,500 paid in 2006 for a beautifully renovated condo in a particularly handsome three-decker in Cambridgeport. 

Read more about architectural styles found in Cambridge in these posts:


Greek Revivals in Cambridge
Mansards in Cambridge

Bungalows in Cambridge and Arlington

 Here are some Somerville and Cambridge triple deckers on the market – click on the photo for more info and use the back button to return to this page:


And if you’re looking for Cambridge multi-unit properties or considering buying a condo in a triple-decker in Cambridge:



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