Which Washington D.C. Home Architectural Design Is Best for You?

by Cassandra McCullersSeptember 25, 2017

While most guides focus on the monumental architecture scattered across Washington D.C., the everyday or vernacular architecture of our nation’s capital is a treasure trove of history and style. Wandering the streets of Washington can be like traveling back in time, offering a first-hand glimpse of changes over time to the design, aesthetics and style of American homes and businesses.

via Rent Cafe
via Rent Cafe

There are two elements that strongly define D.C.’s unique architecture: the building type and the architectural style. The building type can be thought of as the bones of the building – elements such as how many rooms it contains, its height, the width, and the roofline. The architectural style lies in the decorative elements, such as the windows, the presence and design of columns and brackets, the style and material of siding, and the color.

Building Types

1. Row houses, also called townhouses, are one of D.C.’s most iconic building types, with houses ranging from the functional to the highly ornate depending on the neighborhood. Row houses come in most of the architectural styles featured in the city, having been built throughout the D.C.’s history. Most D.C. row houses have two to three openings across the front, are only one to two rooms wide, and two to three rooms deep.

Image of row homes in Washington D.C.
Row Houses via Ken Lund

2. American four-square houses are extremely common throughout the nation and as such, are strongly represented in many of D.C.’s neighborhoods. Most have a simple two-by-two floor plan – two rooms deep by two rooms wide – making for four floors on each level. Most lack a central hallway. American four-squares are typically one to two floors and often include an attic for extra storage space. Most D.C. four-squares have a brick chimney on one side, and a front porch with brick bases on the columns. There are typically two windows to a side, with a central door.

3. American colonial homes are another common sight in the suburbs around D.C. Floor plans vary widely, though early colonials were often built as I-houses. American colonials tend to be highly symmetrical, and wider than they are deep. Most are in the Colonial, Neo-Colonial, or Georgian Colonial style, that were so popular all along the East Coast.

4. California-style bungalows flourished across America from the 1910s through the 1940s, including in the suburbs around D.C. Typically low-slung and asymmetrical, most bungalows have bay window projects and a large front porch. Most are one to one and a half stories. The exterior is frequently wood siding, with a porch of brick, stone or stucco. Bungalows are strongly associated with the Arts and Crafts architectural style.

Architectural Styles

Image of a colonial-style home in Washington D.C.
Colonial-style home via Ron Cogswell

1. Colonial architecture is the earliest architectural style that can be found in D.C.’s older neighborhoods, dating back to the pre-Revolutionary War period. Buildings in the Colonial style are usually narrow, on a low foundation. Most are two to three stories, with windows with multiple panes, columns, an entry hall, and at least one large fireplace within the home. The exterior is typically brick or stone, sometimes with a layer of ornamental stucco to help reduce water absorption from rain, a common concern in this region of the country. A Colonial-style house, the Old Stone House in Georgetown, built 1765, is the oldest unchanged building within D.C.’s city limits.

2. Georgian homes, built from the mid 18th century through the early 19th century, are symmetrical and simply elegant. Features of Georgian architecture include an odd number of windows across the front of the house (typically five), symmetrical and square facades, a centered front door with decorative crown molding, and multiple chimneys. Georgian architecture sometimes blends with colonial architecture for unique and interesting buildings.

3. Common to early row houses in D.C., the Federal style of architecture is simple and boxy. Mostly built from the 1780s to the 1840s, this early architectural style was strongly inspired by British architecture. Features include a fanlight over the front door, a front door with narrow side windows, multiple chimneys, shutters, and arched palladian windows, which have a wide center section and two narrower side sections. A famous example is the Dumbarton House in Georgetown, completed around the year 1800.

Image of an Italianate style building in Washington, D.C.
Italianate style building via NCinDC

4. Commonly built from 1845 through 1870 in several of America’s early cities, the Italianate style is a relaxed style inspired by Italian farmhouses. One of D.C.’s less common architectural styles, these homes feature low-pitched or even flat roofs, rectangular, symmetrical shapes, extensive balconies, overhanging ledges or eaves, double doors, narrow and tall windows, rounded arches on the balconies and windows, and three or four stories.

5. The Second Empire or French Baroque Revival style was mostly built from 1865 to 1900, popular around the turn of the century in the growing neighborhoods. Most famous examples of this grand style are found in some of D.C.’s monumental architecture, but this style can also be found gracing row houses. Second Empire buildings usually have mansard roofs, though row houses can be side-gabled, with dormer windows letting light in.

6. The Victorian style, including the ornate Queen Anne style, was especially popular from 1875 through to the early 1900s. If you’ve ever seen a row house in Washington D.C. with a large bay window on all or most floors or turret, chances are it was a Victorian. Victorians feature complex rooflines, elaborate woodwork on brackets and railings, and colorful exteriors. Victorian row houses are a common sight in D.C.’s historic districts.

7. Tudor Revival homes started appearing in the early 1900s. Tudor Revival homes usually feature half-timbering (decorative exposed wood, usually dark in color), white or cream stucco siding, complex rooflines, and asymmetrical facades. Tudors were more popular in some of D.C.’s outlying neighborhoods, as they are typically are a stand-alone structure requiring a bit of yard space.

8. The Beaux Arts style flourished in growing cities of the East Coast from the 1890s through the 1920s. Often featured on grander residences, this style features decorate quoins on the corners, high-quality building materials, ornamentation around windows and doors, a flat roof, arched windows, arched and sometimes pedimented doors, stone construction, and columns.

9. The Craftsman, or Arts and Crafts, style is commonly associated with bungalows. Arts and Crafts involves using unadorned building parts as decorative elements, “natural” and “rustic” materials for the roof and siding, and deep porches with large, tapering columns and overhanging eaves.

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About The Author
Cassandra McCullers
Cassandra is a writer with a background in engineering, enjoying the rural life in the Virginian Appalachians. When not working, she enjoys writing fiction, running a blog, camping, working in the garden, and tending to her flock of chickens! In addition to writing, she has a passion for art and graphic design. Her interests include disaster preparedness, homesteading, landscaping, cooking with natural ingredients, history, and animal husbandry.