Wednesday, August 18, 2010

So what is an American Four Square?

An American Four Square is one of the most ubiquitous housing styles in neighborhoods across the country.  Built from the late 1890s through the 1920s,  the 4 Square was a reaction to the highly decorated and expensive houses of the Victorian era.  Though not always considered Craftsman homes, 4 Squares adhere to the Craftsman philosophy of Gustav Stickley and he published plans for the houses in his magazine, "The Craftsman".  

"The central thought in all Craftsman activities is the simplification of life and a return to true democracy," said Gustav Stickley in 1911.  Coming from the age of gingerbreaded Victorians, turrets, multi-colored houses, and decoration for decorations sake, Stickley was reacting to the Victorian excess.  There was a return to nature and honesty in workmanship and materials.  Most importantly, this new simplicity equated to economy, creating comfortable new single family homes for the growing middle class.

The American 4 Square was the epitome of  simplicity, honesty, and economy.  The houses are usually a big, 2 story, square-ish block with a wide, hipped roof capped with a large dormer.  On each floor inside are often 4 square rooms, providing the American 4 Square name.  As boring as that may sound, there is lots of room for variety.  The houses weren't dependent on symmetry, so the floor plans could be quite varied with a side hall, center hall, or no hall at all.  One of the front rooms might have a bay window to break up the squareness of the facade.  The windows might be evenly spaced across the house, or might vary depending on the function of the room behind.  The types of windows varied from house to house, some with simple 1-over-1 windows, others with leaded glass, curves, or multiple lights.  Siding was made of natural materials such as wood shingles, stucco, clapboard, brick, or concrete, but varied depending on the availability of local materials and craftsman.

American 4 squares provided a lot of space for minimal effort in construction.   One feature of these houses is the porch running the full length of the front of the house.  The hipped roof with dormer provided the opportunity to expand, creating living space in the attic.  Most houses sat on a basement, providing a storage area and a place for the furnace.  The square shape also lent itself to additions, such as additional rooms or porches attached to the sides of the building.

Environmentally, the houses provided lots of natural light, ventilation, and cooling.  The many large windows in many of these houses make it possible to perform most daytime tasks without turning on a light.  The same windows provide natural ventilation in summer, often making it unnecessary to run air conditioning.  Deep roof overhangs and porches help to shade the windows from the harshest sun in summer, helping to cool the house while also providing protection so that windows may be left open during rain storms.  Today, many of these houses have large old trees shading them, providing additional summer cooling.

Gustav Stickley said, "A Craftsman house should stand for 100 years or more without requiring repairs."  American Four Squares have stood the test of time and are continuing to prove their worth in neighborhoods across the country.  We can learn much from the simplicity, honesty of materials, and solid construction that have certainly proven to be more sustainable than much of the construction of the latter half of the 20th century.


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