Colonial Revival 1880-1930

The 1876 U.S. centennial aroused a renewed interest in the national story and nostalgia for architectural styles that reflected the country's roots and colonial heritage. Boston, with its superb inventory of Colonial, Georgian, and Federal buildings and high concentration of architectural thought leaders, played a central role in the revival of these styles.

Early revivals were rarely historically accurate, as architects just added Georgian, Federal and even First Period elements such as saltbox roofs, second-story overhangs, and diamond-shaped windows to their design vocabulary, applying exaggerated forms and motifs to otherwise picturesque structures. Interiors remained relatively open and ornate in the Queen Anne style, showing little interest for a return to the low ceilings, narrow doorways, and restraint of the Colonial era.

With additional documentation and evolving tastes, designs became more faithful reflections of the originals. By the 1910s, symmetrical Georgian façades framed elaborate front doors - often with decorative crown pediments, fanlights, and sidelights, set under columned porches - along with multi-pane sash windows and precise cornice dentils. After another 20 years of high Georgian revival, progressively simplified versions of the colonial style saw broad use in civic and residential architecture through the 1950s.

Of particular local note, McKim’s 1889 Georgian Revival Johnson Gate at the main entry to Harvard Yard set a precedent that would define Harvard's architectural identity up until WWII and influence the appearance of many other schools. Boston firm Perry, Shaw & Hepburn became recognized experts in Colonial architecture, and were tapped to replicate Colonial Williamsburg in fine historical detail. More recently, Robert Stern took Harvard Business School back to its “core brand,” with his 2001 neo-Georgian Spangler Campus Center.

While the Colonial Revival left the city with some fine buildings and neighborhoods, some observe that Boston's architecture community may have ceded its intellectual leadership role during this period. After decades of iterations on historical styles here led to the distinctive and indigenous Shingle Style, Boston's architects handed the mantle of innovation to Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie School in the Midwest. Boston only regained its voice in the national conversation with the rise of Modernism in the 1930s.

Sources: “Building Old Cambridge,” Maycock and Sullivan, 2016; "Built in Boston," Shand-Tucci, 1999; Historic New England, Architectural Style Guide.Image: A. A. Carey House, Cambridge; ©Yonward, 2017