New England Home Styles

Antique Colonials: Beyond the Borning Room*

We all follow the trends of home sales and what is hot among buyers. Recently, square footage is no longer the be-all-and-end-all of buyers' requirements. Many are looking for quality and unique design. Here are some things on discerning buyers' wish lists:

  • quality construction
  • fine woodworking and detail
  • spaces for gracious entertaining
  • custom-built, not "cookie-cutter"
  • a connection to nature
  • mature and lovely landscaping
  • Lastly, everyone's dream -- all of the above features at an affordable price in the desirable towns west of Boston.

Surprisingly, many antique homes (primarily ones built in the 18th and early 19th centuries) fit the bill and offer even more amenities.

First, it should be noted that the most popular home style remains the Colonial. They are still being built today. But New England is blessed with the real thing, and if you have spent any time in a true antique Colonial, you will recognize that the proportion and functionality are aesthetically perfect. Unless you go with a high-end custom builder, I'm willing to wager that a new "Colonial" will simply not be as well proportioned (or even as well built). It's analogous to Greek vs. Roman art. The Romans copied the Greek originals and rarely surpassed them.

But back to today's home buyers. They covet woodwork, built-ins and fireplaces. The antique Colonial has these high-end features and even the bragging rights that all the work was hand done by the best-trained craftsmen. You won't find comparable moldings at Home Depot!

Someone considering an antique will have to balance the likely small closets or small bathrooms with the advantages of multiple fireplaces and those quality features, like wide pine floors and wainscoting. That is a trade-off I would be willing to make. I value a formal dining room with its own elegant fireplace and a large built-in china cabinet more than a large master bath. The pleasures I get entertaining at holidays or even coming together for a relaxed evening meal trumps any activity I do in a bathroom. But that is just me.

Today, people talk about the home's connection to nature. We live in a lovely part of the country and want to enjoy the outdoors. The typical antique Colonial will likely maintain at least some pastoral views from its windows. I was recently at an antique home for sale in Lincoln Massachusetts and oohed and aahed at the views of stone walls and a sylvan tree that stood in the back yard. If you long for a sylvan tree, an antique home is the place to find one. And since many antiques are located in the center of town, people moving from the city will continue to enjoy the walk-to-everything convenience.

One shouldn't be too afraid of exploring the possibility of expansion, as well. While towns will rightly want to make sure that additions are sympathetic, the reality is that many of these New England homes were added on to over the years. That contributes to their picturesque appearance. In fact, today's high-end builders sometimes design large homes to look as if they had been expanded over the generations. This is a much more New England aesthetic than just building large right from the start.

So look to antiques. They are not just for history buffs. Antique homes provide warmth, charm, and beauty, which make them truly timeless.

*It seems that many antique Colonial homes have a small first-floor room called the borning room. Colonial-era women, who often had 12 or more children, were stationed in this room for their deliveries. Borning rooms never seem to make it onto modern buyers' wish lists, but they do make a great story (or maybe a great closet).

Click to search all Massachusetts homes for sale built prior to 1900.

Ranch Dressing

The ranch home has a hard time in New England, primarily because it has no connection to the region's much-cherished Colonial past. But like the rest of the country, New England has its share of post-war ranch homes. Of the over 28,000 homes currently listed for sale in Massachusetts, 17% are identified as ranch style compared to 41% identified as Colonial style. Ranch homes were built in the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The style started in California, and by 1950 nine out of 10 newly built houses were "ranch-types."

Architectural historians have made jokes like, "I'll die if they start trying to preserve ranch-style homes." Well guess what? That day is here. Ranch homes are an American architectural form, and appreciation is growing. Check out Atomic Ranch magazine to see true fan enthusiasm.

The ranches generating negative reactions are likely the tiny post-war houses that many of us grew up in. Sometimes they are derogatively called Ranch Burgers. I was raised in a 980-square-foot, three-bedroom brick ranch in Michigan. Attention current real estate agents: try proposing that housing option to a family with four children. But our ranch-type house represented normal middle-class living in the 1960s. (My parents did add on in the 1970s, but just like many additions, the extra space was added after two kids had already left for college.)

So why the passions for and against the ranch? Like every other house style, ranches have good points and bad points but much of that depends on what you are used to and whether you are a first-time homebuyer or an empty nester.

A ranch is the perfect starter home for a young couple. Imagine coming from a city apartment and having your own beautiful, mature yard and efficient space to accommodate all of your activities, including a huge basement for hobbies or entertaining.

Older homebuyers, or those with disabilities, also appreciate ranches. First-floor bedrooms are essential for many people or simply sought after for their convenience. Affordability in a mature neighborhood has wonderful appeal to first-timer buyers as well as empty nesters.

The rambler is another name for a ranch and it connotes a sprawling custom ranch. The mid-century modern lovers like our California couple house hunting in the Boston area would gobble up a rambler. Because these ranches sprawl, they usually have a large lot to go with them. Lots of glass and retro features add modern appeal.

The large ranch or rambler is appealing to discerning buyers, if they either seek mid-century design or don't respond to "traditional" architecture. Many of these buyers would say that a Colonial is boring. And going up and down stairs is just a pain.

So give the ranch its due and take a fresh look. A open, airy rambler could be the answer to a family's dream. A neighborhood of small ranches could be just the thing for the cost-conscious buyer, proving the adage, "what's old is new again."

Colonial Style Homes of New England

When people say that "colonial homes" are their favorite housing style, they are probably picturing a two-story structure with a center entrance and a symmetrical arrangement of windows, often fondly summed up as "five-over-four-and-a-door." In New England, colonial homes, both old and new are generally built of wood.

The towns that Barrett & Company serves have many beautiful examples of Colonial homes, and a surprising number of these are the real McCoy, dating from between 1640 and 1776. These antique homes usually have been lovingly cared for and sensitively updated over the years. They offer their owners history and a homey warmth.

Some traits of Colonial-era homes:

  • Post and beam construction -- now a current trend in modern home-building, showing that what is old is new again.
  • True divided light windows.
  • Construction around a central chimney. This huge masonry chimney runs through the middle of the house and was originally the only heat source for the upper floor. Later, to gain more interior space, early American homes had a chimney on either end of the house.

The Colonial Revival

The Boston area also has a stunning collection of Colonial Revival homes, which were extremely popular at the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s.

Colonial Revival homes:

Were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, which honored the craftsmanship of a bygone era.  Wallace Nutting, a famed collector of early American furniture, produced hand-colored photographs of Colonial interiors, helping spread interest in the revival.

Tend to have a bigger layout and larger windows than true Colonial-era homes because of course central heating was part of the original design. Glass-walled sunrooms and formal gardens set these homes apart from their homey, utilitarian forebears.

Usually have a fine level of workmanship in the moldings and mantels, many historically accurate but sometimes "pumped up" for added drama.

Can range from houses that would be considered estates to modest Dutch Colonials (to be discussed in a future blog).

May include Arts and Crafts elements in the interior, such as an inglenook or a built-in sideboard in the dining room.

Modern Classics

New England residential architects continue to draw on Colonial design traits when building new homes. A large, 5,000 square foot "Colonial" can have game rooms, large walk-in closets, and other high-end amenities but will still rely on classic Colonial details, such as dentil molding, side panels on either side of the front door, and an overall symmetry of design.

Built for the Landscape

Colonial homes of any time period function well in the New England climate. They have simple rooflines and a maximum of usable space for the footprint of the house, making them easier to heat than more "sprawling" styles.