From Stone Cottage to Georgian Style in Colonial America

You know those two-story, take-your-breath-away stone homes you sometimes find closer to city centers and clearly built by skilled tradesmen? Congrats! You’ve just happened upon a Georgian-style home. Why significant? Early American stone homes called upon regional folk styles and were often built by owners themselves. By the 18th century, we had established ourselves in this country and had amassed enough wealth to build more formal, refined structures.

The Georgian style in America made its way here from England, where classical forms of the earlier Italian Renaissance period were popular. Hallmarks of this home style included:

The Georgian style (1700-1780) gave way to the Federal style after the American Revolution. Cliveden (Benjamin Chew House, shown above), located in Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a fine example of Georgian style. The mansion was in part designed by its owner Benjamin Chew, a successful Philadelphia lawyer, and built by Mennonite master carpenter Jacob Knor, mason John Hesser and stonecutter Casper Geyer. The home takes inspiration from Kew Palace as well as patterns in James Gibbs’s Book of Architecture. An ashlar front of gray Wissahickon schist (the predominant bedrock underlying Philadelphia) and gable ends and back of rubble construction are outstanding features.

Could you see yourself as the master of a grand Georgian estate? Take our stone home personality quiz to find the home style that’s right for you.

Cliveden: The Building of a Philadelphia Countryseat, 1763-1767
Common Building Types: Houses, schools, courthouses

The Story of Stone and Early American Home Styles

An old stone home is a reflection of its builder’s heritage and masonry skills as well as the region in which it was built. Let’s explore materials and home style as we tour the earliest stone homes to appear along or near the East Coast of North America.

Region: New England

In the mid-1600s, the population of New England was primarily English, so home styles were pretty simple, stripped of ornamentation and timber-framed (timber being the most readily available material). Design had purpose: A pitched roof shed heavy snow loads and a central fireplace kept the home warm and cozy during cold New England winters. But not many stone homes. Why? Although fieldstone was plentiful (we know this by virtue of old dry-stacked stone walls that still exist throughout the region), the ingredients to make a good mortar were scarce. Rare examples appear where limestone was plentiful (primarily Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts) and took the form of what came to be coined “stone-siders”.

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Photo: Clemence-Irons House by acanyc, Johnston, RI, limestone construction, Post-Medieval English style

Region: Central Hudson Valley and New Jersey

Moving on to the Hudson Valley, we see a slight change in style and construction. Dutch and Flemish settlers were more skilled in pairing materials, specifically fieldstone with brick, timber or both. To construct the earliest stone homes, settlers rough-cut stone and sandwiched it between layers of hair- or straw-bound clay to build walls that measured up to three feet thick. Lime mortar, fashioned from oyster shells or lime deposits, and finely masoned stones and intricately laid brickwork eventually replaced more primitive building materials.

Mount Gulian stone home

Photo: Mount Gulian by Howard Dale, Beacon, NY, red and brown sandstone construction, Dutch colonial style

Region: Delaware River Valley

Further south in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania, Swedish, Scots-Irish and German settlers initially built log structures. It was the German immigrants who truly put their stamp on the stone home design. The earliest structures featured steep roofs, central fireplaces and small square windows flush set against thick stone walls. Often, homes were built over springs that provided running water or into hillsides (hence the term “bank house”) that kept interiors cool during hot and humid summer months.

Hans Herr House old stone home in Lancaster County

Photo: Hans Herr House by Historyplaces, Willow Street, PA, sandstone construction, German colonial style

Early American Architecture by Hugh Morrison
The History, Science and Poetry of New England’s Stone Walls
Hudson Valley Architecture
Stone Houses of Eastern Pennsylvania
Architecture, Furniture, and Silver from Colonial Dutch America
Common Building Types: Houses, Agricultural Outbuildings, Mills