Your real estate agent calls and tells you she’s learned about a gorgeous, Georgian-style home coming soon on the market. You’re thrilled! Except you don’t have the slightest clue as to what Georgian architecture actually means. Is it something European? Is it originally from Georgia? Does it have to do with someone named George?
It turns out some of those thoughts aren’t too far off. Georgian architecture, named after England’s first four King Georges, has been one of America’s most popular styles since it arrived from Great Britain in the 17th century. Recognized by its order and symmetry, it has an understated elegance that provides a timeless, almost-quaint feel. But beyond the uniformity and ornate details, the age and boxy interiors of Georgian-style homes can produce more challenges than charm for certain homebuyers.
So is a Georgian home right for you? We’ve talked to real estate agents, historians, and architects with a combined 30-plus years of experience to create a comprehensive primer on the colonial-era style. Let’s find out if it’s your perfect home or something you’d rather just tour on your next New England vacation.
What is Georgian architecture?
Simply put, Georgian architecture is a colonial style, defined by its stateliness and order. It draws from Renaissance and Greek and Roman influences, and it has an intense focus on symmetry, according to Martha McNamara, director of the New England Arts and Architecture Program at Wellesley College. That means your typical Georgian home will have a sense of dignity and formality throughout both the exterior and interior with touches of classical details to add a sense of esteem and elegance.
But to fully understand the characteristics of a Georgian home, it’s helpful to know the style’s entire history and evolution.
Its origins began with the revival of classicism in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, coinciding near King George I’s reign (hence its name). Simultaneously, the “Age of Enlightenment” was beginning, where there was a focus on thinking about the world in scientific and rational ways. According to McNamara, the combination of these two periods made Georgian homes’ symmetry and order along with their ornate details very attractive — especially to the elite. Just as there were rules that governed how the solar system worked, she says, there were now rules that governed how your house looked.
“That emphasis on rationalizing space, acquiring classical ornament, and that real emphasis on symmetry is all part of a broader intellectual movement,” McNamara says.
The style eventually arrived in New England as more colonists traveled across the Atlantic. In fact, the first Georgian structure sprung up in Boston in 1688 (it was a grand, three-story private home that has since been demolished). At that time, there were no formal architects as we know today, so the ideas and plans for these homes came over in “pattern books.” These printed materials provided builders the blueprints for what the houses should look like and even what details should be used in the doors, windows, and fireplaces.
Evolution in the United States
Once it arrived, the Georgian style became the most dominant building style in the U.S. until about 1830. The style grew with that same desire in England for formality and reason as the colonists themselves became more affluent. But while it was first popular among the elite, other groups took to the type and mixed and matched certain characteristics with older architecture as well. It also became prevalent in civic buildings, including town halls, courthouses, and schools.
Eventually, the style saw a revival in the early 20th century alongside other colonials. These homes, referred to as Georgian Revivals, are what you would most likely find today on your home search as original Georgian dwellings are hard to come by. But, don’t worry, they are mostly the same as their originals except for the fact they are newer.
Where can you find Georgian homes?
While you can find Georgian houses throughout the U.S., they are more prominent in the Northeast and along the eastern seaboard. You can find great examples of these homes in coastal New England towns, such as Marblehead, Massachusetts, or even farther south in Annapolis, Maryland.
As for the Georgian Revival homes, you’re going to find those most in suburban areas, according to Philadelphia real estate agent Kevin Toll of Toll Realty Group. Since they are larger and have more of a neighborhood feel, says Toll, who, alongside his wife, has worked with 67% more single-family homes than agents in his area, they are better suited for the suburbs.
Federalist vs. Georgian
What we know today as the Federalist style eventually grew out of Georgian architecture toward the turn of the 19th century. If you’re confused about what exactly the difference is between the two, you’re not alone.
Both came from similar inspirations, McNamara says, but the Federalist style is less exuberant and more restrained. To tell the difference, look at the details. If they’re more subtle and delicate, it’s most likely a Federalist. That style grew with the wealth of the newly independent United States, and new American architects began to add their contemporary influences onto the original Georgian look.
What characteristics define Georgian architecture?
The most significant characteristic of Georgian architecture is, of course, symmetry above all else. It strongly incorporates the “golden ratio,” a somewhat confusing mathematical concept but one that’s proven to be more appealing to the eye when used in art and architecture. That creates a sense of balance seen throughout the exterior windows and doors that eventually makes its way inside to the interior layout and design.
All Georgian homes are either square or rectangular and feature a center entrance with an equal disbursement of windows on either side. According to A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlister, these homes are usually two or two-and-a-half stories tall and two rooms deep.
As for the building materials, that depends on your location. Wood with clapboard or shingle cladding is most common in the north, while brick or sometimes even stone is more popular farther south.
Here’s are some of the other most common features:
- Side-gabled roofs, where the roof only slopes to the front and back, or hipped and gambrel roof styles. Roofs may include dormers as well.
- Windows (usually three, five, or seven across) are double-hung with small panes (typically 12-over-12 or 9-over-9 patterns).
- Entrances are often surrounded by wooden pilasters, especially in the North, or even pediments or arched tops above the door.
- Chimney in the center of the house or symmetrical chimneys on opposite sides.
- Homes will have strategically placed decorative details, possibly pedimented windows, roof balustrades, cornice with dentil moldings, or even quoins (blocks on the corner of a building to imitate stone).
The inside of the Georgian home follows a similar format as the outside: Balance with a touch of civility. But the interesting thing about the Georgian interior compared to earlier styles, McNamara says, is that there’s a focus on putting the working areas, such as the kitchen, near the back of the house, and the more public spaces, such as the living room, upfront.
Right as you walk in, there will be a center hall, usually with a staircase, and off either side will be the living room and dining room. As you go farther back, you’ll get to the more family-oriented spaces and, eventually, the kitchen area.
Here are some other standard interior features:
- High ceilings (about 10 or 11 feet) usually with crown molding or even cornices.
- Compartmentalized rooms. The open floor plan isn’t typical in the Georgian style, and the rooms are more boxy and intimate.
- Bedrooms solely on the second floor as the living and sleeping areas tend to be separate.
- The many symmetrical windows allow a lot of natural light, a prominent feature in Georgian interiors.
- Some Georgians retain a Baroque feel with extravagant doorways, mantelpieces, fireplaces, and other wood carvings. These are more prominent in the first-floor living and dining areas.
Examples of Georgian architecture
It might be hard to fully comprehend the Georgian home without seeing what it actually looks like, so let’s check out some famous examples.
- Longfellow House (Cambridge, Massachusetts) – Built in the 18th century, this Georgian has pilasters around the entrance, columns, and dentil cornices.
- Jeremiah Lee Mansion (Marblehead, Massachusetts) – Built in 1768, this is one of the more grand examples of the Georgian home with roof balustrades and a pediment over the entrance.
- Dwight House (Deerfield, Massachusetts) – Three-story Georgian with gambrel roof and dormers.
- Kevin McCalister’s House from Home Alone (Winnetka, Illinois) – From one of our favorite Christmas movies, this is an excellent example of the Georgian Revival. It has the same features as the Georgian but is newer (built in 1921) and a little more modern.
Living in a Georgian home
With all of that said, that still leaves the question of if the Georgian or Georgian Revival style is right for you. These homes have great charm and can be great for families, but they can come with their challenges as well.
The curb appeal
With their symmetry and classical ornaments, there’s a subtle dignity to Georgian homes. They look sophisticated and timeless, especially given they’ve been around for over 300 years. Inside, the decorative doorways, fireplaces, and crown molding allow you a sense of grandeur. That, of course, means you’ll have a gorgeous house that may be the hit of the neighborhood, and if you decide to sell eventually, you don’t have to worry about it being out of style.
While Georgian homes were built to focus on symmetry, sometimes even over function, there is still a sense of functionality. The living areas are clearly defined, and the kitchen/dining areas are separated to give you a break from the house’s working areas. The second-floor bedrooms also provide a logical distinction between the sleeping and living areas.
The numerous windows and high ceilings allow for plenty of natural light to come in and promote greater well-being as well. Not to mention these homes are durable. Most of them have been around for nearly two centuries (or close to a century in Georgian Revival), meaning they’re sturdy and built to withstand the elements.
Great for families
Georgian homes can be great for any homebuyers, but given their size and layout they’re especially suited for growing families, says Megan Toll of the Toll Realty Group. They commonly range anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet and have large yards to accommodate little ones. With typically three to four bedrooms on the second floor, parents and children can be on the same level.
“For a family with younger children, it might be the ideal style of property,” Megan Toll says.
While the separated rooms might have worked well for 1700s-era entertaining, they aren’t as suited for modern living. Today, many homebuyers are looking for open living areas with sight lines from the kitchen to the living room. That might be hard to find in Georgian homes. Instead, the rooms are more intimate, and it might be costly or challenging to open things up.
“Even if you’re rehabbing a whole home, you have to build into a certain layout, floor structures, and supports,” says Kevin Toll.
Higher maintenance costs
All homes require maintenance, but Georgian houses might come with more costs and upkeep than others, given their age. It’s helpful to take a look at the foundation for any cracks or signs of shifting when you’re looking at a potential home (your home inspector will take care of this, too!) and ask about any recent updates the previous homeowner has done.
Kevin Toll says that it might also help do a sewer line or septic inspection to check the age and maintenance of your underground pipes. With many old homes, the sewer lines might still be cast iron and be 70 to 80 years old. A replacement could cost you upward of $4,000.
We’ve mentioned the charm and elegance provided in a Georgian home, but that just might not be your thing. These homes are traditional in many ways, from the crown moldings to the layout to the exteriors. That means if you want a first-floor main bedroom and no stairs, you won’t find that in a Georgian home. Or if you like the look of a bay window and irregular rooflines to break up the facade, you won’t find that either.
It all comes down to personal taste and what fits your lifestyle. Maybe you’ll tour a Georgian and decide this home style is simply better left to the architectural historians. Or perhaps you’ll learn the symmetry and elegance are exactly what you wanted.
Header Image Source: (Paul Wishart / Shutterstock)