The stately yet practical homes of the American Colonial period owe a lot to Dutch building traditions. The Dutch settlers’ skill in brickwork and their inventive adaptations such as split doors and flared roof eaves gave Dutch Colonial architecture a distinctive appearance that was widely popular throughout the northeast. Today, Dutch customs still influence home design in the region.
Dutch Traditions Thrive Abroad
In the early 17th century, Dutch traders and settlers established a colony in North America they called New Netherlands. Although the British annexed the settlement in 1664 and renamed it New York, the Dutch had already left their mark on the region’s architectural scene.
The style they built in, now known as Dutch Colonial, was most prevalent in today’s New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania regions, but also appeared in Delaware and Connecticut. Whether New York or Pennsylvania is the original home of the style, however, is up for debate.
The term “Dutch” wasn’t used as it is today, but rather as a catch-all term for non-British settlers. Many so-called Dutch settlers did come from the then Dutch Republic, but others were French-Belgian Huguenots, Flemish or German. As a result, Dutch Colonial architecture shows influence from all these groups, and not every feature can be traced back to the modern-day Netherlands.
To complicate matters, few original 17th-century Dutch buildings remain today. Most existing Dutch Colonial-style buildings were built in the 20th century and are more accurately called Dutch Colonial Revival, a sub-type of Colonial Revival. This style emerged from the nostalgic and often patriotic romanticizing of the Colonial Period. It wasn’t intended to precisely replicate Dutch colonial construction methods, but to evoke the mood of the old Dutch colonial farmhouses and period. Because of this, modern Dutch Colonials vary widely in terms of which original Dutch-style features they include.
After its 17th-century debut, the popularity of Dutch Colonial architecture rose again starting in 1890 and really took off between 1925 and 1940. The homes built earlier in this revival period showed more variation and decorative flourishes, while later homes returned to classical simplicity. The style hit another peak in the 1950 and ’60s. Today, Dutch Colonial architecture is a favorite among luxury home designers because it offers the flexibility to incorporate custom features and distinctive ornamentation.
Practicality with Style
Unlike most architectural styles, which were used as much for public buildings as for residential ones, Dutch Colonial style was used only for homes. Original Dutch Colonial homes were typically made of brick or stone, rather than wood as many British Colonial homes were. At the time, the Dutch were well known for their brick masonry skills.
The facades of Dutch Colonials are most often symmetrical with a central front door and orderly rows of windows, but the interior layouts vary. Many were based on open layouts two or three rooms across with fireplaces on each end. The roofs were then topped with gable-end chimneys, and the fireplaces’ stone back walls were left visible on the house’s exterior.
The most distinctive feature of Dutch Colonial architecture is the broad gambrel roof. This barn-style double-pitched roof has two slopes on each side, with the upper slopes lying almost flat and the lower slopes falling almost straight down. In the 18th century, this roof was so strongly associated with Dutch-style homes it was known simply as the “Dutch roof.”
Despite their prominence on Dutch Colonial houses, these roofs originated from English, French, and Flemish construction traditions. The Dutch themselves first built their houses with inverted V roofs. They didn’t fully embrace the gambrel roof until around 1775.
Before then, gambrel roofs had been popular on barns, but their use on residential buildings was a Dutch Colonial adaptation. The goal, however, was the same: maximizing space on the upper floors. A gambrel roof allows for a fully usable second and sometimes even third floor.
They were also cheaper and easier to build than standard two-story gable-roofed houses, and they helped their owners save on taxes. The Federal Direct Tax records of 1798, which levied the nation’s first property taxes, classified houses with gambrel roofs as one story and taxed them at a lower rate than two-story houses.
These spacious roofs were often further expanded using dormers, which raise the ceiling on the second floor while making room for more windows. Gable and hipped dormers were the most common, but shed dormers that take up much of the roofline were also popular.
The dormers almost always included windows that let in light and fresh air. These might be the double-hung 8-over-8 windows characteristic of Dutch Colonial homes or something smaller. Eyebrow dormer windows on the top floor were another way builders let in light. On some more ornate houses, decorative round wheel windows accent the gable ends.
Adding to the standout look of Dutch Colonial roofs are the flared eaves, or “Dutch kick,” with one side that extends partly or completely over the porch. The porches themselves are almost always covered, their roofs supported by simple columns. Balconies are rare.
Many older Dutch Colonial homes feature split or double-hung doors of the type often installed on barns. Used on homes, they let in fresh air while keeping children inside and livestock or wildlife out. These doors were used so often by Dutch home builders they were eventually dubbed “Dutch doors.” The combination of the gambrel roof and split doors is a big part of how Dutch Colonial houses earned the nickname “barn houses.”
Brick facing is the traditional preference for Dutch Colonial style homes, although after 1920, brick veneer was often used. For modern Dutch Colonials, clapboard and shingle siding are usually the go-to option. Owners of these homes often choose muted paint colors such as brown, gray, steel blue, and moss green to complement the uncluttered architecture.
Unlike most Victorian-era architectural styles, the Dutch Colonial style favors practicality and keeps embellishments to a minimum. It’s exactly this pragmatic approach and judicious use of decorative touches that became distinctive of the style.
Drawing inspiration from the building traditions of the Dutch and the cultures around them, Dutch Colonial architecture offers a glimpse into how Colonial-era settlers established their lives. It’s a perfect example of New World cultural mingling and resourcefulness.