Classic American Vernacular


With Independence Day upon us, we’re taking a moment to reflect on historically significant residential architecture. Throughout our country’s history, the concept of home has remained largely unchanged—a safe shelter in which to live. But the styles that comprise the classic American Vernacular are as varied as our nation’s people themselves. Today, Patrick discusses three varieties that are as American as apple pie—the Greek Revival, the Cape, and the Shingle Style home.

Architecturally, what style most symbolizes American democracy?

Unequivocally, that answer is the Greek Revival.  Our democratic society took cues from the Greeks not only in government but in architecture as well.  The Greek Revival had strong detailing—heavy cornices, columns, and pilasters—like those you would see on a Greek temple.  They were usually post and beam construction with heavy trim. So many of our municipal buildings are Greek Revivals, but the style isn’t limited to government structures—it dominated residential architecture for a time as well. Martha’s Vineyard in particular is home to countless examples.

The owners of Morse Street Compound, originally built for Captain Consider Fisher House in 1845, wanted to restore and reimagine their Greek Revival as a vacation home that would feel intimate but ready for entertaining. To accommodate their expansive program, a historically appropriate second gabled structure was added, connected to the original by a glass-enclosed breezeway-like dining pavilion.
Featuring six sets of French doors, the dining area occupies the heart of a new central spine that opens the once-closed plan, lets in light, and encourages indoor-outdoor living. This solution allows the house to remain true to its context—even though it now has ten-foot ceilings and twice the square footage.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with many historic Greek Revivals over the years, and they lend themselves beautifully to renovation. Stylistically, they’re laid out with a dominant central spine that makes for a logical traffic flow throughout the house. I like to add that spine into my projects when it doesn’t exist, but with a Greek Revival usually it’s there to begin with. You also typically see taller ceiling height on the first floor with floor to ceiling windows, which can give a grand sense of volume and space. Even a smaller scale Greek Revival home can seem grand—I did one of those on South Water Street in Edgartown a few years ago. It lives beautifully for modern day.

This 1840s Greek Revival home, South Water Street Revisited, didn’t take advantage of its potential sea views and struggled to accommodate summertime guests. A significant but subtle reimagining—featuring an added wing, a walk-out garden level invisible from the street, a carriage house, and reconceived landscaping—now encourage indoor-outdoor living.

What about Cape style homes that are so prevalent in our region?

The Cape is to New England what the craftsman bungalow is to Californiaan architectural style synonymous with the region. The earliest Puritan settlers brought the cape to our area in the 1600s, and the beauty is in the style’s simplicity. The typical cape is a one-and-a-half story box with a central stair and low ceilings. The front facade is a door and two windows, maybe with dormers in the roof, maybe not. These were intended to be shelters with very little ornamentation.

Long-lauded by the Chatham Historical Society, the circa-1825 Thomas Smith House is a traditional Cape Cod–style shingled residence whose original compact form was extended over the years with a rear ell and east wing.
The goal of this restoration was to modernize utilities and amenities without sacrificing vintage charm and scale.

But the cape doesn’t have to be so humble. I just recently completed a cape renovation in Edgartown, where we managed to create a really substantial program without overwhelming the house. We took the main building, added dormers to the back of the house, and then raised the ceilings inside, so you have double-height spaces throughout every room. The natural light comes in through the dormers, and suddenly while you have a timeless little house from the curb, you have a beautiful jewel box within. On that house, too, I did a sleight of hand. I regraded the property and raised the structure, then put brick on the foundation exterior below. In doing so, I was able to get additional living space underneath without overwhelming the main house above. That house overlooks the harbor, and the cape’s simplicity allows the views to really stand out.

Situated on a small corner lot, Historic Island Cape Revisited comprised the restoration and renovation of an eighteenth-century cape house and a small barn, reimagined as a pool cabana, plus the construction of a carriage house. These are joined by an “Edgartown fence”—white pickets capped by a rail unique to this locale.
At the rear, an eighteenth century–appropriate two-story wing replaces a previous 1909 one-level addition, seamlessly connecting the house to the outdoors.

Speaking of water views, how do you feel about the seaside shingle style?

You know, there’s a certain romanticism to the shingle style on the water. It’s classic American architecture that harkens back to the opulence of the Gilded Age at the turn of the century.  Areas like the gold coast of Long Island, Newport, and coastal New England are full of examples of shingle styles built from the late 1800s on.

With a design attributed to noted Boston architect Horace Frazer, this grand shingle-style waterfront home in Osterville’s Wianno Historic District has provenance to spare. Built in 1888, Nantucket Sound Overlook is part of Cape Cod’s early development as a summertime retreat, so its renovation needed to honor that rich history and also look to the future. Frazer designed many of the homes in the area, including the Wianno Club nearby.

The shingle style, though, is really complicated to build and restore, because really anything goes. You can have turrets or gambrels or variegated roof lines—they’re playful in that way. It’s funny—people often think of me and gambrels that I’ve done along the water, but the reality there is that zoning is dictating design. When we’re dealing with a maximum height of 26’ the gambrel just lends itself beautifully to that. Inside these homes, you have opportunities to tuck those rooflines into the 2nd story, and add built-ins, or window seats, or additional storage without sacrificing design. I like the complexity of them—the challenge makes it fun.

This shingle-style home, Rural Vineyard, has everything people love about coastal New England architecture, including a widow’s walk, decks, oversailing eaves, and multipaned windows with harbor views.
The gambrel roof gives a classic look while maximizing upper-level square footage, ceiling heights, and built-in storage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add as we celebrate July 4th?

Absolutely. With every home we do—renovations, new construction, all of them—we work to create a storyline for the property. It’s what I like to call narrative driven architecture. And we constantly reference that narrative—or history, if you will—to make careful choices that seem like they were always there. Abraham Lincoln once said you cannot escape history, and in our process we clearly want to do the opposite. We revere a home’s past—real or imagined—as we write a new chapter in its story. On Independence Day, Americans are doing something similar—celebrating the past as we move into the future. In that way, I hope our work is relevant this holiday weekend and always.

Feel free to contact us for more information about renovating your own property, or developing the home you’ve dreamed about. In the interim, we encourage you to find meaningful inspiration in our portfolio.