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Anthony Grumbine: American Colonial Revival Laid Framework for Santa Barbara’s Character

The architectural style, popular across the country, often takes on a local flavor that relates to the city's climate and location

[Noozhawk’s note: This article is one in an occasional series exploring Santa Barbara’s distinct architectural styles. Click here for previous articles.]

When the television show Leave It to Beaver was in its hay day, it was no surprise that the Cleaver family lived in a particular style of house that exemplified vernacular architecture in the United States for the previous 50 years. That style is American Colonial Revival. Extremely popular across the country, the American Colonial Revival style also helped form Santa Barbara’s architectural character.

From the early 1900s on, American Colonial Revival held the lead as the top style across the country. Its origins, however, stretch back even further. It was in 1876 with the United States celebrating its 100-year anniversary that a great wave of patriotic excitement swept the land and began to inspire the design of America’s houses, forming them after the original Colonial houses from the 1700s. By the beginning of the 20th century, American Colonial Revival had become the national vernacular style, and would remain popular into the 1950s.

Thinking Inside the Box

One of the key differences between the last of the Victorian styles, the Queen Anne Revival, and the newly popular American Colonial Revival was the overall mass of the building. While the Queen Anne tended to have an asymmetrical massing, complete with towers and wrap-around porches, the American Colonial Revival was usually an asymmetrical two- or three-story rectangular box. This was in imitation of the simple forms of the first colonial houses (think George Washington’s Mount Vernon) and helps give the style a distinguished presence on the street.

In Santa Barbara, the massing of the American Colonial Revival house was often single story, and the roof pitch tended to be shallow when compared with the rest of the country. The shallow roof pitch is a natural cause of the mild climate of the region, where there is no need to shed snow.

The Soul of the House as Seen Through Its Windows

A person’s eyes are said to be the windows to their soul. For the house, it is often the windows that show the character or soul of the house. In the American Colonial Revival house, the windows are usually surrounded by classical mouldings and subdivided into multi-panes of vertical rectangles having six or more panes per sash.

This characteristic was contrary to the Queen Anne tendency toward large open panes of glass that had become more easily available through improved glass-making and shipping methods. Instead of going with the then-modern trend of larger, single panes of glass, American Colonial Revival chose smaller divisions since this was the way the original Colonial houses of the 1700s were built.

American Colonial Revival homes, such as this example in Santa Barbara, derive their simple, rectangular shape from the early Colonial houses of the 1700s.
American Colonial Revival homes, such as this example in Santa Barbara, derive their simple, rectangular shape from the early Colonial houses of the 1700s. (Anthony Grumbine photo)

There were, however, some adaptations from the original Colonial windows. Revival houses sometimes had a single pane for the bottom sash, while keeping the upper sash divided into multi-panes.

Other adaptations include using paired windows and the use of bay windows on the ground floor. Bay windows were never in Colonial houses, which shows the ties of the Revival houses to the Queen Anne and other Victorian styles (where the bay window abounds).

A final common character of American Colonial Revival windows are the shutters. Usually louvered and painted a dark color, the shutters added a contrast to the light background of the walls (which are typically white). When possible, the shutters are half the width of the windows so that when they are closed they will block out the light and create the desired privacy.


As the visitor approaches the American Colonial Revival house, the front door is clearly the most defined and accentuated element. Typically framed with full, classical pilasters (flat columns attached to the wall) as well as classical mouldings, they sometimes have an elliptical fan light above, and often a fully extending porch with classical columns.

The doors are often solid wood, paneled and sometimes had side lights and transom windows. The front door of the American Colonial Revival style embraces the long and refined classical legacy that spans the historic timeline of our nation’s existence.

For Country and City

Showing both its roots in English classical architecture as expressed in the architecture of early Colonial America, as well as the particular social influences and desires of early 20th century Americans, this style has become a well-known and well-loved part of our nation’s vernacular architecture. In Santa Barbara, it often takes on a local flavor that relates it to our climate and location, tying it to the other buildings that make our beautiful city.

— Anthony Grumbine is a project designer at Harrison Design Associates, an architecture firm in Santa Barbara (as well as Beverly Hills and Atlanta) specializing in high-quality architecture in a range of styles. Harrison Design Associates is dedicated to the improvement of the field of architecture through study, education and leadership. Anthony can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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