What is an American Foursquare?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The American foursquare house was a doughty reaction to the ornate and prim designs hailing from Victorian fashions. Having recently fought for independence from the British, the American designers behind the blocky foursquare found little use for the architectural preferences of their once-enemies. The foursquare house, found all over the young American country in the 19th century, was a monument to homespun craft and the hardworking ideal.

Woman posing
Woman posing

Sometimes known as a prairie box, the American foursquare house is notable for its rectangular, two-and-one-half story construction. Designed to suit smaller city plots of land, the plain exterior allowed for maximization of interior space, a necessary concern in a nation of growing families. Generally unadorned, the front exterior of many foursquares feature a covered porch or veranda, as well as a single dormer extension in the front-center area.

The interior of an American foursquare house was similarly blocky; passageways were minimized, allowing more space for rooms. Typically, each floor was divided into four main rooms, with additional space for bathrooms and closets. The bottom level contained an entryway, living room, dining room, and staircase. The kitchen was either be incorporated into the bottom level or built as an extension behind the house. Upstairs levels were generally divided into three bedrooms and a bathroom, with the top half story reserved as an attic.

The materials used to build an American foursquare were quite varied; the simple design allowed for everything from wood siding to brick to be used in primary construction. Generally, the building materials were customized to available resources; northeastern houses relied on brick, far-southern or southwestern versions were made from stucco, and foursquares in the forests of the northwest were usually made of wood. The basic house plan also allowed some room for customizing the house with contemporary styles; a craftsman-style foursquare, for instance, could feature exposed wood interior beams, custom built-in cabinets, and other details common to craftsman design.

Fascinatingly, the American foursquare was often sold as a catalog-ordered kit, from large-scale stores of the time. A buyer could order a house kit with all wood and supplies pre-cut and even painted, including blueprints to assemble the entire house. Vintage advertisements for foursquare kits assert the value of avoiding expensive, persnickety architects and instead relying on the patriotic traits of hard work, old fashioned skills, and ingenuity.

People who enjoy restorations may find restoring an American foursquare to be an exciting challenge. Modern tastes run more toward open floor plans, making the walled-off rooms of a classic foursquare somewhat unusual to 21st century sensibilities. Many undertake the job of buying and restoring a foursquare as an affirmation of the values that created the style in the first place; some proponents say that building and remaking a home by hand makes pride of ownership all the more sweet.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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