What Makes an American Foursquare? History, Color and Furniture Choices

When you see an American Foursquare, you know it. With its iconic “boxy” shape and square names - from the Seattle Box to the Cornbelt Cube - they were built as the everyman’s house. Comfortable, efficient, economical and an expression of dignified self-containment.

White Foursquare House

Built on small lots with standardized layouts in which every square inch of space was utilized, there’s no mistaking these houses for another style.

Identifiable characteristics include:

  • 2 - 2½ stories
  • Large, central dormer
  • Low pitched hipped or pyramidal roof
  • Wide porch with wide stairs stretching the front of the house
  • Large, grouped windows to let in lots of light
  • Simple interior divided into 4 quarters

Distinctive because of its form, Foursquares were considered to be more of a building type rather than an architectural style. At their core they are simply a box with clean lines.

Their architectural styles came from other types of houses - Craftsman, Prairie and Colonial Revival.

  • Craftsman - Often called a “bungalow in a box,” craftsman details were included in foursquares in the early wave of building from 1900-1910. They can be identified by boxy front posts and exposed rafter tails.
  • Prairie - Hugely popular across the Midwest, this style took inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright. These houses incorporated “Prairie” art glass and horizontal banding, a porch with a flat slab roof and geometric ornamentation.
  • Colonial Revival - Built after 1915 with a palladian style window and oval cameo. Porch posts shifted from boxy to columnar.

Why were Foursquares built?

Because people wanted simple, earthy craftsmanship that looked nothing like the eclectic and dramatic architecture of the Victorian era.

The house was affordable, maximized space and was highly adaptable to other architectural styles the owner wished to incorporate.

Who owned Foursquares?

As the country hit an economic boom in the early 1900’s, demand in housing increased at the heart of the city where people were moving for manufacturing jobs. The growing urban middle class was ready for their own homes and were finally able to afford them thanks to the introduction of the Foursquare.

Cheaper than Victorians built with ornate trims and asymmetrical designs, Foursquares were constructed from standard house plans leaving the homeowner options to add their own embellishments.

Ironically, Foursquares are admired today for their charm and character but were considered cookie-cutter “tract homes” or “McMansions” back in the day.

And if you’re looking for a bit of pop culture - Dick Van Dyke, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Shirley McClain, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicklaus, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway all grew up in an iconic American Foursquare.

Color schemes for the American Foursquare

If visions of coloring books come to mind, you’re on the right path. With large square walls acting as a blank canvas, the Foursquare is fun and easy to paint.

Without a single Foursquare color palette choice, the options might feel overwhelming without some guidance. Below you’ll find suggestions that provide a good balance between historic accuracy and colors you’ll be happy looking at every day.

Exterior Color

Five opportunities for color placement:

Body - Main color used on clapboards, shingles or stucco
Major trim - Outlines the house and painted in a contrasting color
  • Includes door and window trim, gable trim, corner boards and porch railings
Minor trim - Decorative trim, doors, shutters, porch parts
Sash - Movable part of a window
    • Historically darker with blacks, browns, dark greens and reds
    Accent - Optional color used to highlight door panels and porch parts
    • Use tints and shades of basic colors

    This doesn’t mean you have to use five different colors. Instead think about utilizing different shades of the same color. A monochromatic or two-color scheme (body and trim) were and continue to be most common with Foursquares.

    Take cues from the home’s surroundings such as foundation color, roofing, brick or stone, landscaping and neighborhood. Simple is best. Variations of gray and white were most commonly used from 1890-1930. Dark, unusual or saturated colors should not be used on the body.

    Foursquare owners also tend to love autumn tones - shades of reds, browns, yellows and greens. Check out this guide for some helpful color suggestions.

    Keep in mind that exterior colors for the middle class - those who typically owned Foursquares - tended to be inexpensive and durable. This meant browns and grays were most popular even though nowadays the more colorful and vibrant hues are no longer costly.

    Interior Color

    Think simple and classic instead of showy like Victorian predecessors.

    For a Craftsman interior, choose either warm tones that match the warmth in the wood trim and furniture or cool tones (blues and slate gray) to balance the warmth already in the wood. Check out our post on Craftsman Color Palettes for more ideas.
    For a Colonial interior, think muted hues. Try something subtle like a barely noticeable blue or gray in a monochromatic color scheme with the trim being painted a few shades darker. Not only is the darker trim color visually interesting, it’s also historically accurate. And because brighter hues are no longer costly, try adding a pop of color in muted red to a small room or closet space that stands out when the door is open.
    For a Jazz Age or Art Deco interior, use colors that are rich, vivid and lively. Mustard, navy blue, sea green, tan, white, gray, coral red, gray blue and black are all popular choices. This guide offers ideas for painting techniques used during this time.

    Furnishing a Foursquare

    Although Foursquares were built to be simple, economical and efficient, most have an interior loaded with finely crafted woodworking - baseboards, crown moulding, built-in bookcases and window seats, and room dividing colonnades. And with most rooms situated at each corner of the house, the interior space is meant to take advantage of natural light flooding in from two directions.

    Small scale Amish wood dining furniture

    Furnishing a Foursquare can go in a number of directions - and often did. Historically, Foursquares were styled to match the decade.

    • After 1915 came the Colonial Revival age. The popular furniture choices were antique in style but practical in use. Four-poster beds, Colonial Windsor chairs and Chippendale reproductions were common.
    • By the 1920s and the rise of the Jazz Age, Foursquares took on the lushness and look of the period with an art deco feel that seems to be another popular style in many renovated Foursquares today.

    If furnishing a Foursquare today, look at the above historic ideas as well as take into account the following:

    Rooms are smaller compared to modern homes
    Highlight the fireplace and its surround
    Use mirrors to help brighten and make the room appear larger
    • Hang perpendicular to, not directly across from windows to help bounce light around the room
    Shop Simply Amish’s Adeline Collection for Art Deco inspired furnishings

      What started as a catalog home quickly became a homeowner’s dream as hundreds of thousands popped up across the country in all their aesthetically pleasing simplicity. As they continue to be highly sought after home choices today, Modern Bungalow is here to help your stylized Foursquare vision - from the outside in - become reality!

      Be sure to check out Modern Bungalow's complete guide to historical homes which encompasses the Foursquare as well as a number of other popular styles in the American West.

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