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Friday, September 29, 2023
Arch-i-text: Understanding the Georgian home, the style imported from 18th-century England
Columnist Brian Marshall says the circa 1800 Field House is a classic Loyalist Georgian. The design focuses foremost on symmetry. (Supplied)

Upon the death of Anne, the last of the Stuart monarchs, in 1714, her closest Protestant relative George Ludwig of the Hanovers ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

And so began the Georgian era, which was to last until the death of George IV in 1830.

The rise of George I to the throne just happened to occur as the evolution of British architecture, growing from the seeds of classical parameters and Italian Renaissance designs planted by Indigo Jones in the early 17th century, was maturing under the auspice of men like Christopher Wren, Colin Campbell, William Kent, and James Gibbs.

Based heavily on the work of Andrea Palladio – a late 16th-century Italian architect who sought to recreate the style and proportions of ancient Roman designs – the neo-Palladian architecture of the early Georgian era can be characterized by a few key elements.

These include a strict emphasis on classical proportions (often religiously adhering to the golden ratio), stripped-down decoration, understated elegance and a standardized system of proportions that could be scaled from humble homes to grand institutional buildings.

It was, perhaps, the first example of a truly inclusive formal architecture style in Britain. This was a style that could be embraced by people from any social class who had the wherewithal to finance a building’s construction.

Thus, in fairly short order, designs (in what came to be known as the Georgian style) for everything from palaces to row houses popped up across the country.

Following this wave of popularity and, as with almost all British innovations of the period, it was inevitable that the Georgian style would migrate across the Atlantic to the English colonies in North America.

While initially, the Georgian was the purview of only those wealthy enough to be able to afford British-trained carpenters and builders, after 1740 the number of architectural pattern books published rose dramatically.

This, together with printed broadsheets of Georgian details and house forms, gave the locally-trained builders what they needed to replace the post-medieval dwelling tradition then existent in the original thirteen colonies. 

Now, while the fundamental design parameters may have been identical, there were several points of divergence between the English Georgian and those built in the American colonies during the 1700s – differences which spoke to purely practical concerns.

For example, the English Georgian was typically clad with brick or (somewhat less often) worked stone whereas the Colonial Georgian was much more often sheathed with clapboard.


Britain had a ready supply of bricks and trained masons while long straight timber was comparatively scarce (and hence more expensive). Whereas, in the colonies, timber was readily available and boards could be produced with relatively unskilled labour working a common pit-saw, while masons were few and far between.

Another point of English/American divergence can be seen in the roof styles. Hip roofs very often capped the walls of British Georgians whereas gable roofs were the norm for American Georgians. 

Aside from the fact that gable roofs are simpler, faster to build, and shed snow more efficiently than a hipped roof, the former provides a much larger usable footprint in a space that was often utilized as a sleeping loft.

Just as in Britain, the Georgian was wildly popular in North America as settlers moved westward to open new territories. By 1776, it was certainly one of the most common styles of established dwelling in the colonies (particularly if one includes the Federal or Adams variant).

And, just as the British immigrants to the colonies brought over the Georgian, the Loyalists moving north in the aftermath of the Revolution carried the style with them into the remaining British colonies.

In fairly short order here in Niagara, possibly re-enforced by the influx of new English immigrants and the desire of Loyalists to demonstrably show their British allegiance, masonry replaced clapboard as the cladding of choice, although the practical gable roof remained a fixture on newly built Georgian homes.

So, what makes a Georgian a Georgian and how do you recognize it on the street?

Georgian design, first, foremost and always, focuses on symmetry and proportion. It is a balanced composition wherein the window/door openings are equally and regularly placed across the facade; whether in the classic five-bay (each bay containing opening(s)) form or three, four or multiple-bay variants.

In facades containing an odd number of bays, the entry door is commonly placed in the centre bay to emphasize this symmetry. In professionally designed Georgians, first-floor windows are typically sized in accordance with the golden ratio; the opening height is equal to 1.6 times the opening’s width.

Georgians are long but comparatively shallow, emphasizing an “expansive” facade. Historic Niagara examples were commonly only one or two rooms deep and, particularly in earlier homes, did not exceed a depth of 20 feet which was thought to be the maximum measurement to allow for proper light penetration into the interior.

Simplicity and uniformity are watchwords of Georgian exterior design. Whether clad in brick, stucco, stone or clapboard, the fields are mono-coloured and largely unbroken by applied decoration or flourishes.

Ornamentation, if any, is generally confined to simple columns or pilasters at the main entry which occasionally might be topped by a pediment.

Openings are filled with sash windows in which, depending on the era of the house, each sash is divided into six, nine or 12 panels.

Finally, the height of each storey in a Georgian house tends to be reduced as one moves upwards; the main floor ceiling height being higher than the second and any subsequent storeys.

Without a doubt, the Georgian is the longest-lived architectural style in North America and is being still built today. However, it was certainly not the only style imported from England to find popularity in Niagara during the Georgian era.

Stay tuned as we explore others.  

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.  

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