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The Architecture of Bucks County Villages [†]

The former Churchville Reading Railroad Station is a contributing property in the Churchville Historic District, in Churchville, Pennsylvania. The station was converted to a residence. Photographed by wikipedia username:Coemgenus, 2006, public domain, via wikimedia commons; accessed October, 2019.

Churchville Historic District Railroad Station/Residence

Early Colonial architecture in Bucks County consistently exhibits two basic characteristics. First, it is conservative in style. This conservatism was probably the result of the large number of austere Quaker and German settlers and Bucks County's rural isolation from the architectural trends of urban areas. The second basic characteristic is the excellent quality and outstanding workmanship of early county houses. This characteristic is easily seen in the many stone houses, some as old as 250 years, which are still in use today. Entire farms, including barns and outbuildings, have survived from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, attesting to the skill of early builders.

When the first settlers arrived in Bucks County they were concerned with erecting a shelter as quickly as possible. Their first permanent housing was generally built of logs; however, fieldstone was in plentiful supply and settlers often built a sturdy stone cottage next to their original log cabin. By the time the next generation of settlers was ready to build (1700-1730), their parents had succeeded in meeting basic survival needs. Therefore, the second generation could concentrate on building larger, more comfortable houses. This early architecture was in the late medieval tradition which is typified by a steeply pitched roof, little or no eave overhang, and a floor layout one room in depth.

In the mid‑1700s, the medieval tradition was gradually replaced by the Georgian style. This style is identified by its symmetry—usually a simple one or two story box with a central doorway, two windows on either side of the door, and five windows across the top. The first twin‑door houses were constructed during this period. These may have been early two¬≠family dwellings or simply a single‑family house with two front doors. Several excellent examples of twin‑door dwellings are found in the village of Brownsburg in Upper Makefield Township.

New construction was at a standstill during the Revolution. Once the war was over, building continued and slight changes began to appear in the strict Georgian style. The new style, known as Early Federal, maintained the Georgian symmetry, but added new touches in detail and decoration. For example, doorways and mantlepieces were more decorative and carved wood or molded plaster garlands were commonly used for embellishment. However, many Americans wished to break away from all types of European influences and rejected the new style which had originated in Scotland and England. The New Federal period lasted from about 1789 to 1820. Another development during this time was the covering of masonry with plaster. The plaster was put on both new and existing homes and was done primarily for better insulation. White and gray were the most popular paint colors during this period.

Between 1820 and 1850 the Greek Revival style swept the country, particularly the east coast. This style, with its ties to the ancient Greeks and their democratic government, seemed particularly appropriate for this era of American history. Based on Greek temples, the style in Bucks County is characterized by porches supported by columns, front doors with porticoes, rectangular transoms over doors, dormers decorated with fluting and rosettes, and half windows on the third floor.

Gothic Revival was popular from 1840 to the end of the century. This style exhibited more freedom of expression and imagination than the Greek Revival. Carved wooden decorations or "gingerbread" came into use during this period. In many cases, the gingerbread decayed and was removed by later owners. The Gothic style was often used for churches and public buildings. Gothic churches were often characterized by pointed arch windows, doors, and spires. Other characteristic Gothic features are a steeply pitched roof, tall windows, and diamond panes.

A return to medievalism occurred with the Romanesque revival in both the 1840s and 1870s. The round arch was the most prominent feature of this style. The earliest examples of Romanesque architecture were generally less massive than later buildings. The Italianate was another popular architectural style in Bucks County between the 1840s and 1870s. The identifying characteristics of this style are square towers, a low pitched roof with wide overhanging eaves, decorative brackets beneath the eaves, and tall narrow windows. The Episcopal Church in Buckingham is a fine example of the Italianate style.

Victorian architecture became most popular in the United States between 1860 and 1900. Dramatic changes were taking place in America at this time due to rapid industrialization and the expansion of the railroads. In housing, heavy timber frames were being replaced by lighter two inch boards held together by wire nails. This innovation allowed architects to break away from box shaped houses. The mass production and shipping of doors, windows, roofing, siding, and decorative details was one outcome of the Industrial Revolution that had a great impact on Victorian architecture. Without these low‑cost, factory produced components, the elaborately detailed houses of this period would have been affordable only to the rich. The village of Wycombe in Buckingham Township is recognized for its many beautiful Victorian houses.

The Second Empire style, popular in Bucks County between 1860 and 1890, is identified by a mansard roof. This style was originated in France and, rather than copying previous architectural styles, it was considered original and modem. The mansard roof increased the attic space and many existing buildings were remodeled to include this type of roof. The Second Empire lost its popularity soon after the Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed.

The Queen Anne style was one of the most important influences of the late Victorian period. The identifying features of this style are a steeply pitched roof of irregular shape, a dominant front facing gable, patterned shingles, cutaway bay windows, asymmetrical facade, and a wide front porch which extends along one or both side walls. Decorative detailing often included delicate turned porch supports and spindlework ornamentation. This complicated and intricate architectural style represented a major departure from the previously common rectangular and square houses.

Although Queen Anne was the dominant style of housing between 1880 and 1900, it was somewhat less common in the northeastern states. Where the style does occur in the northeast, the decorative detailing is usually less elaborate than in the south and west. Also, in the northeast, the buildings were often of masonry construction. 8 Both of these characteristics are seen in many of the Queen Anne style homes in Bucks County.

Beginning in the Late 1800s, the dominant movement in American architeclure was towards an Eclectic style. This movement used styles and motifs from many periods including Medieval, Colonial, Classical Greek, and Italianate. As opposed to the free mixture of styles that was common in the Victorian era, the early Eclectic movement emphasized the recreation of realistic version of the original European styles.

The second phase of the Eclectic movement, which began around the turn of the century, was dominated by architectural modernism. These modem houses included the Prairie, Craftsman, and Modernistic styles. The Eclectic movement, which has alternated between copying and rejecting previous architectural styles, has continued to be the principal influence in American architecture since the 1940s. Houses which have emerged in the 1950s and 1960s are the Ranch, Split‑level, and Contemporary styles.

Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a swing back towards a style based on early architectural traditions. Known as Neoeclectic, this style has not attempted to closely copy the past as the early Eclectic did. Instead, certain features of past styles are taken and adapted to modem materials and housing forms. Although not as common in the villages, this style is seen in many newer houses being built in the county.

In Bucks County's villages, most houses were built prior to the 1940s, and many are much older, dating back to the 1700s. Trying to determine the style and age of a village house is not always an easy task. One difficulty often encountered is a house which exhibits the characteristics of several architectural periods. Two examples of this occurrence previously mentioned are the early stone houses which were later plastered and mansard roofs which were added to existing houses. There are many other examples of Federal, Victorian, Gothic, and Italianate features added to an existing house in an attempt to update the building's architectural style. Determining the original architecture of a house disguised in this manner is a challenging task.

† Bucks County Commissioners, The Villages of Bucks County: A Guidebook, undated (probably 1987).