Colonial Revival


During the late nineteenth century, a time of great tension, new immigration, and accelerating industrialization, white Euro-Americans sought comfort in the past, specifically the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. In their romanticized interpretation, the founding era was defined by simplicity, domestic industry, and unity—qualities in direct contrast to the tumultuous Civil War and its aftermath. They expressed nostalgia for the Colonial and Revolutionary eras through architecture, landscape design, and material culture in a popular movement known as the “Colonial Revival.” The origins of the movement can be traced to the 1876 centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which presented an opportunity to reunify the country by showcasing American ingenuity and culture to the world at the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

A black and white illustration with multiple small vignettes depicting the colonial farm-house exhibit that was built for the Centennial Exposition. These vignettes are a cradle, a women sitting in high-backed chairs in front of a fireplace with cooking pots, and a woman operating a spinning wheel
Harper’s Weekly published illustrations of the Centennial Exhibition, including the New England Farm-House. The glorification of the colonial home inspired revivals in colonial-style furniture as well as architecture. (Library of Congress)

The Centennial Exhibition featured exhibits of American technological advances alongside vignettes from the Colonial era. “The New England farm-house,” for example, presented a picture of domestic industry, complete with tools for traditional arts like candle making and an “old flax wheel from Plymouth.” The state of New Jersey highlighted its revolutionary history by reconstructing the Ford Mansion, the Morristown headquarters of George Washington (1732-99). These exhibits encouraged Americans to grasp a shared past, but the past they presented did not reflect colonial America’s diversity; instead, Anglo-American contributions dominated the conversation.

Although the Centennial Exhibition ended after six months, interest in romanticized, Anglicized versions of early-American architecture, landscapes, and decorative arts continued and evolved through the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Philadelphia became a geographic touchstone in the Colonial Revival movement as collectors like Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) turned their attention toward American decorative arts and furniture. At the same time, writers like Harold Eberlein (1875-1965), Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (1845-1928), and Robert (1860-1923) and Elizabeth (1871-1936) Shackleton produced hundred of books on the decorative arts and architecture, feeding the national obsession with all things “colonial.”

Architectural Characteristics

As the Colonial Revival gained momentum, nineteenth- and twentieth-century architects studied the Delaware Valley’s early English, German, Dutch, and Swedish buildings, focusing on their common elements to create a distinct Colonial Revival architectural style. Those elements included double-hung windows with shutters; hipped, gable, or gambrel roofs; and local building materials, such as stone. These features dotted the landscape of the Philadelphia area through the work of architects like Richardson Brognard Okie (1875-1945). Born in Camden, New Jersey, Okie completed his studies in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania during the first wave of the Colonial Revival movement. His designs of private residences, such as the H.B. Du Pont house in-Wilmington, Delaware, featuring stone exteriors, prominent chimneys, wide floorboards, and hand-wrought nails—hallmarks of his Pennsylvania farmhouse style. Another Philadelphia architect, Charles Barton Keen (1868-1931), designed Colonial Revival houses for wealthy Philadelphians then extended his practice along the East Coast.

While some architects employed vernacular building techniques, others paid homage to high-style Georgian architecture, with its symmetrical brick facades, central cupolas, and entrances with pediments. Architects Frank Miles Day (1861-1918) and Charles Z. Klauder (1872-1938) opted for stately Georgian grandeur when they designed “The Green” for the University of Delaware in 1917, giving an architectural nod to Delaware’s status as the first state. Whether they were going for the quaint charm of vernacular architecture or the classical elegance of Georgian architecture, Colonial Revival architects featured common eighteenth-century characteristics to give an impression of the past, rather than reproduce it.

The National Preservation Movement and the Colonial Revival

A black and white photograph showing a reconstruction of market street, Philadelphia, as it may have appeared during the American Revolution. Several two-story brick homes line an unpaved street. At the end of the street is a Greek Revival style building topped by a round dome. A marching band in Revolutionary War-style costumes marches down the street while men and women in colonial costumes stand in the doorways and on the sidewalks observing.
The Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926 featured a romanticized reconstruction of High (Market) Street in Philadelphia during the American Revolution, as shown in this photograph taken during the Exposition. (

In the first decades of the twentieth century, architects who spearheaded the Colonial Revival style also participated in an emerging national preservation movement, working with new organizations like Colonial Williamsburg and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities to bring Colonial buildings back to their former glory. Philadelphia was also an epicenter of historic preservation projects: Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, led the restoration of Fairmount Park’s eighteenth-century mansions. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America installed a Colonial Revival garden on the grounds of Stenton, the home of James Logan (1674-1751). For his part, Okie took on the restoration of the Betsy Ross House. The Women’s Committee of the Sesquicentennial International Exposition (1926) also selected Okie to head the reconstruction of Philadelphia’s Colonial High Street.

While these projects drew praise and adoration by many, they frustrated ethnic groups that had been steamrolled by the Anglocentric narrative of the preservation movement. Determined to showcase their contributions to American history, ethnic heritage groups organized their own celebrations and projects. In 1913, African Americans in Philadelphia and other cities across the country celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1926, Dr. Amandus Johnson (1877-1974) founded the American Swedish Historical Museum in South Philadelphia to honor the contributions of America’s early Swedes. Despite these and other efforts, nativist sentiments persisted in Philadelphia, and the historical narrative remained relatively unchanged.

A color photograph of the American Swedish Historical museum, a large white building with a green cooper roof and cupola. The museum is surrounded by a black fence and stands in a grassy field surrounded by trees.
Amandus Johnson founded the American Swedish Historical Museum in response to the Anglocentric narrative of history promoted by the Colonial Revival movement. The building’s design draws on elements of both a seventeenth-century manor home in Sweden and George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. (Wikimedia Commons)

Historians also voiced concerns as some preservation projects favored aesthetics over historical accuracy. In the 1930s, Okie headed the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor, the country estate of William Penn (1644-1718) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania historian Albert Cook Myers (1874-1960) withdrew his support from the project when he determined it reflected Okie’s personal taste rather than the archaeological and historical evidence. Myers went so far as to call the project a “monstrosity of vicious error.” Despite criticism from Myers and others, the reconstructed estate opened to the public in 1939. While the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor and other historic preservation projects inspired public interest in the Colonial era, they also blurred the lines between historical and stylized impressions of the past.

The New Deal and Public Architecture

A black and white photograph of a large school building with greek-style columns at the front entrance and a tall white cupola on top.
Some Colonial Revival architects chose a more formal, Georgian style. This 1939 photograph shows Wilmington, Delaware’s Pierre S. Du Pont High School, which features a stately cupola and an elegant brick exterior reminiscent of Independence Hall. (Library of Congress)

The Colonial Revival movement maintained popularity in the 1930s as a new crisis, the Great Depression, gripped the nation. Colonial Revival architecture continued in the form of new public buildings through the New Deal initiatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Programs including the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration funded the construction and improvement of libraries, post offices, and public schools, such as the Pierre S. Du Pont High School building (later the Pierre S. Du Pont Middle School) in Wilmington, Delaware, and Jenkintown Elementary School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Government funds also went toward the improvement of existing Colonial structures, including Independence Hall; the Trent House in Trenton, New Jersey; and the Vernon-Wister House in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Buildings with brick facades and central cupolas offered a familiar, comfortable aesthetic as an alternative to the sleek, modern Art Deco architecture of the 1920s. Once again, the Colonial Revival movement served as a distraction from the hardships of modern life and encouraged Euro-Americans to look to a romantic version of the past for hope.

Beyond World War II

A color photograph of the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor. It is a three story red brick building with white dormers in the roof.
Historic preservation movements led to the recreation of some long-demolished pieces of colonial architecture. This photograph shows a reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor, which once served as William Penn’s home. Though historians criticized recreations for their inaccuracies, they remained popular with the public. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the Second World War, suburban neighborhoods inspired a new wave of Colonial Revival architecture—one that was more economical and accessible to the growing middle class. The two Levittown suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey advertised the 1957 “Colonial” as one of six house models. The two-story home offered traditional appeal with room for modern amenities, including a garage. While mass-produced “neocolonial” homes lacked the decorative elements of earlier Colonial Revival homes, they provided buyers with a simplified version using cost-effective materials. Families could continue the theme into the interior living spaces with midcentury versions of Colonial Revival furniture and color palettes. Once again, ideas of peaceful, colonial domesticity hit a chord with post-war, white Americans. However, as before, the Colonial Revival served as a figurative as well as literal façade, this time masking anxiety over suburban housing integration. The same year the “Colonial” debuted, the first African American family moved into a Levittown, Pennsylvania, home. The severe harassment they faced showed their neighbors did not mean to extend “American dream” (and the dream home) to all Americans.

While modernism dominated aesthetics in the 1960s and 1970s, the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976 resurrected Colonial Revival style and placed Philadelphia in the spotlight once more. Interest in Colonial history ebbed and flowed through the rest of the twentieth century, but the Colonial Revival remained in the country’s national consciousness. It peaked during times of social unrest, national crises, and historical milestone anniversary celebrations—moments when white Americans looked for common virtues and ways to maintain familiar social orders. Once maligned for its historical inaccuracies, in the late twentieth century the Colonial Revival became a subject of study and interest among historians. As a physical representation of American virtues and a hub of Colonial history and lore, Philadelphia remained at the fore of the Colonial Revival movement.

Danielle Lehr Schagrin is the former Education Program Coordinator at Pennsbury Manor, the reconstruction of William Penn’s country estate. She completed an internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and holds an M.A. in History with a concentration in public history from Lehigh University. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


An Old-Time New England Farm-House, 1876

Library of Congress

The Centennial Exposition of 1876 celebrated the hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Hosted in Fairmount Park, the exposition displayed not only the latest technologies like telephones, but also offered a look back at the nation’s past. Exhibits like the “Old-time New England Farm-House”—shown in this 1876 illustration from Harper’s Bazaar—offered visitors a romanticized glance into domestic life. The vignette displayed the trappings of domestic life including a spinning wheel, various pieces of furniture, and elaborate costumes.

The Exposition lasted only six months, but it sparked a lasting trend for American colonial aesthetics in architecture and decorative arts. Soon after it closed, a distinct Colonial Revival architectural style emerged that blended traditional elements of the Delaware Valley’s early German, Dutch, and Swedish structures. Wealthy residents of the greater Philadelphia area commissioned the construction of homes in this new style and sometimes filled them with authentic colonial furniture, further fueling the popular interest in all things “colonial.” Colonial Revival became one of the most popular styles of architecture and furniture for members of the middle class. However, the movement favored an Anglocentric view of American history that frustrated ethnic groups—including African Americans and Swedes—whose own history disappeared under the veneer of Colonial Revival. These groups tried to combat the nativism generated by the movement by celebrating their own unique histories in public spaces and new museums.

American Swedish Historical Museum

Wikimedia Commons

Many ethnic groups felt their own histories were erased by the Colonial Revival movement, which placed heavy emphasis on Anglo-American history. Some in the Philadelphia area created events and organizations to celebrate their own histories in the region. Amandus Johnson (1877–1974), a historian and author, founded the American Swedish Historical Museum in 1926 to combat the Anglocentric emphasis of the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition. Located close to the Exposition grounds, the museum celebrated the history of the New Sweden colony that predated English colonization, as well as the contributions of Swedish-Americans to American history. The Museum’s architecture paid homage to a seventeenth-century manor home in Sweden, Eriksburg Castle, and to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Fiske Kimball, 1928

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many of Philadelphia’s elite chose to build their country manors in the open land west of the city proper overlooking the Schuylkill River. Beginning in 1812, much of this land was preserved as Fairmount Park, though the houses fell into a state of disrepair with little to no effort to save them. Beginning in 1926, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, spearheaded a campaign to restore many of these houses, including Mount Pleasant, constructed in the 1760s for Scottish-born privateer John MacPherson (c. 1745-1821), and Cedar Grove. The latter home was built around 1750 in the Frankford area of the city and moved to Fairmount Park in 1928 for restoration. In 1926, Kimball, pictured here two years later, took residence in the Lemon Hill estate, which was built around 1800 for merchant Henry Pratt (1761-1838). He remained there until his retirement in 1955.

Pierre S. Du Pont High School, Wilmington, Delaware

Library of Congress

The Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration—part of the New Deal initiatives—funded the construction of many new civic buildings, including schools and post offices. The architects selected for these projects often favored the Colonial Revival style. Architect E. William Martin (1891-1977) invoked several early American architectural styles in his design for Wilmington, Delaware’s Pierre S. Du Pont High School. Built in 1934, the school features a fine brick exterior and stately cupola reminiscent of those on Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The Greek-style columns and frieze at the entrance and wings reflect the Greek Revival architecture which took hold in the years following the American Revolution.

Martin was a key figure in spreading the Colonial Revival style in Wilmington and the surrounding area. Pierre S. Du Pont (1870-1954) commissioned him to design several buildings at Longwood Gardens. He also designed dozens of local schools, post offices, and government buildings along with many private residences. In addition to new construction, Martin participated in the Historic American Buildings Survey and helped document and preserve buildings that date to the Colonial era, like the “Old Swedes” Trinity Church.

Reconstruction of High (Market) Street, 1926

Library of Congress

Fifty years after the Centennial Exposition launched a craze for Colonial Revival, another exposition showed its lasting influence on American culture. The Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926, held in South Philadelphia, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The fair’s attractions included a full-scale romanticized reconstruction of High (Market) Street during the American Revolution. This photograph, taken during the fair, shows a parade with a marching band and various other performers dressed in Colonial-style costumes on an unpaved street lined with rowhouse facades. The set was designed by architect Richardson Brognard Okie (1875–1945), an early proponent of the style, at the request of the Women’s Committee of the Sesquicentennial.

Pennsbury Mansion Reconstruction

Wikimedia Commons

Historic preservation movements led to the recreation of some long-demolished pieces of colonial architecture like Pennsbury Manor. Originally constructed between 1683 and 1686, Pennsbury Manor served as the country home of William Penn (1644–1718) and his family. Penn dictated the house's construction in careful detail, determined to create a comfortable colonial estate for his wife and young children. Though Penn himself returned to England in 1701, the home remained in the hands of his children and their descendants for nearly another century. By the mid-eighteenth century, the home had fallen into disrepair and Penn’s sons remarked that the roof had mostly rotted away. By 1820, a new farmhouse had been constructed on the property and only the foundation of Pennsbury remained, buried under the new construction.

In the 1930s, a group of Philadelphia-based historic preservationists led by architect R. Brognard Okie (1875–1945), one of the founding fathers of the Colonial Revival style of architecture, began a reconstruction of Pennsbury, shown here. The reconstruction plans were based on the remaining foundation as well as scant written accounts of the home. The resulting structure evoked the essence of the original home but did not directly reproduce it, as no documentation of the home in full existed. Historians criticized the project, claiming it reflected Okie’s tastes more than the historic record. Despite this, the reconstruction opened to the public in 1939. The reconstructed Pennsbury Manor evolved further in the 1940s with the installation of a Colonial Revival landscape plan by Thomas Sears (1880–1966). Brick pathways and white picket fences completed the impression of an English gentleman’s estate.

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Related Reading

Carroll, Abigail. “Of Kettles and Cranes: Colonial Revival Kitchens and the Performance of National Identity,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, 4 (Winter 2009): 335-64.

Falk, Cynthia G. “Celebrating the Years Together: Personal Commemorations and the Colonial Revival,” Winterthur Portfolio 40, 1 (Spring 2005): 1-16.

Isham, Norman Morrison. Early American Houses: With A Glossary of Colonial Architectural Terms. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2007.

Mires, Charlene. Independence Hall in American Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Senseman, Ronald S., Loen Brown, Edwin Bateman Morris, and Charles T. Okie. The Residential Architecture of Richardson Brognard Okie of Philadelphia. Washington, D.C.: The Office of Ronald S. Senseman, 1946.

Short, C.W. and R. Stanley Brown. Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration 1933-39, Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1986.

Wilson, Guy Richard, Shaun Eyring, and Kenny Marotta, eds. Re-creating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.

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