A History of Home Architecture in Delaware

A combination of factors has led to the distinctive range of styles in the First State.

Delaware homes display most of the architectural styles found across the country, but three factors account for the preponderance of certain types: history, climate and geography. As one of the original 13 colonies (and before that, a Swedish settlement), Delaware can boast surviving homes that date from the 1600s.

So naturally, the Colonial style is well represented, as it is throughout the Northeast. The popular coastal shingle-style home takes a page from its proximity to oceanfront states to the north. Boxy Cape Cods are very good at trapping heat, while ranch and Craftsman homes have taken root in the state as they have in the rest of the country. But to fit every—or even most—Delaware homes into rigid slots is to ignore the fact that local architects freely blend styles, adapting aesthetic elements from one type of home to enliven another, as they always have.

Into the Woods: Shingle Style

Given that so many vacation homes have been built on or near the beach in places like Rehoboth, Lewes and Bethany, it is not surprising that the architecture echoes what one might find in other Northeast coastal resort destinations (the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket). That’s where shingle style comes in; it’s revered in the above-mentioned places and ubiquitous where local architectural review boards maintain local standards and aesthetic integrity.

- Advertisement -
Rustic and homey, shingle-style architecture is typically found in coastal enclaves in the Northeast, such as this example in Townsend. The handsome modern interpretation, with its variegated façade, delivers a seaside vibe. And the fish-scale shingles adorning the uppermost gable certainly help.
Rustic and homey, shingle-style architecture is typically found in coastal enclaves in the Northeast, such as this example in Townsend. The handsome modern interpretation, with its variegated façade, delivers a seaside vibe. And the fish-scale shingles adorning the uppermost gable certainly help.

The style’s rustic, “country” look derives from the rough-hewn, overlapping shingles themselves, which are often fashioned from rot-proof cedar and give a facade a textured, weather-beaten appearance (synthetic shingles made from vinyl or fiber cement are also options). Gray shingles complemented by white trim is the classic seaside look. The sylvan flavor of some shingle-style homes reflects a deliberate move away from the ornamentation of Victorian architecture, though many examples from the late 19th century feature a hybrid style. Even today, a review of beachside architecture on the Delaware coast is bound to turn up shingle-style homes with ornate Victorian elements, such as turrets and tower rooms. But even purer expressions of the form display more whimsy than the Colonial. For example, shingle-style homes often feature gambrel roofs (each side of the roof has a double slope—one steep and one gentle) and frequently eschew symmetry. Other decorative and functional elements may include inviting porches, second-floor balconies, multiple gables, weather vanes, flower-filled trellises, and round and half-moon windows.

Spread Out: Ranch Style

The ranch is one of the most prevalent house styles in the country—it’s a homegrown form—and is well represented in Delaware. In its pure form as a single story, a ranch home often requires more square footage, so the category is most associated with regions that boast wide-open spaces and homeowners with ample land. That’s why you find ranches throughout the West and South. But the simplicity and convenience of the ranch appeals to homeowners anywhere with the acreage to accommodate one—plus, it’s hardly unheard of to add a second floor to a ranch home.

The family ranch house, which originated in the U.S., reached its heyday in the mid-20th century, up until the 1970s. Though the rambling style lends itself to the open spaces of the American West, numerous examples are found in Delaware, such as this one in Dover.
The family ranch house, which originated in the U.S., reached its heyday in the mid-20th century, up until the 1970s. Though the rambling style lends itself to the open spaces of the American West, numerous examples are found in Delaware, such as this one in Dover.

The style flourished in California during the postwar years and expanded across the country. Regional tastes led to modifications, with exteriors clad in a range of materials: wood, brick, stucco and stone. But the long, low rooflines and the gentle angle of the hip roofs have remained constant. Various overhangs communicate a sense of protection from the sun and other elements—wide eaves as well as covered car ports and patios are common details. In the rear, sliding glass doors are typical. The popularity of the ranch has waxed and waned since the mid-20th century, but the style will always have a functional appeal as homeowners age and sour on stairs.

Human Touch: Craftsman Style

If shingle-style architecture signified the start of a rejection of ostentatious Victorian architecture, the Craftsman style, which was associated with the back-to-basics Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, took an even bigger step away from indulgent ornamentation. The movement was inspired by the vision and designs of Gustav Stickley, who believed that you should sense the humanity behind the construction and that materiality was best appreciated without the overdone quality of Victorian architecture.

The Craftsman is a ubiquitous type of tidy middle-class home found originally in California, but visitors to the state fell for several of its characteristic elements and brought them back east. Larger homes, like this multigabled affair in Dagsboro, have incorporated the Craftsman’s tapered stone column bases.
The Craftsman is a ubiquitous type of tidy middle-class home found originally in California, but visitors to the state fell for several of its characteristic elements and brought them back east. Larger homes, like this multigabled affair in Dagsboro, have incorporated the Craftsman’s tapered stone column bases.

Like many other aesthetic trends, Craftsman rode a wave in California, so much so that “California Craftsman” and “Californian bungalow” became terms of art. These ubiquitous cottagelike homes, meant for the working class and the middle class, are immediately identifiable by the squat, tapered square columns on their front porches, which are covered by deep eaves; sometimes the columns rise from even squatter stone bases. The Craftsman’s mix of materials, including shingles offset by deliberately imperfect stonework, is one of its most appealing features. The form, redolent of a college town, was so comfortable and cozy that it became popular all over the country, including in Delaware.

- Partner Content -

Hearth and History: Colonial Style

One of the most popular and enduring categories of home in the Northeast—particularly in the 13 original British colonies—is the two- or three-story Colonial. It’s the go-to architectural style for a family: straightforwardly symmetrical and easy to decorate by virtue of its separate living, dining and kitchen areas (with bedrooms on the second floor).

Symmetrical and traditional, Colonial houses date from the original 13 colonies. Chimneys and black shutters are expected elements, as seen in this stately Wilmington home.
Symmetrical and traditional, Colonial houses date from the original 13 colonies. Chimneys and black shutters are expected elements, as seen in this stately Wilmington home.

The Colonial style may not be a good fit for modern homeowners who favor open kitchens and open floorplans in general, but rather appeal to traditionalists who aspire to a sense of order, status and stateliness. Most of the earliest versions are Georgians (built during the reigns of King George II and King George III) that date from the 18th century, while more recent examples can accurately be called Colonial Revival.

In this type of home, balance dominates. Typically, Colonials have the same number of windows—their shutters painted black or in neutral colors—on either side of the centered front door, and likewise the same number of windows, in matching rows, on the first two floors. The third floor might break the uniformity a bit, with an odd number of dormer windows (but always centered). Colonials often feature brick or white facades—a conservative look—though gables, chimneys and one- or two-story white columns may appear, adding visual interest, a commanding (some might say formidable) presence and depth.

Enduring Charm: Cape Cod Style

It might be a seven-hour drive from Wilmington to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but the Cape is a state of mind—and a state of the region’s shared climate.

One of the oldest and most beloved home architectural styles, the Cape Cod dates from the 1600s and is still found today, in one form or another, in Delaware and the rest of the Northeast. Like the Colonial home, the brick or clapboard Cape Cod is broad, balanced and symmetrical, but the type is instantly identifiable by its steeply pitched roof, especially when it is a one- or one-and-half-story home, as the earliest examples were. The gabled roof has an obvious function, given the harsh seasons in the region—Puritan carpenters developed the roof in order to repel rain, snow and the buildup of fallen leaves (the attic tucked under the gable may be finished or unfinished). Ceilings are typically low, to capture heat, and the first Cape Cods were diminutive and cottagelike (many only 1,000 square feet), with the subtypes referring to the increasingly small number of windows: full Cape (four windows), three-quarter Cape (three windows), half Cape (two windows) and quarter Cape (one lone window). Contemporary versions retain the charmingly pitched gabled look but sometimes add dormers, wings and porches.

- Advertisement -

Cape Cod Style

The Cape Cod originates from the 1600s, when home heating was difficult to come by and winters were harsh. These conditions account for the steep, protective roof. This Wilmington stone home, which was divided into a two-family, contains a few eccentric features—such as the pair of vertical windows in the center—but the dormers and symmetry are typical for the Cape Cod style.

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.