Imagine the United States in the late 19th century in the midst of a growing economy and modernization. Urban communities were developing fast with more Americans leaving rural areas to pursue employment opportunities in the cities. It was a time when families moved away from their multi-generational residences and aspired to live in their separate homes.
Enter the Foursquare, one of the most popular styles in the U.S. from the mid-1890s through the late 1930s during the economic boom that resulted in a greater demand for housing.
Often mistaken for a Colonial home, the Foursquare is considered a variant of the Prairie Style and is sometimes called “Prairie Box.” With its boxy shape and simple design, the Foursquare – so-called because of its typically square footprint – was a reaction against the ornate and dramatic embellishments of other Victorian-era styles of the period.
The “square type of modern home” captivated a growing urban middle class that loved its affordability and efficiency of construction. Because the Foursquare had a simple design, it was cheaper than the Victorian homes that had all the elaborate trims and decorative details. And before long, the Foursquare – with its modest and understated design, clean, straightforward lines, balance, and classic proportions – was built from coast to coast.
We explore the enduring American Foursquare, its basic characteristics, and elements from other designs that add to its charm and character.
Here’s a classic American Foursquare home: a 2-story structure with hip roof, center dormer, large windows, front porch extending to the width of the home, and wide stairs. (photo credit: Clapboard-Clad American Foursquare Style Home by Corey Coyle under license CC BY 3.0).
What is an American Foursquare?
With the simplicity that epitomized the architectural styles of the Post-Victorian period, the American Foursquare, or “Prairie Box,” was designed as a comfortable, unadorned house – free of turrets, gingerbread-detailed porches, and dramatic ornamentation. Technically, it is a square-shaped two-story structure usually with a four-room-over-four-room floor plan, a central dormer, a full-width or partial front porch, hip roof, large windows, and wide stairs. Built in both rural and urban areas, the Foursquare was tailored to relatively narrow lots in cities and streetcar suburbs.
The Foursquare was also popular as a “kit home” – available through pattern books and sold as a mail-order kit from Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other catalog companies of that time. Kind of like Wayfair and Amazon today. Just look at a catalog, pick out a house that appealed to you, and order it. Voila! A kit of supplies and directions were shipped to the local railroad depot – for pickup convenience. The Foursquare’s simple design – and the fact that there were only a few standard catalog plans to choose from – made it easy to construct.
An advertisement for a standard Foursquare house sold as a mail-order kit from Sears, Roebuck & Co. included illustrations and floor plans for the home’s two levels (image credit: Sears, Public Domain).
More than likely, you have seen a number of Foursquares in your neighborhood. How can you spot one – and know?
Although often described as a plain box, the Foursquare incorporates appealing elements of the Prairie Schooland Craftsman styles. And, like the Colonial style, it is also about symmetry and balance. Many Foursquares include heavy piers, square columns, exposed beams, and brick or wood exteriors. Later models had interior layouts similar to the Bungalow – like open floor plans, built-ins, and fireplaces.
But here are its distinct characteristics.
1. There’s the tell-tale box or square shape that earned the Foursquare names like Square house, Box house, Cube house, Square-type American house among others.
2. It’s usually two to two-and-half stories – with an attic, accounting for the half floor.
3. A low-pitched hip roof- with wide eaves that slope on all four sides to form a pyramid - is pretty standard. It is sometimes, called a pyramidal roof.
4. A center dormer (that infuses light and air into the attic) that also has a hipped roof to match the house’s main roof.
Is it an American Foursquare or another style? This 2-story, 3-bedroom home has the classic facade of a Foursquare and traits of Prairie, Arts & Crafts, and Craftsman styles. it features a central dormer, full-width porch supported by matching square columns, large windows, and hip roof, but it is decidedly rectangular (Plan #115-1439).
5. A covered front porch that extends the full width of the house is common in Foursquares. But a number of them have partial porches or ones that wrap around to the side. Wide stairs complete the look of the porch. And there is an option to have a center door or one on the other side of the house.
6. Large windows – sometimes grouped together – admit abundant light into the interior spaces.
7. Brick and wood are the common materials used for the Foursquare’s exterior siding.
8. An efficient layout is another feature of the style, including open floor plans in the later models patterned after Bungalows.
9. The Foursquare incorporates design elements from other styles, especially touches of the Colonial, Bungalow, Prairie, and Craftsman designs.
This 1,825-sq.-ft. 2-story Craftsman home can be considered a contemporary Foursquare with the very appealing signature features (minus a hip roof): box shape, pair of dormers, wide front porch with a center door, and a blend of stone, wood, and other natural materials for the exterior facade. The beautiful home has an open floor plan, 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a main floor master suite with sitting area, a family room, and a huge kitchen with a walk-in pantry (Plan #205-1020).
The Foursquare Interior
From a simple exterior highlighted by the wide porch and large windows, you can walk into a well-organized open floor plan interior with each level divided into four main spaces. The social spaces – living/dining rooms and kitchen – are usually on the first floor with the bedrooms on the second floor.
Here are four main interior features:
Top: This very attractive 2-story Cottage style home with Foursquare features – gable instead of hip roof notwithstanding – is quite a sight in any neighborhood. The house covers 3,821 sq. ft. of finished space and 1,846 sq. ft. of unfinished space. Center: The first floor plan shows the basic layout of 4 rooms, 2 on each side (with the mud room, half bath, and pantry comprising a "utility room" or area). Bottom: The second floor plan of the luxurious Cottage style home shows all the bedrooms, including a huge master bedroom suite with master bathroom, walk-in closet, and private balcony (Plan #187-1142).
1. A large foyer leads to the stairs to the second level. Similar to the modern day foyer, the space can hold coats, shoes, and even furniture.
A welcoming feature of the Cottage home above is a beautiful foyer that is spacious enough to include a planter, built-in cabinet, settee, and a nook for shoes and purses. On the right is a glimpse of the dining area, and on the left (shown in the First Floor plan above) are the stairs that lead to the second floor. The home has four bedrooms, 2.5 baths are part that 4 beds, 2.5 baths, and two floors. (Plan #187-1142)
2. The standard Foursquare had good-sized bedrooms – all located on the second floor. Some later bigger models included five bedrooms – with one bedroom on the first floor and four on the second floor.
3. Wood was used extensively in Foursquare interiors, particularly in built-ins – such as kitchen cabinetry, bookcases, window seats, staircases, window trims, and fireplace mantels.
Take a look at the gorgeous living room of this 2-story Craftsman-cum-Contemporary-Foursquare home shown previously – and visualize yourself in a Foursquare home with all the classic touches. Wood is the primary material for the flooring, wall panels, vaulted ceiling, bookcases, window trim, coffee table, and mantel (Plan #205-1020).
4. The style of furnishings was diverse – in keeping with the changing times, architectural designs, and the affordability of catalog furniture. There were machine-printed wallpaper, upholstered and leather furnishings. Oak furniture and square-spindled staircases from the Craftsman style were very common in the early Foursquare models. The influence of the Colonial Revival, Tudor, and Jazz Age styles were present in the Foursquares built in the 1920s.
Can you see this stunning staircase in a Foursquare home? This attractively handcrafted wood staircase is in a two-story, three-bedroom Arts and Crafts house. The hand-hewn square spindles and other detailed woodwork illustrate the simple elegance and beauty of the Arts and Crafts style (Plan #115-1000).
Across-the-Board Popularity of Foursquares
We know that the Foursquare was one of the most popular styles in the U.S. in the late 19th century and well into the first third of the 20th century – and beyond. It was a style loved by the urban middle class for its affordability, adaptability, and eclectic touches.
And, it was a childhood home for several well-known people – Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Dick Van Dyke , and Jack Nicklaus. Take a look at some of these now historic homes.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s parents bought this home in Abilene, Kansas, in 1898. He lived here with his five brothers from 1898 to 1911. He left home to attend the U.S. Military Academy in West Point (photo credit: Eisenhower Home by CSvBibra under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
Built in 1917, President Bill Clinton’s home in Hope, Arkansas, is a classic foursquare – simple and unimposing with 3 bedrooms upstairs and a living room, kitchen, and dining room on the first floor. The home belonged to President Clinton’s maternal grandparents (photo credit: President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace National Historic Site May 2018 (Bill Clinton Birthplace) by Michael Barera under license CC BY-SA 4.0).
The American Foursquare may have a no-frills exterior appearance. But inside this unique “square type of house” are details and decor accents that made it so popular in the late 19th century – and considered very charming and iconic today.
Footnote: The upper right photograph in the lead image of this article is a lovely 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath Foursquare home with an inviting front portico. For more details on this home that works perfectly for narrow lots, go to Plan #126-1341.