What real estate agents need to know about Four Square Homes

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American home styles have changed and continue to change across the country and as the tastes and lifestyles of homeowners evolve. As the country has gone through both good and not so good industrial and economic changes, living styles have adapted out of necessity.

In this new series, I’ll walk you through them prevailing living styles of the last 12 decades beginning in 1900. A basic understanding of each architectural style that defines a decade will position you as a knowledgeable agent with your clients and make it easier for everyone to find a home with your buyers.

The ability to converse with both sellers and buyers about home styles and styles of living historical epochs is extremely helpful in building a relationship and instilling in your client a sense of confidence in your knowledge. Other issues that will help connect with clients and establish your expertise as a real estate agent include local zoning laws, new bus routes, local schools, grocery stores and entertainment venues.

Some homeowners will enjoy nothing more than telling you about their quarter-sawn oak floors, stained glass windows, and pocket doors. It might seem like overkill to dwell on brass hinges or balustrades, but the vocabulary that is part of the house style, be it antique or modern, is essential to the agent’s success.

Inevitably, after the opulence and splendor of 19th-century Victorian and Queen Anne homes, a simpler, more accessible style of living became popular. Every style of living has been influenced by changes in lifestyles, livelihoods and values.

A move away from agriculture and country life, as well as multiple generations living in the same house, produced a type of house called the American quadrangular or square house. Also known as the transitional pyramid or prairie box style, this home featured a prominent center dormer window and full-width porch. The Four Square has two and a half floors with four rooms on each floor; an unfinished basement is included.

It’s important to note that while previous American home styles were adaptations of trends that had their roots in Europe, including Queen Anne, Italianate, French Renaissance and Spanish Revival, for example, the American Four Square is uniquely American. This style of living became popular in response to the fussiness and ornately decorated Victorian homes with multiple rooms serving the same purpose.

As Americans became more urban and relied on trolleys and buses for transportation, the four squares, typically 30 feet by 30 feet, fitted into increasingly densely populated areas with narrow lots. Entire neighborhoods of four squares still exist across the country today.

Hip roofs combined with straight lines and simplicity can be traced back to the work of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Prairie and Craftsmen styles that became popular after the Four Squares were variations on the theme of this simple house, with more sophistication and more elaborate designs and decorations.

The first floor had four rooms, with the front two formal rooms, a drawing room, and a living room accessed from the entrance, directly from the front porch. The dining room and kitchen were at the back of the first floor, with a large pantry off the kitchen. Each of the rooms was arranged symmetrically in a corner of the house, giving each room two exposures. Fireplaces were absent from most of the four courts, as modern indoor heating was more common.

The entrance in the central hall was provided with a stairway leading to the second floor, with a “chamber” or bedroom in each corner. Above the kitchen was a storage room or bathroom, sometimes added later to four squares that had no interior plumbing when first built. Smaller four squares featured only three rooms per floor, one in each of the three corners, with the entrance, stair hall, and staircase occurring in one of the front corner rooms.

These modest houses lacked turrets, gables, circular rooms, elaborate chimneys, and enclosed garden spaces. Low pitched hipped roofs were standard on four square houses and attics, often with one to four dormer windows and low ceilings with one or two small rooms, often left unfinished. In the cellars, also unfinished, the natural convection oven or boiler was found.

Interiors featured arched entrances between rooms and efficient built-in furniture, including bookcases, cabinets, sideboards, and window sills. The style of woodworking has been described as “honest,” meaning simple, or at least not as elaborate as earlier American homes.

The proliferation of the Four Squares, and why there are still so many populating entire neighborhoods, is the result of these houses being sold as kits from catalogs by mail order houses like Sears and Aladdin. The variations of the four squares, available pre-cut for shipment direct to site in quantities of up to 30,000, were indeed impressive.

Adaptation to these homes was almost endless, but if the funds or imagination were lacking for a large home, a workable home could be built without too many decisions. Bricks and mortar were not shipped to construction sites because the weight of these materials made shipping prohibitive.

Also remember that in the absence of housing codes, inspections, and standard sizes for plumbing, windows, appliances, and electricity, kits simplify construction and include virtually every material from window frames to doorknobs. The average homeowner was able to assemble their own home with a little professional help. They were also able to customize his home to their liking.

And where were most of these kit houses, later known as prefabricated houses or prefabs, shipped to? Neighborhoods near railroad lines saw the densest clusters of kit houses. Railroads provided not only shipping, but also transportation to work and access to goods for retail establishments in the area. The Interstate Highway and the 18-wheel truck would still be a part of life in America.

Square and kit houses in any number of variations are the order of the day throughout the country. Today, these homes may have been updated, modernized, or expanded. Real estate agents who can provide some background and history on this style of living are sure to impress buyers, particularly those interested in historic living.

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