Colonial Homes with Gambrel Roofs

by Sarah E. Mitchell

The use of the gambrel roof in home designs was popular from around the late 1600's to approximately 1800. (Barns continued to be built with gambrel roof.) The style was used from Maine to Georgia and seems to have been more common in areas closer to the coast. [I think that examples farther south tended to be skinnier and have a more steeply pitched roof, but I may be incorrect.]

The homes vary a great deal in size. Building materials used include brick, wood, stone, and combinations. Chimneys could be placed in the interior or on the exterior walls.

Though homes with gambrel roofs are popularly called Dutch Colonial, there is debate over the origins of the roof style. James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell, in “Dutch Colonial Houses: What's In A Name,” Old House Journal January February 1996, claim that the shape was the result of a combination of English, Flemish, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian influences. Roger J. Kennedy, in Architecture, Men, Women, and Money in America, 1600-1860, Random House, 1985, seems to attribute the style to the Dutch and their influence on Colonial America. P. L. Anderson Jr. points out that the shape is a variation of the French Mansard roof (correspondence with the author, 2003). Renee Kahn, in “The Dutch Colonial Revival Style,” Old House Journal May 1982, gives credit almost exclusively to the English.

In Reclaiming the Old House (1913), author Charles Edward Hooper stated that "Prior to 1700 the gambrel made its appearance. This form was of French origin and became very popular here [in the United States], while strangely enough it seems to be quite rare in England. There was so much of good and utility in . . . the gambrel that [it's] use has been a matter of taste down to the present day."

Website reader and Dutch immigrant Oscar van Rosmalen stated in an email to me: "Although I can't be certain, I believe the Gambrel roofs actually come from the Dutch windmill designs and thatched roofs in England (circa 1200-1850). [Those roofs] had at least two pitches, because the pitches were part of the roof designs required to hold the rows of straw. There's a really striking resemblance between the shape of the roof of the windmill (which was actually an octogonal or psuedo-round building) and the side of a home built with the gambrel roof . . . ."

I will note that, in cases that I have studied and have information on the original owners, the homes seem to have been built by English and Dutch immigrants, and their descendants.

Whatever the origins of the style, the homes became an important part of America's architectural heritage; and, in the early 20th century, would be imitated all over the United States (see Dutch Colonial Revival Architecture in America).

Here are some specific examples in the United States:

Toddsbury

Toddsbury, Nuttall Vicinity, Gloucester County, Virginia

Built 1658 or circa 1735. (Early in the 20th century, Edith Tunis Sale gave the date of 1658 in several publications; the Historic American Building Survey documentation on the house gives the later date as another option.)

Toddsbury is still standing. The North River Inn is now located on the property.

Photograph from Frances Archer Christian and Susanne Williams Massie, ed,. with an introduction by Douglas S. Freeman, Homes and Gardens in Old Virginia, Garrett and Massie, Incorporated, Richmond, VA, 1931. Information from Edith Tunis Sale, Colonial Interiors: Southern Colonial and Early Federal, William Helburn, Inc., 1930 and from the Library of Congress, Call Number HABS, VA,37-NUT.V,1-.


Exeter Exeter with Gothic addition

Exeter, Moncks Corner vicinity, Berkeley County, South Carolina

The original part of Exeter is believed to have been built around 1726. The Gothic addition was, obviously, a later remodeling; even though I like the Gothic style, I think the addition greatly detracts from the building. A Victorian porch was added to the other side of the building.

Photograph and information from Library of Congress, Call number HABS, SC,8-MONCO.V,1-.


Gambrel-roofed building in Colonial Williamsburg Gambrel-roofed buildings in Colonial Williamsburg

Examples in Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia

Above are photographs of just a few of the buildings built with gambrel roofs in Colonial Williamsburg; the style is quite well-represented in the historic area. Some of the buildings are used for commercial purposes, not just for homes.

Photographs from the archives of Mitchells Publications.


Francis Ackiss House - front Francis Ackiss House - side

Francis Ackiss House, Pungo Ridge Road, Blossom Hill, Virginia (I think Blossom Hill was located in the present-day Virginia Beach area)

I have located almost no information on the house. Given the state of the house in the photograph, I find it doubtful that the house is still standing.Photograph and information from Library of Congress, Call number HABS, VA,77-____,7-.


Old Manse

The Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts

The Old Manse was built around 1769 by Reverend William Emerson. The home would become famous for its later association with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The house is now open to the public.

I speculate that the bay window was added later to the original house.

Photograph from Oliver Bronson Capen, Country Homes of Famous Americans, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York, 1905. Information from the Library of Congress, HABS, MASS,9-CON,3- and the Old Manse.


Dyckman House

The Dyckman House, New York City, New York

The Dyckman House was built around 1789. The roofline has a much more shallow curve than the other examples I have cited in this article.

Photograph and information from the Library of Congress, HABS, NY,31-NEYO,11-.


Fisher Investments UK

The Burbank-Hatheway House, Suffield, Connecticut

Multiple gambrels, with a few other roof shapes thrown in! The Burbank-Hatheway House was repeatedly added onto; the structure probably started in the 1600's and additions were made repeatedly thoughout the 1700's. Considering this evidence, the family who lived here during that time period was likely very wealthy. (Asher Benjamin is credited with designing one of the additions.)

Photograph and information from the Library of Congress, HABS, CONN,2-SUFI,7-.


Mulberry Castle, on the Cooper River near Charleston, South Carolina (not pictured)

Mulberry Castle, built circa 1714, does not now have a gambrel roof, but Elise Lathrop claimed in her book, Historic Houses of Early America, Robert M. McBride & Company, 1927, that it originally did. I have not been able to confirm the information from other sources.


More examples and information can be found in the following books:


Copyright © 2003-2007 Sarah E. Mitchell