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A Colonial revolution: A Wellesley architect puts a new spin on the ubiquitous design

There is surely no house style that has been reinvented as many times as the Colonial. Continue reading at

Modern elements of the home include oversized clapboards, windows with black muntins, and canopied entry roofs. Jan Greysteen

Jan Gleysteen thinks that it’s time to reinvent the Colonial house. There is surely no house style that has been reinvented as many times as the Colonial.

“The trend I see today,’’ the Wellesley architect said, “is that every young family wants a modern interior that’s clean, without clutter, that feels like a breath of fresh air. They want traditional interiors, with separate rooms, but no fussy trim and ornamentation.

“At the same time,’’ he continued, “they want the exterior to look traditional and to fit into a long-settled New England neighborhood. Those time-honored forms are comforting and familiar.’’


The Colonial house, of course, dates to the time period when North America was colonized by European countries that brought their house styles with them. As shown in John J.G. Blumenson’s paperback, “Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600 -1945,’’ the desert Southwest and California, for example, have surviving Spanish Colonial structures built between 1600 and 1840. They feature adobe walls and roof beams or rafters known as “vigas.’’ French Colonial houses, built between 1700 and 1830 in Louisiana and along the Mississippi River, have a sloping roof that extends beyond the outer walls, an exterior porch or “galerie,’’ and an exterior staircase. In New York and New Jersey, Dutch Colonial houses are most easily identified by a roof whose lower slope flares beyond the front and rear of the house, creating a distinctive bell shape.

Here in New England, the Colonial house was informed by English precedent. During the 17th century, its box-like appearance was relieved by a prominent chimney and small casement windows; often the rear was extended in a long, sloping roof that formed the “saltbox’’ shape. Unlike European houses, it was timber-framed.


“The early Colonial was a simple rectangle,’’ Gleysteen said. “It had no dormers or gables on the front, a long shed on the back, and a central fireplace.

“As time went on and there was more prosperity, the form evolved into the two-story Georgian house, with extra molding, dentils, and corner pilasters. It is an easily understood style: You live on the first floor and sleep on the second floor, which is efficient for New England. This is the basis for every American Colonial house style since then.’’

Its design includes pitched gable roofs, a center entrance, and a symmetrical façade with double-hung windows that can have — depending on the grandeur — as few as six or as many as 20 panes of glass in one sash.

Colonial architecture saw its first reinvention about 1870, when Americans began to celebrate the nation’s centennial. “Every 100 years we reinvent the Colonial,’’ Gleysteen said. The new aesthetic, “transitional,’’ he said, is “the blending of polar opposites: traditional and modern. … I’m not the inventor of this. I’m just a conduit of the trends that are out there.’’


In response to the area’s shifting aesthetic, Gleysteen designed a spec house he calls “Modern Colonial.’’ It combines the pitched roof, symmetrical window composition, and center entry of the traditional form with modern styling. Modern elements include oversized clapboards, vertical shiplap siding on the gables, canopied entry roofs, and man-made materials. The result, recently completed on a quiet Wellesley street, looks — from a distance — like a time-honored Colonial. Closer inspection reveals its contemporary roots.

Vertical shiplap siding lines the gables. – Jan Greysteen

The 8,000-square-foot interior follows a traditional center entrance floor plan, but features contemporary elements such as plaster soffits with cove lighting, metal railings, a horizontal gas fireplace, a wall sheathed with weathered wood, and a lack of moldings or decorative millwork.

“Everything is abstracted, simplified,’’ Gleysteen said. “There are no layered crown moldings. There is no wallpaper. When you subtract, you modernize.’’

Virginia Savage McAlester is the author of “A Field Guide to American Houses,’’ which was published in an updated second edition in 2017. She is intrigued by Gleysteen’s new version of a familiar American house style.

“This definitely has the massing and the feeling of a Colonial house,’’ she said. “It looks a lot like a New England Georgian house, with its windows aligned horizontally and vertically, the single window in the gable, and a roof pitch that is neither too high or too low. It gives a really warm feeling.’’


She praises the design for avoiding the excesses of what she calls “Millennial Mansions.’’

“They say, ‘Look how big I am!’ This house, on the other hand, is bigger than it looks from the front. Stylistically, the rear façade takes advantage of the fact that you can’t see it from the street, so there are a number of big windows, which bring lots of light into the interior.

The fireplace is horizontal, and there is no crown molding. – Jan Greysteen

“I am fascinated by the way the architect handled the front-facing gable. Instead of projecting from the façade in the traditional way, it is inset, which strikes a modern note. Also, the roof over the front door is very contemporary.’’

McAlester finds the floor plan representative of today’s lifestyles.

“I especially like the family entrance on the side of the house. Typically, families use an unelaborated back or side door to go in and out of their home. It is generally only a small door that enters into a cramped back porch, a tiny side hall, or right into the kitchen or other room. It is simply a way to come and go with no amenities; it is almost an afterthought. I love the fact that this house features a clear and gracious side entry from the outside and has an entry space almost as large as the front entry hall on the inside. It features lots of storage space and even has the downstairs powder room. It is not just an afterthought opening, but is a gracious and well-designed family entrance — inviting from the outside and useful on the inside.

The stair balusters are sleek, not shaped. “When you subtract, you modernize,” Gleysteen said. – Jan Gleysteen

“This is not typical of historic Colonial houses. Many homes had side entrances, but they were far less elaborate than the front entry. Rear entrances were more common, but these did not typically function as an everyday family entrance. Colonial Revival houses in the early 20th century often had porte-cocheres on the side, with a side entrance that was typically clearly secondary. With the advent of attached garages, an exterior side entry became almost superfluous. So, I am fascinated by both the gracious exterior here, as well as the large associated interior space. I envision carpools unloading, lots of young people coming and going, a place to haul in sports equipment, a place for winter outdoor clothing, etc. It’s the kind of informal family entrance that typically develops but is really understated — sometimes so understated that it is hard to find!’’


Gleysteen, who has sold the spec house, hopes to build many more and to refine the design with successive versions.

“The problem with modernism,’’ he said, “is that it is so spare. This [home] retains the comfortable warmth of familiar shapes while it complements the traditional neighborhood in a town like Wellesley.’’

The see-through garage doors are a modern touch. – Jan Gleysteen

Regina Cole writes about architecture and design. Send comments to [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.


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