Birmingham, AL

The American Four-Square: A Mail Order House for the Ages

Roxanne Hale

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American Four-Square constructed in 2019 by Birmingham, Alabama based home builder Willow Homes, Photo by Tommy Daspit

What is the American Four Square?

The American Four Square had its heyday between 1890-1930, sometimes referred to as the Transitional Period. The Four-Square was a sharp response to the mass-produced and ornate character of the homes built during the Revival or Victorian architectural period of the nineteenth century. After decades of expensive, fussy architecture, homebuyers were ready for a simple and affordable alternative.

The Four-Square’s footprint was well suited for narrow urban lots, while the two-story floor plan made it possible to get a larger home than typically offered by the cottage bungalows. This is why you can find American Four-Square homes scattered across older communities that once had streetcar access. This home was all about offering the most house for the money, and its popularity was certainly aided by access to convenient and affordable transportation.

Hallmarks of the American Four Square

The Exterior

These two-story homes had four equal sides, with each floor separated into four rooms on each level, hence the name American Four Square.

Classically built American Four-Square roofs had a cost-saving design called a pyramidal (hip) roof and a small dormer in the front for venting hot air from the attic. Even by today’s standards, this basic roof shape is a money saver because it is simpler to construct and uses less wood and siding. Its practical, wide eaves provided extra protection from the sun and rain to the sides of the house. Windows were an economical 1-over-1 design, which means that they didn't have excessive or ornate windowpane grids. All the woodworking was plain, craftsman style and, in keeping with the post-Victorian backlash, lacked dainty and delicate details. Often, they had a deep, inviting front porch with simple wood columns on brick bases.

The Floor Plan

Much like American character of the time, Four-Squares were straightforward and economical. The main level had four distinct areas: the foyer and stairs, the living room, the dining room, and a kitchen. Occasionally, you can find one with a downstairs bath.

Upstairs, there were four bedrooms, one in each of the corners with an efficiently centralized staircase. There were usually one or two bathrooms centered between the bedrooms, accessible to the stairs.

Mail-Order Houses

From the early 1900s to the 1940s, thousands of customers ordered their homes from a place some might find surprising – The Sears and Roebuck Catalog. The catalog offered 340 home designs in a variety of prices and sizes. Of the nearly 70,000 homes sold during this time, many were the popular Four Square. These House Kits were shipped by rail in their own boxcar with a set of instructions and numbered parts. Everything, except the foundation of the home, was shipped to the owner for assembly.

Thumbing through a copy of "Honor Bilt Modern Homes” the Sears, Roebuck 1926 House Catalog, a would-be homeowner could find the American Four Square priced between $1700 and $3000 depending on size and features. Homebuyers could also browse a selection of heating systems, light fixtures, plumbing must-haves, and popular add-ons like garages.

What a fascinating way to buy a home! These house kits make assembling an IKEA dresser look like child's play! Many of these century-old homes still line the streets of towns today. Who can say the same will be true for IKEA furniture?

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Public domain photo of an old Sears & Roebuck Catalog

What has changed in home design?

The simple style of the American Four Square remains popular with homeowners who crave a classic look. The exterior design is often revived in new neighborhoods but with an updated floor plan that provides three new requirements: the open concept, an owner's bedroom and bath on the main level, and an attached garage. When these historical homes are renovated, homeowners often open the plan up by knocking down interior walls and adding bathrooms, laundry rooms, and garages.

Summary

Standing on the porch of a historical American Four-Square home, you get a sense of the pride its original owners must have felt moving in. With their grand front porch, craftsman woodwork, and hardy two-story stature, they are a period representation of the turn of the century American families who lived in them. It’s no wonder their appeal has stood the test of time.

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Roxanne Hale, owner, and broker of Arthouse has spent over 20 years in the real estate business. Here you'll find a collection of stories about buying and selling real estate & home building advice, housing history, and architecture & design tips. Oh, and some fun personal stories every now and then!

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