Style Points | The Four Square

It’s all in the name: four square.

Four sides of equal dimension, and each side equal in height and in width. In essence, that’s the four square house, though a variation on the style added a bit more space by making the front-to-back walls longer. These practical, attractive, stately beauties can be found in Alameda mostly north of the ridge, throughout Irvington, and in just about every other Portland neighborhood. The style was most popular in the 19-teens-Portland’s biggest residential building boom-and is seldom seen after the 1920s when builders and buyers turned their attention to the Tudor, the colonial, and other modern styles.

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Here’s a shot of a classic four-square, which ran in The Oregonian on January 21, 1912.

The four square is almost always a two-storey house and is capped off with a hipped roof: a pyramid shaped top-hat that reflects the symmetry of the four walls. Sometimes the eaves extend out far beyond the walls with solid or ornate brackets (in a kind-of Prairie School style reference). Often four squares have a dormer or two up top which add a little head room to the attic and bring in some natural light.

In the purest form, the interior floor plan of the four square was also (you guessed it) a square: four rooms of equal size, which ensured a corner for each space and precious cross-ventilation.

Porches, ever-popular during the first part of the last century, almost always span the entire front wall. Interesting to note that lots of front porches simply wore out in the middle of the 20th Century. A review of building permits for the Alameda neighborhood shows a high frequency of porch demolition and reconstruction in the 1940s and 1950s. All that wood just couldn’t hold up against all that water. Sometimes the rebuilt porches, while practical and often concrete, left a lot to be desired historically. It’s not uncommon to see a lovely four square with a tiny porch roof just over the front door, with concrete stairs and wrought iron railings…clear clues to some early remodeling.

Most four square houses have some visible influence from the Craftsman style, whether inside with door and window trim and other details, or outside in the form of eave brackets, window trim, porch columns or other details. That’s just natural: the builders who constructed these houses were also building bungalows and larger houses. And the Craftsman style was popular with home buyers and home owners at the time. Over the years, as styles changed, often these details were removed or altered to keep up appearances.

A note about taxonomy: you might hear these houses referred to as “Old Portland Style.” Portland didn’t have a corner on the market for four squares…they are everywhere that homes were being built in the U.S. during this era. The Old Portland reference is a relatively new term, likely coined by realtors, that lumps together all two-storey, square, “boxy” looking houses. Don’t be fooled. Now you know: just look for four walls of equal dimension.

4 responses

  1. The brackets are also a reference to the dentils of classical architecture, fyi. And of course the extended eaves are a definite nod to the Craftsman house, as you suggest. I am a bit more skeptical of the Prairie reference, but perhaps. Wright never held up his eaves with brackets, or anything else for that matter. That’s why they all droop….

    One of the reasons why the Craftsman and the four square were popular with builders was because they had access to plans and elevations via pattern books. Pattern books have a much deeper history in domestic architecture, and not just in the US. Would make an interesting further post – think Palladio.

    Also, Sears sold a four square model as part of their kit homes, and it was very popular. There are many of these all over, including multiple copies here in Washington.

    Nice post! I have always loved the Craftsman motto, als ik kan: “to the best of my ability.” Reminds me of a great quote from Chaucer: “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.”

  2. Thanks for dropping by the old house, and your encouragement to look up a few old pattern books. Duly noted.

    For clarification, my comment about the Prairie School reference wasn’t directed at the brackets…but at the exaggerated overhanging eaves.

    For frequent visitors of the blog, I encourage you to visit this guy’s blog, called A Town Square: http://www.heckeranddecker.wordpress.com.

    He ain’t heavy, he’s my brutha.

  3. The four square also gets the maximum living space out of a small city lot. And they were available as mass-produced kits from Sears or as plans builders could customize to suit local tastes and materials.

    In a way, not altogether different than the McMansions crammed into subdivisions in the exurbs these days. But the four squares were built when high-quality materials and labor was in abundant supply, and with the passage of time have become charming.

    Eric

  4. What an awesome foursquare, such detail and the wide eaves with exposed rafters really gives it appeal. i do alot of roofing in charlotte nc as well as remodeling and painting and I happen to be in the middle of remodeling and roofing a similar home in the historic district of salisbury nc. we only used recycled rough cut lumber that came from an original home built before 1930.

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