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.

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