Before “Colonial” There Was Immigrant Architecture in North America

There is an architecture of the migrant. It is survivalist, built with what is available, made as quickly as possible, with safety as its core value. Americans romanticize that architecture as “Colonial”: simple timber buildings, with symmetric beginnings, infinite additions, and adaptations. But “Colonial” architecture is not what was built first by the immigrants to a fully foreign land 400 years ago. Like all migrant housing, time made it temporary and forgotten.

Living in the 21st century, the noise of the moment can deafen us to timeless human realities. Rather than a political fight, the differences between the establishment and those entering it have been a fundamental legacy of the human condition. Just a little knowledge reveals that our humanity is independent of history, even culture. “Food, shelter, and clothing” are necessities, not graded achievements.

“Shelter” is as essential now as it was before the Internet. Cultural and historic realities are part of all architecture. Three years ago, I along with co-author Steve Culpepper, wrote “A Home Called New England” where we confronted the 400-year-old genesis of America’s status quo in New England.

History is as factual as gravity in its effect on how we design, that informs our perceptions no matter how “Modern” we are. In writing the book, I discovered that the “Ur” American Architecture, so-called “Colonial” architecture, was not the architecture of the immigrants who invaded North America in the 17th century.

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The Peak House, Main Street, Medfield, Norfolk County. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress HABS MASS

But before any thought of migration was contemplated explorers visited. From almost every country in Europe, ships came, not to immigrate, but to survey, and grab what plunder or trade was available.

The last 18 months show how an uncontrollable disease can fully transform our reality. Those visitors left off Yellow fever, smallpox, plague, trichinosis, chickenpox, along with influenza, kidney and liver bacteria – all these alien infections ended the lives of at least 40% of the indigenous population before immigration started. The established culture was often simply absent when the migrants arrived, unlike today, where a small number are dropped into a dominant reality.

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The Peak House, Main Street, Medfield, Norfolk County, MA Drawings from Survey. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress HABS MASS

To survive, the invaders had to build as quickly as possible, and the default Medieval aesthetic was used as it was known by the immigrants. In eastern Massachusetts one of the few homes left of the pre-“Colonial” era stands: The 1651 Peak House in Medfield – the existing building is a 1711 reconstruction after the original burned. Rather than make a new “Colonial” building, the rebuilders simply replicated what had been lost. Its “rules” are both idiosyncratic to the migrants, but also universal to all those dropping into a foreign place: and reflect what all immigrants need to create a safe harbor for themselves:

  • Minimal: 400 square feet, including a second-floor loft
  • Simple: a rectangular plan, symmetric gable roof
  • Aesthetics: from the migrant home culture - in this case, Medieval: no eaves, tiny windows, minimal ornament - the steeply pitched roofs were needed for thatched covering in Europe, an approach that took too much time to reproduce by migrants, so speed mandated wood shingles and that material’s speed and water tightness ultimately allowed for shallower pitches in ”Colonial” architecture.
  • Planning – Basic: one open living space with a large masonry chimney set to subdivide (and heat and cool) it, with an open loft above, connected by a steep stair – often with a curtain being the only separation between generations
  • Form – elementally a box, but a steep roof pitch on top, with a ridge in the long direction, as said, the Medieval pitch that also made the loft space.

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The Peak House, Main Street, Medfield, Norfolk County, MA Drawings from Survey. Image Courtesy of Library of Congress HABS MASS

This stark box, virtually a wood tent, has an aesthetic pungency that is shocking to the orthodox view most Americans have of what the migrants built. This image is shocking because the last 300 years have served to void the existing indigenous culture that was receiving immigrants, so the migrants became “Colonists”, not invaders. That nostalgia and romanticism of the “Colonial” aesthetic were embodied in the classic New England Cape, Saltbox, Center Hall - the first American architecture. In reality, the first buildings that sheltered desperate immigrants were essential, referential to a Medieval aesthetic that is simply ignored by today's Real Estate machine that sells a cultural "brand" and aesthetic.

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Anglo Saxon House. Image Courtesy of

Essential structures used by all immigrants are built first for humanity without effect. The Peak House manifests the survivalist efficiencies that all first-generation migrant housing must embody. There is an elemental dignity to manifesting a life beyond the safety of cultural orthodoxy, and it is found in the Peak House.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Migration. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily, we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Duo Dickinson. "Before “Colonial” There Was Immigrant Architecture in North America" 21 Jul 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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