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Seattle Style: A Field Guide to Classic Seattle Single-Family Homes

Posted on Apr 26, 2023 in:
  • Master Builder magazine

By MBAKS Content Strategist James Slone

With so many unique and storied residential neighborhoods, Seattle and its surrounding communities are jam-packed with classic single-family houses, representing over a century of West Coast design trends.

Seattle skyline from lake

Given the vast inventory of timeless homes, it’s tempting to wonder if there is a single, unifying “Seattle style,” an element or two that brings it all together. To find out, let’s take a brief tour of the classics to see what’s in their shared DNA.

First Homes

traditional Yurok Indian family house at Sumêg Village, in Sue-meg State Park, northern California

There have been unique homes in the Puget Sound region for thousands of years. When the first Europeans arrived, the indigenous coastal peoples of the Salish Sea built longhouses— large structures constructed with log frames and split log planks (usually cedar) and gambrel roofs—as communal living spaces for large families.

As more non-native Americans arrived from the East to work in the lumber and shipbuilding industries, they built shacks, cabins, and shanties— threadbare structures fit mostly for survival—using many of the same local materials found in longhouses. After the Klondike Gold Rush started in 1896, growth and prosperity brought more permanent housing and a burgeoning homebuilding industry.

The classical age of the Seattle home had begun.

Classic Seattle Homes

1900 to 1940

At the dawn of the twentieth century, following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, thousands of homes sprung up overnight. The most ostentatious was Millionaire’s Row on Capitol Hill, a fantasia of blinged-out palaces for the newly minted rich. But classic homes with just as much character were generously distributed throughout the city.

Queen Anne style home

Queen Anne

This Victorian dollhouse is as expansive as it is ornate, with porches large enough for the whole family, corner towers that cry out for attention, and a surfeit of exquisite patterns and decorative details strewn across their walls.

Seattle Box style home

Seattle Box

A variation of the Foursquare, the Seattle Box looks a bit like a two-story rectangle and features four main functional rooms (kitchen, entry hall, etc.) beneath four bedrooms. Decorative façades and large second-floor bay windows give the Box late-nineteenth-century curb appeal.

Dutch Colonial Revival style home

Dutch Colonial Revival

The urban farmhouse of its age, this neo-colonial style boasts gambrel roofs with curved eaves running its length, producing its characteristic barn profile. It’s an elegant splash of pastoral charm wedged in the urban landscape.

Tudor Revival style home

Tudor Revival

It’s about to get Elizabethan in here with North America’s response to Britain’s own revival of said style. Along with the characteristic wood framing, stone and stucco walls, and steep roofs that everyone thinks of when they hear “Tudor,” this regional variation also dons attractive red bricks.

Craftsman Bungalow style home

Craftsman Bungalow

A home so classic it’s been featured in this magazine more than once. In many ways defining old residential Seattle, Craftsman homes were designed to look handcrafted— with large overhanging eaves, low-pitched roofs, and covered porches supported by tapered wood columns.

Cape Cod

An understated classic in our residential fabric, the quite modest, very New England Cape Cod eschews ornamental details for simple low-and-wide construction of one or two floors, a mighty centerpiece chimney, and steep gabled roofs. Throw in some shingles for extra maritime flavor.

From Depression to War

1930 to 1945

1929 saw the end of the boom years as the stock market crash sunk much of the world into the Great Depression. History hit the stop button on Seattle’s classic era as massive shanty towns called Hoovervilles popped up overnight.

Building resumed with the introduction of federally-subsidized affordable housing developments and later wartime construction to accommodate Boeing employees and other workers during World War II. This was not an era of beauty but function first and foremost, with thousands of lookalike homes mass-produced across the region.

WWII-Era Cottage style home

WWII-Era Cottage

These mass-produced homes might not look like much, but they got the job done: housing GIs and their families after the war. Little more than plain 1,000-square-foot structures that sometimes flirted with Art Deco, these “war boxes” were built on basic wood frames with simple siding or shingles. Despite their modesty, many of these are now highly prized by tiny house aficionados.

Homes of the Future

1946 to 1970

After the privation of the Great Depression and War years, housing started blasting off in leafy suburban-style tracts as post-war Americans started careers and kicked off the baby boom. The dawn of the Jet Age had begun in Jet City, and Modern architecture, art, and design were in full swing.

Boeing-era prosperity meant people were buying a lot of automobile-friendly singlefamily homes promising all the latest doohickeys and amenities. These were the “homes of the future,” filled with ample space, modern appliances, and other conveniences that seemed beamed in from the future.

Northwest Regional (AKA Northwest Modern) style home

Northwest Regional (AKA Northwest Modern)

Our region’s answer to the International style, NW Regional centers local wood with ample unpainted lumber throughout. These minimalist homes often feature floor-toceiling windows and flat, shingled roofs with ample eaves to keep things dry.

Mid-Century Modern style home

Mid-Century Modern

Mid-Century Modern is all about clean lines, functionality, wide-open floorplans, big light-flooding windows, connectivity with outdoor space via sliding-glass doors, and no-frills aesthetics. The perfect abode for sipping cocktails and listening to Martin Denny records.

Ranch style home

Ramblers and Ranches

Low-slung and hugging the ground seem to be major themes of this era. As a rule, these paeans to the expansive landscapes of the American West offered casual living, asymmetrical but mostly rectangular layouts, open floorplans, low-pitched roofs, and just one highly accessible story.

Split Level style home

Split Levels

The classic split-level is is a charming throwback, recalling beloved suburban family sitcoms of the 1970s. Similar in most ways to other modern homes, these feature multiple staggered floors connected by short stairs leading from the main floor to the master bedroom and basement. Fun to look at, but you had better enjoy stairs.

Beyond Modern

1970 to 1990

The 1980s saw the intensification of masterplanned housing and suburban tracts with homes of hitherto unseen spaciousness. While a lot of homes in this era generically mimicked what came before, there was a noticeable push among some homebuilders for wildly eclectic and bare-bones minimalism.

Minimalist style home

Minimalist and Postmodern

Less of a style and more of an idea, minimalist homes have been around since the Bauhaus movement in the 1920s. A fairly common approach in the Northwest—where it melded with Japanese influences—this style brought clean surfaces, empty space, sleek lighting, and unfussy functionality to their modernist zenith.

The Postmodern threw out the spartan Modern approach for something more idiosyncratic, eclectic, often wildly sculptural and vibrantly colorful. While most notable Postmodern designs can be found in public and commercial spaces, any house that combines disparate elements in a playful or “deconstructed” way can be called Postmodern-influenced.

Near Contemporary

1990 to 2000

Since the 1990s, density has been the name of the game in those parts of Seattle not zoned for single-family homes. The 1990 Growth Management Act hemmed in development within urban growth boundaries, incentivizing denser single-family and multifamily housing closer to city centers. Master-planned communities continued to grow in suburbs falling inside the boundary.

While a lot of homebuilding projects became large-scale, regimented, or focused on infill, Seattleites had never had so many singlefamily options fit for every lifestyle.

Northwest Contemporary style home

Northwest Contemporary

Perhaps the most important trend in the 1990s, these homes drew from the rich well of popular styles, especially Northwest Regional—locally sourced materials like wood and stone, exposed beams, open floorplans, and a marked Japanese influence with clean lines and a powerful sense of open space.

Seattle Style?

Even leaving out several styles (Gothic Revival, anyone?), this is a lot. Given the aesthetic diversity and the fact that most of these movements originated elsewhere, is there really such a thing as Seattle style?

Short answer: Yes. But it’s not defined by any one feature. It’s more of a guiding principle that drives the way regional variations like the Seattle Bungalow are designed. Most were built to complement rather than overpower their surroundings—the climate, biomes, and beauty of the Puget Sound region. As such, they share key elements, including some going all the way back to Salish longhouses.

David Miller, University of Washington professor and award-winning AIA Fellow, has identified a few: Simple structures on raised foundations, large windows to drink in rare sunny days, exposed posts and beams that show off local materials, and open layouts unifying the space. They eschew hard-and-fast boundaries between interior and outdoor space, keeping occupants dry with big patios and sheltering eaves.

When you look at old Seattle homes, fully restored or radically remodeled, they often feel right because most were designed with this place in mind. Whether single-family, “missing middle,” or multifamily, the homes of today that will survive are those elegantly adapted to their surrounding nature and cityscape. These are the homes that embody the Seattle style.


Seattle houseboats

Floating homes have been a staple of Seattle since the beginning, especially on Lake Union. Initially little more than shanty-like structures housing shipbuilders, fishermen, timber workers, and other laborers, houseboats were considered largely undesirable in the early twentieth century, starting as cheap housing solutions before evolving into more “bohemian” communities.

During the apartment boom of the 1950s, houseboats very nearly went extinct before being promoted and ultimately codified by the city in the latter decades of the century— eventually losing their low-rent reputation and achieving a more glamorous status as part of Seattle’s waterfront heritage. If you look at a few of the floating palaces of today, it can be hard to imagine houseboats’ humble history.

Photo Credits

First Homes: Scott D. Sullivan
Seattle Box: Joe Mabel
Craftsman Bungalow: Courtesy Carlisle Classic Homes
WWII-Era Cottage: Courtesy Palmer Residential
Northwest Regional: Jeff Hobson for Lochwood-Lozier Custom Homes
Mid-Century Modern: Courtesy Carlisle Classic Homes
Minimalist: Courtesy Nip Tuck Remodeling


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