Trying to determine how old a building is by its shape? By now, we assume you’ve already checked out the first part of this series, If These Walls Could Talk. But it’s not just what the walls are made of — the building shape can also be a huge clue to the era it was built. Read on to see if your building fits into any of these categories.


Part 2: Building Shape

Time to take a step back, literally, and let’s see if any of these obvious foundational clues provide any insight to your building’s age.

dating a building by the building shape prairie style vimbly
Flat and wide
— This hints at the Prairie, or Ranch style of architecture. This horizontally-based type of organic architecture was introduced to many Americans by Frank Lloyd Wright. His low-slung movement swept the home market and hung on for decades — particularly huge in the 50’s, but around 1900-60’s.

dating a building by the building shape american foursquare vimbly

American Foursquare
— This style was found everywhere in the 1920’s. Basically, a boxy house with a low pyramidal roof. This is an offshoot of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style, and it is easily recognized by the perfect square shape.

dating a building by the building shape townhouse vimbly

Townhouse — A 3 to 5 story building constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries for families who usually lived in all levels, these are often converted to multiple units. These days you can hardly find a touwnhouse in New York City, for instance, that hasn’t been converted into a separate apartment on all floors.
dating a building by the building shape beaux arts vimbly

Big and beautiful — Is the building you’re looking at huge and extravagant, with a focal piece in the main entrance? These clues point to the Beaux-Arts movement, which really hit the U.S. from 1880-1920. 

dating a building by the building shape tenement building vimbly

Walk-up or Tenement Style Building — Is the building you’re studying 5 to 6 stories tall? Does it have 4 apartments on each floor, with a 3-room shape (nothing over 11′ x 12’), and no elevator? If so, it was likely built in the 1800’s, circa 1840-early 1900’s.

dating a building by the building shape dumbbell tenement building vimbly

Dumbbell shaped tenement — These Old Law or dumbbell tenements were shaped like a dumbbell due to an airshaft in the middle which allowed every room to have a window. If a place has this shape, it was most likely built when the law was in effect between 1879-1901.



Got an idea, but still not sure how old your building is? Check out DATING A BUILDING but not romantically: PART 3 of 3 — Raise the Roof!