What does the roof shape tell you about a building’s age? The shape of a roof isn’t going to be the largest clue about a building… until it is. Some roof styles have been around for hundreds of years. Others came into prominence for a mere decade or two before giving way to the boring old gable, the most common form of roof. Hey, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. It is the styles in between the norm (gable can be called the norm) that will really help recognize an era, if the building you’re dating was built during one of those creative bursts.
Gable or Pitched — Classic America. Resembles the letter A. This tells you nothing about the era your house was built, because it’s always been done.
Cross Gable — This happens when you have an L-shaped, or + shaped house. When two gables intersect. Very typical of Greek Revival and Victorian Styles (ie Gothic or Queen Anne). Generally popular in the 1800’s.
Flat Roof — Perhaps a slight slope but… not a very practical roof for heavy rain and snowfall. Popular during the Italianate period (late 1800’s).
Hipped or Hip roof — Short slope down, low pitch but they don’t all meet in the middle. Very popular with Prairie and Craftsman styles of the early 1900’s.
Pyramidal — Hipped roof that meets at a point. Very popular on American Foursquare homes (1900s-1920’s).
Conical — Not to be confused with comical. The cone look was typical of Victorian Houses. 1830’s-1900.
Round Roof — Domes were big in the 1950’s, but we also see them in some Beaux-Arts buildings, particularly in the Second Empire 1852–1870 style in the late 1890’s.
Mansard, or Second Empire Style — Two slopes on each of the four sides. The lower is steeper than the upper, and often curved inward (concave). Windows are often set in the lower slope, and the upper slope is usually unseen. Allows for living space in the attic. Brought back in the mid Victorian Era, dating this building to sometime 1860’s-1880’s.
Decorated Roof Line & Slate Roof — Slate was a common building material in the Victorian era 1937-1910.
Gambrel or Dutch Roof — Features two different roof slopes, like a barn almost. Often gables (the A shaped roof) on the ends with dormers (window protrusions) built into the steeper lower slope. These go as far back as the early 1600’s.
While you’re on the roof, see if any of these chimney age-indicators are helpful. Note: Certain decades made it real hard for St. Nick.
Metal center, fake brick or wood surrounding — Mostly in newer houses. This is most of everything after the 60’s. We often don’t even need chimneys for heat these days, but we especially don’t need a fat brick casing for what is usually a smaller metal flute. That’s design for you!
Newer brick, horizontal, broad fireplace — 1950’s on. It’s like they forgot about the 17th century bigger-isn’t-always-better lesson. These were built to fit in with that hot new ranch style, and often not a necessity to heat the house, thanks to the mass central heating gig. Lots of deeper fireplaces too, and again we see fireplaces on the outside of the house for the first time since the 1700’s.
Fancily decorative chimney, often a thinner, taller stack — Probably dating a building to the late Victorian era (1890’s). This takes us all the way to the 1930’s.
Decorative chimneys but small, simpler fireplaces, more geometric shapes than floral — As a mid-Victorian trend, this starts to happen around 1860’s on.
Stout square chimneys with very ornate, floral fireplaces — (1837-1860’s) Early and mid-Victorian. Chimneys here are still generally part of or inside the exterior walls.
Lots of fireplaces in the house — Also very Victorian. Show-offs.
Exterior chimney built into edge of roof — Circa 1796, chimneys were still built into the exterior walls, but the invention of Rumford fireplaces made it easy by building the chimney right over the fireplace instead of having to direct the smoke.
Sloping exterior brick chimneys — Many early chimneys are placed on the outside of the house, often not even attached to the roof, narrowing as they go up — these are often, but not always, built before 1796.