Building Types

Historic buildings can take many forms and often defy easy classification by architectural style.  As discussed in the Traditional section of this style guide, vernacular or  folk buildings  reflect the historic cultural traditions of specific ethnic or economic groups and  are often described as building types.   The form of the buildings is dictated by a pragmatic concern to meet basic housing and buildling needs relying on centuries old traditions and craftsmanship.  Such folk building traditions are greatly influcenced by location and ethnicity and economics, rather than era or the prevalence of popular styles.  These forms change little over time and employ established constructiion techniques, despite a changing aesthetic around them.  Planned use, cost  of construction, the availability of certain building materials and cultural preferences all play a role in the continuing use of vernacular forms.  Analysis of common traditional house forms by both architectural historians and folklorists has led to the development of terms to describe these often seen housing types.  The floorplan or layout of the house often is the best identifiable feature in understanding and identifying these types of vernacular housing forms.  A detailed discussion of the most commonly recognized traditional house forms found in Pennsylvania appears at the bottom of this page.

Since buildings are constructed to serve a great variety of purposes, of course their size, shape, form and features are designed to meet those industrial, commercial, institutional or domestic needs.  Some building types have been well researched so that their history, distribution pattern and key features have been identified.  Others are less well documented, making it more difficult to evaluate them as good examples of their type.  Lack of research also makes it more challenging to understand the significance of such buildings--Are they unique or widespread in the region and if they were once common, how many currently remain in good condition? 

Some of the most common historic building types in Pennsylvania include mills, agricultural or industrial complexes, rail road related structures, schools, churches, novelty buildings, and a wide variety of venacular domestic forms.  These buildings may include details of established historic architectural styles, but their appearance is more dictated by necessity and the function they serve.

Religious Buildings

Many 19th and early 20th century churches are designed in popular architectural styles such as the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival or Romanesque Revival. Early churches often took a more simple form and were sometimes designed to serve the needs of multiple congregations. In Pennsylvania's settlement period, simply designed log churches were built and often replaced with larger buildings of popular style as the congregation grew. Ethnic and cultural traditions led to the building of religious meetinghouses, most often associated with the Quakers, Mennonites and Church of the Bretheren, although other Protestant groups used this form as well. These more simple undetailed buildings were both culturally and religiously significant, reflecting the tenents of their faith in their unadorned interiors. While few of those early log churches survive, many good examples of the meetinghouse form remain and continue to be built, especially in south eastern Pennsylvania. Usually one story in height, with a front facing gable, meetinghouses often feature two adjacent front doors. Historic Jewish temples, reflecting Jewish settlement and population growth patterns appear accross the state. Like the buildings of other religious denominations, early Jewish temples were of simpler, less formally designed traditional appearance and later buildings were of more distinctive popular styles like the Greek or Roman Revival or Exotic Moorish Revival. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Eastern Europeans of the Byzantine or Greek Orthodox Church built distinctive onion-domed churches decorated with richly detailed mosaics, again reflecting the traditions of their homeland. Read More

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Exeter Meeting House
Exeter Friends Meeting House, Berks County
Union Lutheran Church
Union Lutheran Church, York County
St. John's Episcopal Church
St. John's Episcopal Church, Mercer County

Railroad Related Buildings

Railroad stations are an easily identified building type accross the state since Pennsylvania was well served by a complicated linkage of rail lines connecting large cities and small towns within the state and beyond.  While railroad passenger stations in large cities may have been designed in elaborate formal architectural styles, most passenger stations followed a more simple form with wide overhanging eaves upheld by  over sized wooden braces.  Usually of red brick and sometimes featuring Italianate details such as segmentally arched windows, these buildings reflect  both their purpose and their construction period in the second half of the 19th century.  Railroad freight stations often took similar form, but were usually less detailed and more utilitarian in design.  Pennsylvania is home to many important railroad centers where rail cars were built and repaired  and other key functions undertaken.  Those centers often included a roundhouse for the turning of rail cars, mechanics' shops, freight warehouses and coal storage buildings. As railroads declined in the mid 20th century most of those functional buildings have disappeared, but many passenger and freight stations remain.

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Central NJ Freight Station, Lackawanna County
Central NJ Railroad Freight Station, Lackawanna County
Kutztown RR Station, Berks County
Kutztown Railroad Station, Berks County
Milton RR Station, Northumberland County
Milton Railroad Station, Northumberland County
Newport RR Station, Cumberland County
Newport Railroad Station, Cumberland County
Sayre RR Station, Brqadford County
Sayre Railroad Station, Bradford County


Pennsylvania, with its many rivers and streams, fostered the building of a great abundance of early mills using water power to provide a variety of goods.  Grain mills, saw mills, wool carding mills all relied on water wheels to create their products.  Such mills were usually several stories in height, often of stone or brick construction and featured a second floor opening for the loading of a finished product into wagons.  Features of a mill complex may include the mill building with milling equipment, mill race,  water wheel and miller's house.  Later mills for the production of other goods  such as steel were not dependent on water power and took a different more industrial  form.  Mill buildings often feature decorative details from architectural styles, but their use dictated their overall form.

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Stone Mill at Daniel Boone Homestead
Stone Mill at Daniel Boone Homestead, Berks County
Udree Mill
Udree Mill, Berks County


Early schools were usually simple in design and were not examples of popular architectural styles.  These small, often one room, buildings were the continuation of a European cultural tradition and their design was more about functionality and less about aesthetics.  In southeastern Pennsylvania a tradition of small, stone, octagonal, one-room schools prevailed in the late 18th and early 19th century.  Elsewhere, a simple square or rectangular one-room schoolhouse was the preferred form.  Such small one-room schools often remained in use especially in rural areas, until changes in public education law provided for the creation of larger, more complex schools in the 1920s and 1930s.   While some larger public and private schools in the 19th century were designed in the popular styles of the day, almost all schools from the early 20th century forward were formally designed, not continuations of a cultural traditon.  One notable exception is the simply styled one-room Amish schools which continue to be built today to serve the needs of the Amish community.  Popular school styles from the early 20th century include the Collegiate Gothic and Classical Revival.  In the post WWII era school design often followed the tenets of the International style with bands of windows and low pitched roofs.

For more information about preserving historic schools, please visit our School Preservation web resource.

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Endeavor School
Endeavor School, Forrest County
Gallatin School
Gallatin School, Fayette County
Girard College
Girard College, Philadelphia County
Lake City School
Lake City School, Elk County
Scott School
Scott School, Dauphin County
Sodom School
Sodom School, Northumberland County

Roadside Architecture

An often overlooked  category of historc buidings fits loosely under the term roadside architecture.  These buildings were designed to fit needs of the 20th century automobile era and are consequently  of more recent construction.  Roadside architecture includes novelty buildings like the Coffee Pot  and  the windmill designed Shoe Fly House restarurant both constructed along Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, America's first coast to coast highway.  Roadside architecture includes other types of buildings to meet the needs of the early automobile age such as gas stations, restaurants, diners, campgrounds, hotels  and motels made up of small guest cottages.  Roadside architecture is not limited to Route 30, but developed all over the country as the use of cars made a new kind of development popular.  

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Coffee Pot Restaurant
Coffee Pot Restaurant, Bedford County
Red Rose Diner
Red Rose Diner, Bradford County

Traditional House Forms

Hall Plan House

The Hall Plan House is a simple one room cabin, the most elemental of housing forms.  Building materials varied depending on cost, availability and preference, but Hall Plan Houses were constructed of  log, frame, brick, stone and mud through the Middle Atlantic region.  A single door opens directly into the living space which is heated by an open fireplace in early examples or a stove in later ones.  Hall Plan Houses usually have a least one window, often found next to the door or in the gable end opposite the chimney.  A ladder or corner stair leads to the upper story or loft which is used for sleeping or storage. These one room houses were very common in the early days of European settlement in 1700s but, as settlers became more financially secure, larger homes were prefered and additions were often added.  Homes built in this form in the mid to late 1800s were often associated with mill, farm or urban laborers.  Due to their age, design and lack of amenities, these buildings are rare survivors in the built environment today. 

Hall and Parlor Plan House     

The Hall and Parlor Plan House form is a tradional two-room plan, often seen in domestic buildings dating from the early period of European settlement in Pennsylvania.  Constructed to provide basic shelter and using a traditional form seen in Europe, the Hall and ParlorPlan House is a basic cabin divided into two rooms, placed side by side, often with a  fireplace at each gable end.  The term "hall" is a bit confusing since it refers to the kitchen and primary working space of the home, sometimes called the "common room."    The parlor may have been used as a place to entertain guests as the name implies, but it might also have served as a bedroom, especially for single story houses.  If used as a sitting room, the parlour often had more formally desgined architectural trim such as paneling, moldings or mantle pieces.  If the house had a second story or loft for sleeping, stairs were located in the corner of the hall or between the two rooms.  German influenced Hall and Parlor Plan Houses usually had corner stairs and sometimes a pent roof above the first story.  As with Hall Plan Houses, after the mid- 1800s Hall and Parlor Plan Houses were workers' houses, built by and for those of limited means.    

Double Cell Plan House

Similar to the Hall & Parlor  Plan House, the Double Cell Plan House has two rooms, although they are arranged front to back rather than side by side. A double hearth fireplace was located  at the center of the exterior side wall or sometimes  two separate side wall fireplaces were often used.  Later Double Cell Plan houses might have only a a stove flue running between the two rooms.  Sometimes a shed roofed room  known as a lean-to addition was added to the rear of a single room house to create a  two room house.  The lean-to additions were often unheated and unfinished with exposed framing so they were distinctly different in appearace from Double Cell Plan Houses.

Penn Plan or Quaker Plan House

The Penn or Quaker Plan House was a three-room house form made up of a large hall or common room and  two smaller rooms on the other side of an interior wall. The common room usually contained a large fireplace for cooking usually located along the exterior wall, a stair to the upper level, built in storage cupboards and a door opening directly to the outside.  The two smaller rooms  provided space for an office, sitting room or bedroom, with an exterior side wall fireplace opening into each room  and single window in each.  

Double Parlor  Plan House 

The Double Parlor Plan House is another variation of an early three-room vernacular house form.   Less common than the Penn or Quaker Plan House, the Double Parlor Plan House was most often built by English settlers in the 18th century.  Rooms of similar size were arranged in a line under a common roof ridge.  The Double Parlor Plan House form consists of three similar size rooms, a kitchen, a parlor and a sleeping room arranged in a line.

Continental Plan House

The Continental Plan House is a distinctive building type associated with early German settlement  and found mostly in 18th century Pensylvania.   The three room floor plan is almost identical to the Penn or Quaker Plan House, with a large kitchen (kuche) room and two smaller side rooms, a parlor (stube) and a sleeping chamber (kammer).   German Continental plan houses were constructed of log, stone and frame and are defined by their common plan with an internal center fireplace often  with a five plate stove and an offcenter front door leading directly into the large kitchen.  A rear door into the kitchen lies opposite the front door. The  winder stair is typically located in the corner of the kitchen room.  Sometimes the large kitchen is divided into two rooms with a smaller multipurpose room called a kammerli  at ther rear.  The German influence on the  Continental Plan  House is most evident by its internal chimney and off center doors.   The prevalence of this house form declined by the end of the 18th century  as German settlers adopted the more formal symmetrical design of the English inspired Georgian style.