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The American Four Square House - A Classic Or Not?

Originally Posted: October 28, 2009

Andrea Aurichio

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An American Four Square on Sagg Main Street where controversy is raging concerning the historic significane of these homes. Photos by Andrea Aurichio

Southampton - The controversy surrounding the demolition or preservation of a 1930s classic American Four Square on Hedges Lane in Sagaponack begs the issue concerning the historic significance of this distinctive yet somewhat commonplace house.

An American Four Square house. Image courtesy of Google Images

The American Four Square was manufactured by Sears Roebuck, sold in its catalog often referred to as the farmer's department store, and shipped in component parts to locations across the country. Sears manufactured an estimated 100,000 of these houses in various models and sizes. The houses were popular from the mid 1890s to the late 1930s. Prices ranged from $650 to over $5,000. Many are still standing today.

These houses are scattered across the East End where they are often found on roads that border farmlands. The Four Square is also found on downtown village streets.

The houses can be found in many incarnations. Some have been altered, others are pristine. Some have been painstakingly restored by old house aficionados while others remain in a state of disrepair.

The Four Square is also seen on the East End in a derivative form that resembles a classic California bungalow. This style was also manufactured by Sears. Models were made by other manufacturers as well. In total there were more than 400 models in production during the heyday of these houses.

A smaller American Four Square on Sagg Main sits alongside the Foster Farm.

A Four Square is characterized by its basically square, boxy design, two and one half stories high, usually with four large, boxy rooms to a floor, a center dormer, and a large front porch with wide stairs. Other common features of the Four Square include a hipped roof and arched entries between common rooms. Many have built-in cabinetry and Craftsman style woodwork.

The layout was simple and straight forward. The first floor consisted of a dining room, living room, kitchen and foyer punctuated by a center hall leading upstairs where four bedrooms and one bath could be found. The bathroom was usually located between the bedrooms on one side of the house while the stairway separated the other two bedrooms on the opposite side.

Some models included a bathroom on the first floor. The top floor was basically a large open space with one to four dormers punctuating the roofline.

Artist rendering of a classic American Four Square. Image courtesy of Google Images

The basement had windows on all four sides and provided excellent ventilation that cooled the house in the hot summer months.

The boxy shape was designed to maximize square footage on small city lots. The houses were popular in urban areas but made their way to rural America as well. These houses were shipped in boxcars with a book of instructions. All the parts were pre-cut and numbered for self assembly.

There are seven Four Squares on Shelter Island. They made their way to the Island via the Long Island Railroad where they were dropped off in Greenport before they were ferried over to the Island and assembled.

Some Four Squares like the one in Sagaponack, according to old timers, were erected by local builders. The Hedges Lane Four Square was built when a farm family outgrew their small 1840s farmhouse. The two houses, along with two barns and two outbuildings remain on the now defunct farmstead on a 2.3 acre lot. Builder Michael Davis is seeking demolition permits to raze five of the six buildings to clear the lot for the construction of a 6,900 square foot luxury home. He has agreed to move the 1840s farmhouse and restore it. He would like to demolish the 1930s Four Square if he can get a permit from the Sagaponack Historic and Architectural Review Board (ARB).

These homes could be purchased from a catalog and arrived in sections. Image courtesy of Google Images

The ARB has asked him to spare the house. To that end, Davis is offering the house to anyone who can move it. So far, there are no takers for the free house.

The cost and complexity of moving the house along with its dubious historical significance has given rise to a spirited debate in the community.

"I don't want to burst anyone's bubble," architect and author Anne Surchin said, "but these houses are a dime a dozen. Of course they won't be if we start tearing them all down."

The basic design of the Four Square, also referred to as a Foursquare, was a reaction to the complexity and excess found in Victorian and Revival style homes that were popular in the later half of the 19th century. The clean lines of the Four Square incorporated elements of design found in Prairie School and Craftsman style homes. The style is sometimes referred to as a Transitional Pyramid. In any case, and by any name the Four Square is authentic Americana reflecting a by-gone era.

"Everyone wants to save old homes from demolition by giving them away or moving them but moving them causes more damage to the environment than demolishing them," builder John Cox said. Cox describes himself as the anti-Bob Villa. He knows a thing or two about building and construction. He is pro-Green and environmentally aware. He weighed in on the Hedges Lane Four Square this week. "This particular house," Cox said, "is not that unusual or special but it should be dismantled like an organ donor. The parts should be used on other homes or garages. I would pick it apart and then demolish the rest."

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Guest (John Enright) from Evanston, IL says::
Would adding a wraparound porch be architecturally correct if adding to a four square style home ?
May 10, 2010 10:56 am

Guest (Melinda) from Keller TX says::
Why doesn't Mr. Anti-Bob Vila tear the house down, incorporate usable parts in his extraordindary 6000 sq. ft. house and donate the rest to Jimmy Carter's pet project. People all over the world are dying and you people are faunching over a very nice old four square that I would be happy to have, if I could afford to move it to Texas. Get a life.
Nov 2, 2009 3:32 pm


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