French architecture has influenced American building design since Colonial times, but the French Eclectic architectural style breaks from tradition by offering options accessible to the average homeowner. The movement emerged in the early 20th century from the public’s growing familiarity with French countryside homes and developed into a style that blends rustic simplicity with Classical elegance.
French Charm for the Common People
Before WWI, most French-influenced buildings in America were designed in the Chateauesque or Beaux-Arts Renaissance traditions, which drew from Renaissance-era design principles best suited to stately mansions and large public buildings.
During the war, American soldiers serving in France became acquainted with the French countryside’s cottages, farmhouses, and small manor houses, particularly in Normandy and Brittany, and developed an appreciation for this vernacular architecture. They brought these favorable impressions home to Americans who already associated French culture with elegance and refinement, but saw no need to adhere to one particular style.
The French Eclectic style grew from this love of French homes in general, embracing an assortment of features borrowed from all styles of homes in all regions of France. While certain vernacular features were simply copied, some of the more Chateauesque features were adapted for use on smaller buildings.
At the same time, improved photography and printing technology helped further a deeper understanding of French architecture among American architects and builders. Photographic studies of ordinary French homes that circulated through print media opened professionals’ eyes to possibilities beyond Renaissance formality.
French Eclectic architecture enjoyed a strong following from 1915 through 1945, but its heyday came between 1920 and 1935. In the 1920s, it surpassed Tudor Revival as the country’s second most popular architectural style, although it never managed to overtake Colonial Revival for the number one spot. After WWII, interest waned and apart from the mansard roof trend of the 1960s and 1970s, French architecture held little influence in America. In the 1990s, as public interest in Rival styles reemerged, the French Eclectic style once again attracted admirers, and it remains in style today.
While relatively uncommon and not nearly as widespread as other Revival-style homes, French Eclectic homes are found throughout the country, ranging in form from modest cottages to luxurious mansions. Because most are custom built, they’re influenced by each owner’s imagination, which adds to the variety.
Recognizing a French Eclectic Home
As the name implies, the French Eclectic architectural style combines features from a variety of French building traditions. It does have one consistently recognizable feature, however: the prominent, often steeply pitched, hipped roof with no front-facing gable. This separates it from the Tudor Revival roof, which always includes a front-facing gable.
The houses are one to two-and-a-half stories, sometimes expanded with side wings that are lower and smaller than the main building. The second floor is often enclosed entirely by the roof, with dormers added for lighting. These are typically wall dormers, also called through-the-cornice dormers, which run through the cornice line flush with the facade, a style reminiscent of Chateauesque architecture.
Dormers are most often topped with segmental, hip or gable roofs, but you’ll also see arched and circular dormers, as well as the occasional shed dormer. On many roofs, the eaves are flared upward and extend slightly beyond the walls.
In terms of overall appearance, French Eclectic buildings fall into one of three categories.
Symmetrical – These are rectangular buildings that are heavily influenced by Chateauesque and Beaux-Arts traditions that developed from Renaissance manor houses and royal palaces. They feature centered entrances and even numbers of symmetrically placed windows, dormers, and chimneys, lending them a sense of formality and grandeur. Even so, some Medieval influence still flows in this style, as it does through all types of French Eclectic homes.
Asymmetrical – On these homes, you’ll find an off-center entrance, asymmetrical dormer placement, and sometimes windows in groups of three. The roofs may feature cross gables. Their somewhat irregular massing is inspired by Medieval manors and provincial farmhouses. Detailing may be done with an ornate Medieval flare or in a more formal Renaissance style.
Towered or Norman Cottage – A subset of the asymmetrical category, this style was inspired by the architecture of Normandy and Brittany. Its most distinctive feature is the rounded tower with a conical roof placed in the center of the building to enclose the entryway. In some medieval Norman homes, barns were incorporated into the main building and the tower was used to store grain or animal fodder. Corner towers, in place of or in addition to the central tower, are also found on modern versions.
Outside these features, French Eclectic homes share many commonalities. Casement or multi-light double-hung windows are favored. French casement windows, with two panes that open vertically from the center, are particularly popular, as are the French doors these windows inspired. Windows are often highlighted with segmented arches or decorative shutters, although wood trim is kept to a minimum.
Front entrances are usually enclosed. Homes that lean toward the Tudor Revival style, which was also popular in the 1920s, may have half-round arched entry porches. On some more formal, Renaissance-inspired homes, the entrances may be recessed or plain stoops with doors framed by pilasters and pediments. Although French Eclectic homes lack spacious porches, some make up for it with balustraded balconies.
Roof material is typically tile, slate, or shingle. Chimneys are often massive but simple in form and topped with French-curved copper chimney caps of the type seen on French country cottages. For the exterior walls, brick, stone or stucco is preferred, sometimes with decorative masonry quoins dressing up the corners of the building. Tudor-style half-timbering and clapboard siding also make occasional appearances, particularly on towered homes.
Light Earth tones, such as beige and gray, are the most common colors used. While facade walls are typically monochrome, variegated stone facades and variegated roofs are sometimes found.
By borrowing elements from cottages and castles alike, the French Eclectic architectural style made the charm and romance of French homes accessible to the average American. Buildings in this style aren’t always easy to find, but if you’re looking for examples, keep an eye out for the distinctive roofs. If you’re considering building a French Eclectic home, get to know the many features that can go into this style before you settle on the combination you want.