Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

The Four-Square style house (sometimes referred to as the American Four-Square House) was popular from just after 1900 to well into the 1930s. Thousands of these Four-Square houses were built in Portland and its older suburbs. Virtually every older neighborhood in Portland has many, many examples. This local popularity mirrored the national trend. They were built in large numbers in every part of the country, in big cities and small towns. They even proved a popular choice for farmhouses in the country. Certainly among two-story houses, the Four-Square was the most popular house of its day.

What are the key characteristics of the Four-Square house? First of all, a Four-Square house must be, well, square. The height of the front facade should be the same as its width. In its purest form, all four sides of the house are of equal dimension, forming a perfect cube.


Above, Edison concrete Four-Square in Portland.

Admittedly, some Four-Square houses have longer depths than widths, creating an elongated version of the style. But even these houses present a square appearance on the street side facade. Most Four-Squares contain two stories, making full use of narrow city lots. They frequently contain a large hip-roof front dormer illuminating an unfinished attic. The house roofs are almost always pyramidal, with the four equal slopes coming to a point in the center. (The previously mentioned enlarged Four-Square house would have by necessity a hip roof, sloping back from the front.) Four-Squares were always built with a substantial front porch — usually extending across the full width of the house. The porches were almost always covered with a low-hipped roof. Four-Square exteriors can be found built of almost any common building material: wood siding, cedar shingles, stucco, brick, dressed stone, and stone-textured concrete block. In the Northwest, horizontal wood siding was the predominant covering. A popular treatment found here and elsewhere involved horizontal lap siding on the first floor topped by wood shingles on the second floor. A horizontal belt course separating first and second floors is often found extending on all four building sides.

Some Four-Square houses were even built out of solid concrete! A recent KOPB production of “History Detectives” described how in the early 1900s Thomas Edison promoted the construction of Four-Square concrete houses. The regularity and straight lines of the Four-Square style would have readily lent themselves to the large molds required for concrete construction. At least one Edison-inspired concrete Four-Square exists in Portland — one in the Buckman Neighborhood and another probable contender in the Woodstock area. Look around. There may be more. “History Detectives” reports there were around 100 built from coast to coast.

Despite the style’s emphasis on geometrical regularity, the window and door treatment of the front first story is seldom symmetrical. The front door is usually placed off to the side with the remainder of lower front left for the large living room window(s). Second story window placement is however nearly always symmetrical with two equal bedroom windows found on each side. The larger Four-Square houses often have a small closet window directly in the middle. If there is an attic dormer above, it always is placed exactly in the center of the house span.

The interior plans of Four-Squares are as regular as the exteriors. In the purest interpretation of the style, four square rooms were placed on the first floor and four on the second. Each room therefore became a corner room with two cross-ventilating windows found on the two outside walls. This was no small consideration in the days before air conditioning (or even electric fans). Interior appointments and fixtures could be simple, but most borrowed at least some elements from the Craftsman, Colonial Revival, or even — in the 1920s — the Art Deco design movement.

Exterior trim of the Four Square ranges from non-existent to elaborate. Any exterior design flourishes were usually borrowed from the Craftsman or sometimes Prairie vocabulary. In Portland though, the simpler, plainer versions tend to predominate. The simplicity of the style provided a welcome alternative to the fussy-ness of preceding Victorian styles. The Four-Square style arrived just in time for the Portland building boom following the Lewis and Clark Exhibition in 1905. The bulk of Portland’s Four-Squares were built in this pre-World War I period. They continued to be built in smaller numbers in the 1920s and even into the 1930s. While still a practical and popular choice even after the War, the Four-Square had to compete with the myriad of other house styles that emerged in the prosperous 1920s.

In the past, some people have superficially referred to these houses as “boxy.” But a more thorough observation today reveals a carefully balanced, almost Zen-like refinement to their “simple” design. Local realtors used to refer to these houses as merely “Old Portland” style — a catchall phrase to describe what they thought was a lack of style. Now, most realtors are giving this style its proper respect and have restored the correct Four-Square terminology.

Owners of Four-Square houses love them. To many they represent the epitome of the classic All-American older home. Portland is fortunate to have so many fine remaining examples. They can be found in all sections of the older city in all price ranges. “Fixers” can still be found, but the strong demand is reducing the supply. There will come a time when most all Four-Square houses in Portland will be returned to their original glory.Admittedly, some Four-Square houses have longer depths than widths, creating an elongated version of the style. But even these houses present a square appearance on the street side facade. Most Four-Squares contain two stories, making full use of narrow city lots. They frequently contain a large hip-roof front dormer illuminating an unfinished attic. The house roofs are almost always pyramidal, with the four equal slopes coming to a point in the center. (The previously mentioned enlarged Four-Square house would have by necessity a hip roof, sloping back from the front.) Four-Squares were always built with a substantial front porch — usually extending across the full width of the house. The porches were almost always covered with a low-hipped roof. Four-Square exteriors can be found built of almost any common building material: wood siding, cedar shingles, stucco, brick, dressed stone, and stone-textured concrete block. In the Northwest, horizontal wood siding was the predominant covering. A popular treatment found here and elsewhere involved horizontal lap siding on the first floor topped by wood shingles on the second floor. A horizontal belt course separating first and second floors is often found extending on all four building sides.

Some Four-Square houses were even built out of solid concrete! A recent KOPB production of “History Detectives” described how in the early 1900s Thomas Edison promoted the construction of Four-Square concrete houses. The regularity and straight lines of the Four-Square style would have readily lent themselves to the large molds required for concrete construction. At least one Edison-inspired concrete Four-Square exists in Portland — one in the Buckman Neighborhood and another probable contender in the Woodstock area. Look around. There may be more. “History Detectives” reports there were around 100 built from coast to coast.

Despite the style’s emphasis on geometrical regularity, the window and door treatment of the front first story is seldom symmetrical. The front door is usually placed off to the side with the remainder of lower front left for the large living room window(s). Second story window placement is however nearly always symmetrical with two equal bedroom windows found on each side. The larger Four-Square houses often have a small closet window directly in the middle. If there is an attic dormer above, it always is placed exactly in the center of the house span.

The interior plans of Four-Squares are as regular as the exteriors. In the purest interpretation of the style, four square rooms were placed on the first floor and four on the second. Each room therefore became a corner room with two cross-ventilating windows found on the two outside walls. This was no small consideration in the days before air conditioning (or even electric fans). Interior appointments and fixtures could be simple, but most borrowed at least some elements from the Craftsman, Colonial Revival, or even — in the 1920s — the Art Deco design movement.

Exterior trim of the Four Square ranges from non-existent to elaborate. Any exterior design flourishes were usually borrowed from the Craftsman or sometimes Prairie vocabulary. In Portland though, the simpler, plainer versions tend to predominate. The simplicity of the style provided a welcome alternative to the fussy-ness of preceding Victorian styles. The Four-Square style arrived just in time for the Portland building boom following the Lewis and Clark Exhibition in 1905. The bulk of Portland’s Four-Squares were built in this pre-World War I period. They continued to be built in smaller numbers in the 1920s and even into the 1930s. While still a practical and popular choice even after the War, the Four-Square had to compete with the myriad of other house styles that emerged in the prosperous 1920s.

In the past, some people have superficially referred to these houses as “boxy.” But a more thorough observation today reveals a carefully balanced, almost Zen-like refinement to their “simple” design. Local realtors used to refer to these houses as merely “Old Portland” style — a catchall phrase to describe what they thought was a lack of style. Now, most realtors are giving this style its proper respect and have restored the correct Four-Square terminology.

Owners of Four-Square houses love them. To many they represent the epitome of the classic All-American older home. Portland is fortunate to have so many fine remaining examples. They can be found in all sections of the older city in all price ranges. “Fixers” can still be found, but the strong demand is reducing the supply. There will come a time when most all Four-Square houses in Portland will be returned to their original glory.

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