High-Peaked Colonial Revival

Part 1: A Bay Area phenomenon?

Daniella Thompson

2014 Woolsey St.
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

2744 Fulton St.
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

15 February 2005

The high-peaked roof is a cold-climate invention, devised to liberate structures from the heavy weight of snow accumulations. Anyone who has traveled in northern Europe will have seen numerous steep roofs in practically every town. Particularly fine examples of extremely pitched roofs with enormous gables are to be found in old German towns. The photographs below are two of many such examples collected by the world traveler Russell Sturgis (1836–1909). More can be seen on the website of the library of Washington University in St. Louis.

Das Brusttuch (1521), Goslar
(Russell Sturgis Collection)

Hildesheim (Russell Sturgis Collection)

It was not unusual for German buildings to accommodate two, three, and even four stories within the roof gable, with rows of dormer windows ascending along the pitch. When German and Scandinavian immigrants arrived in the New World, their building styles naturally followed. Thus we can read that in Bowmansville, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,

About 1760, Casper Messner “built a two-story stone house, with a high-peaked roof, resting on extraordinary heavy framework, the main rafters of which are over a foot thick, covered with red tile. The house contained leaden window sashes, the panes being 4x6 inches, most unusual for this area.”

Like many Pennsylvania pioneers, Casper Messner was German (Deutsch). Deutsch being corrupted to Dutch, the German building style came to be called Dutch as well. We are all familiar with the gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial Revival style, which popularized itself from coast to coast beginning in 1880 or so. Not so familiar is another Colonial Revival style—featuring a prominent front gable with a high-peaked roof—that appears to have emerged during the same period from the union of Queen Anne and Eastern Shingle Style (see Buffalo as an Architectural Museum). In the mid-1890s, this picturesque hybrid evolved in the San Francisco Bay Area into a local Colonial Revival sub-genre that is particularly evident in the East Bay. A middle-class building style, it is typically expressed in a simplified, rectangular mass under a single gable roof with laterally projecting dormers.

Hugo W. Storch’s H.F. Munson residence, 1895 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The earliest known High-Peaked Colonial Revival house in the East Bay may be a residence designed by Edgar A. Mathews at 1535 St. Charles Street in Alameda, which George Gunn, Curator of the Alameda Museum, dates from 1894. The earliest known house documented in Edwards’ Trancripts of Records is the H.F. Munson residence designed by Hugo W. Storch (1873–1917) and built in 1895 at 2354 East 23rd Street in the Fruitvale section of Oakland.* The house still stands, although its appearance has been compromised by unsightly “renovations.” Gone are the lunette and the bay window that used to grace the front gable; both were replaced by the cheapest possible aluminum fenestrations (the shingle patching around the lower window in the gable indicates the former location of the bay). Yet despite these and other desecrations, it’s possible to discern some original features, such as the clinker-brick chimney embedded in the dormer, and the trio of miniature gables on that dormer.

* Information provided by Bradley Wiedmaier.

2333 Ward St. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The M.K. Miller house at 2109 Stuart St. was built in 1899 (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

If Hugo Storch was the first to build in this style, the one who popularized it was Alfred William Smith (1864–1933). On 12 June 1899, an article in the Realty and Building column of the Oakland Enquirer proclaimed:

Remarkable Popularity of the
Dutch Colonial Style.


One of the most distinctive features of recent local building operations is the wonderful popularity suddenly achieved by the style of house known as the Dutch Colonial, whose principal characteristic is a high peaked roof. The idea in this city originated with J. H. Simpson, who since he first began building such structures, has put up ten. However, the style has been adapted and enlarged upon by Architect A. W. Smith who since the 10th of January of last year [1898] has put up no less than twenty-seven houses, all on this peculiar line of architecture.

J.H. Simpson residence by A.W. Smith
(courtesy of Betty Marvin)


The first dwelling put up by Mr. Smith is located at Thirty-sixth and Grove streets. He declares it wasn’t a very handsome structure, because it exaggerated every idea he wanted to incorporate in the houses which he subsequently built along this line. Mechanics and contractors who visited the structure while in the course of erection laughed at it. However, notwithstanding their jeers the style caught on and has been wonderfully popular. Mr. Smith ascribes the popularity to the growth of the artistic in the building public, which has caused a departure from the strict rules of architecture and given rise to the development of the picturesque style.

Of this Dutch Colonial style the distinctive features are low wide doors, very low and wide windows and low ceilings with deep coves to give a greater effect to lowness, and a steep roof generally finished with an attic. The dining rooms are usually panelled very heavily and beamed. The outside is shingled and stained. In the interior over the doors and windows wide shelves are arranged for crockery, this being a distinctly Dutch idea. In place of the stereotyped wooden mantel, used so much nowadays, the old-fashioned brick fireplace with andirons has been revived. The woodwork inside is waxed to present a dead, dull surface and the most popular front doors are those having little brass grills and a wicket, through which those from the inside may look out on the porch without opening the door.

3028 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (photo: Daniella
Thompson, 2005)

3028 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
(photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

2818 San Pablo Ave. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

1510 Harmon St. at Sacramento: high-peaked gable roof on top of an Italianate first floor. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The house has been irretrievably compromised by inappropriate renovation. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

BAHA’s spring 2004 house tour guidebook, Berkeley 1890: “At Home” along Fulton Street, cites two newspaper articles, one from November 1899, that refer to the style as “steep roof.” In a 1974 BAHA article entitled “Mystery Designs” and published in the Berkeley Gazette, architectural historian John Beach remarked on the resemblance of these “steep roofs” to Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1899 home at 951 Chicago Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois. In her book Rehab Right: How to Rehabilitate Your Oakland House Without Sacrificing Architectural Assets (City of Oakland Planning Department, June 1978), Helaine Kaplan-Prentice identified the style as Eastern Shingle Cottage, perhaps for lack of a closer analogy. Indeed, it appears that a closer analogy simply does not exist. Although many of the high-peaked Colonials in Berkeley and Oakland are completely shingled and quite unadorned, there are numerous others that display telltale hybrid traits: while the upper story is shingled, the ground floor is clad in shiplap siding, a prominent gable window might be Palladian, and the porch columns are distinctly Neoclassical. In some cases, the entire house, including the gable, is clapboard-clad—often in two gauges: wide above, narrow below.

Mark A. Wilson came closer in his book A Living Legacy: Historic Architecture of the East Bay (Lexikos, 1987):

High-Peaked Colonial Revival House, c. 1895–1915

This transitional form of the Colonial Revival house has a steeply pitched main gable; slanting dormers on the sides; small corner porticos; balustraded or Palladian windows in the gable; and shingling on the upper surfaces and clapboarding on the lower ones. A house on the 1600 block of Bonita Street in Berkeley shows this style effectively.

Illustration by Ann Johnson

Even Wilson’s description, precise as it is, does not allow for the myriad hybrids and variations found within the genre. In West Berkeley, I have come across several astonishing cross-breeds between Victorian architecture and High-Peaked Colonial Revival. At 1510 Harmon Street (photo above), the high-peaked gable roof is planted on top of an Italianate ground floor.

1601 62nd St. at California: fishscale shingles on the gable, turned spindles on the porch (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

829 Delaware St.: fanlights, extravagant shingle patterns, arched porch (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

The Queen Anne hybrid at 1601 62nd St. sports fishscale shingles on the gable and turned spindles on the porch. At 829 Delaware St., the top of the extravagantly shingled gable displays a sheaf of wheat in a cup, surmounted by a painted oriental onion motif. The ground-floor windows are crowned with fanlights, and the porch arches are punctuated with whimsically squat columns, also seen in the Italianate hybrid on Harmon Street. This house used to stand on the grounds of a nursery on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. It was moved to Delaware St. in the 1980s to make room for an office building. Steve Finacom, who saw the building go by on its way to West Berkeley, recalls that the top few feet of the roof had been taken off for the move.

829 Delaware St. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

1601 62nd St. (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

829 Delaware St. (photo:
Daniella Thompson, 2005)

And what is one to make of the Wright House (1898–99) on the corner of Milvia and Francisco Streets, with its hefty twin shingled gables connected via a soft curve; its rotund bay with a miniature Palladian window on top; the oversized bay window in the front gable; and the single neo-Ionic porch column?

Francisco St. fašade

Wright house, 1729 Milvia at Francisco (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2005)

In short, it appears that notwithstanding the Eastern Shingle Cottage style, our humble High-Peaked Colonial Revival is in a sub-genre all its own. Furthermore, it can’t be easily defined or described. The only constant feature is the large, triangular front gable—at times very steep, at others only moderately so. High-Peaked Colonial Revival houses come in innumerable variations and are embellished with a bewildering array of ornaments or, as the case may be, with none at all.

Continue to Part 2

See also:
Colonial Revival buildings in Ashby Station

Essays & Stories

Copyright © 2005–2021 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.