The History of Garrison Colonials

What makes this country great? Among other things, our heritage. And the preservation of our building heritage is no exception. Today we often wonder how styles came to be popularized and what their origins were.


With Boston’s rich history we are celebrating this July by looking at the Paul Revere house in Boston’s North End- a national historic landmark. It is downtown Boston’s oldest building and one of the few remaining 17th-century dwellings in a large urban area in the United States.


The original style of the home is a garrison colonial- two stories with the second story overhanging in the front. The traditional ornamentation can be four carved drops (pineapple, strawberry or acorn shape) below the overhang. Historically the term garrison means 1) a group of soldiers; 2) a defensive structure; 3) the location of a group of soldiers is assigned such as garrison house or garrison town. “The term garrison refers to the military or defensive character of a house,” but not as heavily built as blockhouses that came before. “Garrisons, or fortified houses, were built in almost all New England towns and they were particularly common in the frontier towns of Maine and New Hampshire…Like an ordinary house in plan and appearance, garrisons were used in times of peace as one-family dwellings but were strongly built and capable of protecting a number of families in times of danger”, like the American Revolution.


This house went through many iterations and alterations before Revere occupied it and after. Talk about a home with many lives-a remodeler’s dream- the house served over its lifetime as a sailor’s boarding house and immigrant tenement (as shown on the left) before having the ground floor converted to shops that were as varied as a candy store, cigar factory, Italian bank, and vegetable and fruit business (as shown on the right).


Today the garrison colonial continues to be a popular style because of its strong New England architectural roots and for increasing square footage on smaller lot sizes. The overhang can afford 1-3′ more livable square footage upstairs without affecting the setback limitations on the home’s foundation footprint. Garrisons take advantage of the vertical and shear strength of the building frame to provide more floor space. However, over time what is gained by this style home (sq. footage) there has also been something lost in translation which is the ornamentation that helps bring importance to the design detail. It is an unfortunate loss and something that is a sign of the times as developers built at a rapid pace in the last century.​​ Want to learn more about architecture? Read a short case study on how a Wellesley Dutch Colonial home morphed over the years and how we made it right again.


As a tenured builder in the remodeling space, I leave you with an interesting take on buildings and the respect they deserve. The Colonial Society of Massachusetts offers perspective the matter, “And a building is an artifact—a product of the needs, desires, and resources of the man for whom it was built. A building is not, however, a stable artifact. As time passes, needs change, owners sell out or die off, and an old building is altered to suit new purposes. An older building becomes a sort of palimpsest showing, in layers, the evidences of the men who have used it.”


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