Collage of Denver Square homes

What is a Denver Square?

October 21, 2019

The problem with a Denver Square is that virtually no one seems to know how to identify it. It definitely exists, as many realtors will tell you—but even they get it wrong when it comes down to properly recognizing the homes. There’s a good reason for that. The Denver Square is a regional term for a larger house style that was not actually named until 1982, even though it was popular between 1900 and 1930.

Thankfully, Old House Journal officially baptized it the “American Foursquare”—a name that finally stuck. Previously, the Denver Square had been called by many mundane terms, including “square home,” a home “of the square type,” and, rather unceremoniously, “American basic.” Since the Foursquare appeared across the entire United States, it developed local names specific to the cities and states in which it sprouted. Hence, Denver Square. But also Seattle Box, Prairie Box, and Cornbelt Cube.

Hallmarks of a Denver Square

First, here is a primer on the house’s basic features, as outlined by Patricia Poore in an Old House Journal article from 2018 titled “American Foursquare 1890 – 1930: A Favorite Type from a Transitional Period”:

  • Boxy shape
  • Hipped roof
  • Wide porch
  • Large windows
  • Quiet style

In layman’s terms, it’s a square-shaped, two-story house with a big front porch and a little window peeking out from the center of a pyramid-shaped roof. Professor Amir Ameri, PhD, who teaches in the College of Architecture and Planning, said they generally have “four sides with a hallway running through the center and veranda in the front with a centrally placed door”—simple to describe and to build.

The shape for which it was eventually named offers various benefits, particularly in terms of affordability and space. With narrower city lots, the plan allowed for maximum use of the available land. Most Foursquares measured about 30 feet wide, according to Evelyn Montgomery’s 2018 article “Beyond the American Foursquare: The Square House in Period Perspective.” But the square gets squared: “The classic plan is based on a scheme in which rooms on each floor are arranged as four squares within a larger square,” Montgomery writes.

floor plan for a typical American Foursquare home
Typical floor plan for an American Foursquare home

Workhorse of middle-class domesticity

The American Foursquare was also affordable, thanks to a lack of Victorian ornamentation. And that lack of decoration necessarily gave the house a simple expression—which failed to please turn-of-the-century critics. In 1908, Midwestern Magazine said “the rage for square houses passed over Des Moines several years ago and left some hideous things in its wake.”

Paul Duchscherer’s book Beyond the Bungalow explains that the American Foursquare was one of the most popular all-prefabricated kit-home designs. U.S. residents from far and wide ordered square home plans such as The Manor, The Portland, and Modern Home No. 52. Some American Foursquares were duplexes in hiding, housing two families on each floor—inside a house with one front door. 

For people who could spend a little more money, the Foursquare could be customized with classic columns, turning it into a sort of Greek Revival cube, or with boxed porch posts, transforming it into an imitation Arts & Crafts Bungalow. “The details may vary a bit but the plan remained the same,” Ameri explains.

1910 photo of American Foursquares in Dallas, Texas
American Foursquares were built in Denver, as well as in cities throughout the U.S.

Lasting Impact in the Denver Landscape

To recap: the Denver Square is a local moniker for what became known as the American Foursquare. Denver’s version did sometimes feature an important difference through its materials, since the Denver Square was often constructed of yellow brick.

If you’re looking for Denver Squares, Ameri knows where to find them: “The Highlands is practically filled with them, they are also common in Washington Park and Capitol Hill—pretty much any older neighborhood in Denver.”

Many Denver Squares have already reached their 100-year anniversaries. “The foursquare buildings were intended to last, and they have,” said Ameri. 

typical Denver Square house
A typical Denver Square