The Architectural Styles of the 1920s and 1930s


The period "between the wars" -- from approximately 1920 through the 1930s -- witnessed the birth of a multitude of architectural styles, some of which shared a number of design elements. To accommodate technological advances such as central heating and indoor plumbing, building designs captured new ideals in beauty that simultaneously allowed for efficient form and function. The novelty of daily news from faraway lands that began during the war made the world seem a bit smaller, kindling an appreciation for the architecture of foreign cultures.

Revival Architecture

Spanish Revival

Spanish Revival style began in the 1920s. Homes were built in an open concept with ornate Moorish entryways and cascading archways, and the tiled roofs and stucco walls popular in Mediterranean countries often graced buildings of Spanish Revival style. Other elements incorporated included:

  • Terra-cotta tiled floors
  • Dark wood beams and doors
  • Wrought-iron grilles, gates and banisters
  • Arched window casements
  • Scrollwork embellishments

Mission Revival

Mission Revival resembled Spanish Revival; the Spanish were responsible for both sensibilities. Wood, stucco and tiles were also the building blocks of the Mission look; however, details such as bell towers and gabled roofs made the sister styles different from one another. Mission Revival also retained a measure of austerity that the more flamboyant Spanish Revival did not have. Mission Revival was a nod to the religious missions in the American Southwest.

Modern Architecture

Art Deco

As the country prospered after World War I, tastes began to change, and the Arts & Crafts Movement was replaced by Art Deco. Quaint and compact buildings were looked upon as old, and new construction had sleek lines, manufactured in materials such as chrome and concrete rather than natural components. Silhouettes loomed taller and taller, with ziggurats and spires crowning giant structures. The Chrysler Building was once the world's tallest commercial building, and, not coincidentally, was constructed during the pinnacle of Art Deco expression.

Pastels and fanciful colors, bold geometric motifs and exotic Eastern ornamentation embellished the nation's new money style. Carved doorway lintels were reminiscent of ancient sarcophagi. Even the smallest thresholds sometimes bore repeating patterns of stylized natural elements, such as ferns, shells and waves, tantalizing the eye and the imagination.

Art Deco architecture also incorporated:

  • Vertical lines
  • Flat, polished surfaces
  • Blocky, towering silhouettes   
  • Parapets and turrets 
  • Sharp corners
  • Large windows and glass blocks
  • Exotic themes blending Classical elements

Art Moderne (Streamline)

On just as grand a scale as Art Deco, Art Moderne was pared down and smoothed out, with an aerodynamic appearance. The advent of air travel, coupled with the modernization of other modes of transportation, had much to do with this speed-driven sensibility. Some Streamline architecture almost appears like the lines of a silver bullet train or a flying clipper ship when viewed through narrowed eyes.

Art Moderne retained the scale and symmetry of Art Deco architecture but dropped all remnants of any exotic and costly ornamentation. Angularity gave way to rounded corners; heights were reduced, and spans were augmented, giving horizontal lines the limelight. Building material colors were also more earthy in Art Moderne buildings, typically in ivory, sandstone or pumice tones.


As impressive as the other modern styles, International offered a further twist. It favored asymmetry and complete lack of embellishment. Bauhaus, a leading minimalist, was a leading force behind this branch of architecture. Although International was a mere step beyond Moderne, the difference was marked.

A premier example of the International style is the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) Building. Its stark, striated appearance is broken up by the narrow portion jutting perpendicularly out from one corner. Built in 1932, the skyscraper's look influenced additional designs in homes in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Depression and the looming war soon dampened the modernistic appeal for the time being, but not forever.

Minimal Traditional

The Minimal Traditional style emerged around 1925 and exploded after World War II: You or someone you know likely lives in a house built in this style. Unlike its showy counterparts, a Minimal Traditional-style home ushered in the "cookie cutter" house era. Compact, simple and constructed without emphasis on imagination, this style was compartmentalized and boxy with little to no ornamentation. Porches and overhangs were very small, if present at all. As small as bungalows but with less individualism, these houses filled a need for quickly built, cheap new housing.

Oftentimes a ranch house augmented by classical styles, such as Cape Cod, the minimal traditional house had many facades. These houses do not adhere to a formula of set architectural styles, such as number of dormers or proportional ratios. They were often built in the natural materials native to their geographical setting.

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