Dating back to the 1600s, saltbox houses remain simple, traditional, and steeped in history.

By Tim Latterner
July 15, 2020
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Whether escaping the city for a summer road trip through quiet New England towns or roaming picturesque streets dotted with Colonial-era houses as you gaze at the fall foliage, a trip to the Northeast United States practically ensures you're treat to some of American Colonialism's finest architecture. One great example is the saltbox home. These houses, known for their flat front, centered chimney, and asymmetrical roof that slopes down toward the rear of the home, reflect a very traditional aesthetic. But despite the fact that the style dates all the way back to the 1600s, plenty of saltbox houses are still standing today, and there are lots of ways to make them feel fresh and modern for your contemporary family. "I have always loved the perfect imbalance of a saltbox house. The function of the two-story front and deeply-sloped back roof inspires all kinds of landscaping opportunities," says designer Alison Rose. "Playing with scale, and the trees and things that surround the home are all such integral parts of any design of one, inside and out."

What Is a Saltbox House?

Originally named for the wooden salt containers commonplace in the era, saltbox houses are typically built from wood and easily spotted by their long, slanted rear roof. The style was first formed by homeowners wanting to add an addition to existing homes with a lean-to from the rear and refinishing the roof. The sloping, extended roof also helps snow melt easier in the harsher New England winters. Because of the lower slant off the pitched roof, saltbox homes have two stories in the front of the building and only a single story in the rear. It's also said that the tax on two-story homes, levied by Queen Anne in the late 1600s and early 1700s, helped popularize the style as the single-story rear section rendered the architectural design exempt from the tax . As a means of preserving the history of the style, several well-cared for examples of saltbox houses are on the National Register of Historic Places.

"This tax gave rise to an architecture grateful and inviting, with long curving roofs sloping evenly from each side of the ridge-pole to the upper line of the first story, thus giving but one story that would count, while the roof covered two of three more," says Jane de Forest Shelton of the style in her book The Salt-Box House: Eighteenth Century Life in a New England Hill Town.

What Makes a Saltbox House Popular?

Today, saltbox homes have stretched far beyond their New England roots. Modernists and traditionalists alike enjoy the style either for its heritage and history or its sleek, angular lines. A favorite of professional designers, saltbox houses have a lot to offer because of the versatility in its simple layout and linear look. "The geometry of the house is so clean and simple," says interior designer Kelly Siekierka. "Anyone looking at this style of home should try to honor the history foremost, but also make as much use of the light-filled rooms as possible, thanks to the large windows around the exteriors."

The interior architecture of the house also works to reflect some of the surrounding natural elements using post-and-beam construction and wooden trusses. With the homes often set among the trees and nature, designing one today would require considering the natural elements in any plan.

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