What’s behind, and underneath, Queens’ thousands of gambrel roofs? The story of the borough’s “Dutch Colonial” architecture is only partly Dutch and dates to long after the period of colonial rule, but it has everything to do with how architecture, however inaccurately, makes claims of ethnicity and belonging. As Queens developed tract by tract in the first decades of the twentieth century, houses that referred to the city’s Dutch and English past allowed second generation immigrants to claim a stake in white “American” identity, separating themselves from their past — and from New Yorkers of other races. But the endlessly adaptable architecture of the borough’s thousands of Dutch colonials now shelters the households and businesses of a polyglot, multiethnic borough. Scholar, photographer, and Queens resident Joseph Heathcott explores the constructed history and many reconstructions of Queen’s Dutch roofs.
After 350 years, it might seem that the Dutch and the English are still struggling for control of Queens. But instead of cannon and musket, they fight it out through the proxy of architecture. Today, we associate the gambrel roof with Dutch colonization, while the gable evokes images of Cape Cod cottages and other forms preferred by the English. Indeed, the intermingling of thousands of gambrel and gable roofs across New York City’s largest borough echoes a distant and very real conflict over territory, influence, and values. And yet, the correspondence between architectural forms and national identity can be misleading. After all, what’s in a roofline?
Like the humble gable, the gambrel is a two-sided form, distinct from the simple flat roof as well as more elaborate four-sided hip and pyramid roofs. Where the gable roof presents one continuous slope, however, the gambrel incorporates two: a shallow pitched slope extending from the ridge, connected to a more steeply pitched slope terminating at the eaves. The pitches of the two sides vary from one roof to another based on factors including the builder’s preferences, the function of the structure, the span that needs to be covered, and regional traditions. Some gambrels flare at the bottom, while others cantilever over their eaves. The chief advantage of the gambrel over the gable style is to extend the amount of space beneath the roof.
Regardless of variation, we usually refer to homes bearing this roof as “Dutch Colonial,” to distinguish them from other revival styles. But the term obscures a more complicated history: the gambrel roof is neither strictly Dutch, nor was it a common architectural feature of Dutch colonization in the New World. Today, the gambrel roof can be found in abundance in nearly every neighborhood of Queens, from College Point to the Rockaways, and from Astoria to Bayside. Tracing the career of the gambrel roof through Queens gives us insight into the changing relationships between architecture, identity, and social life.
Before the arrival of European colonists, a network of Native communities dotted the landmass of Long Island, speaking varied Algonquian dialects and laying down place names such as Canarsie, Rockaway, Manhasset, and Montauk. After initial forays into the region, the Dutch West India Company began awarding land grants in 1636 to Dutch and English settlers in what would become Queens County. In 1647, New Netherlands director-general Willem Kieft chartered the small village of Breuckelen. While Brooklyn would eventually dominate Kings County, Queens grew much more haphazardly, with settlement radiating outward from five principal towns: Flushing, Hempstead, Jamaica, Newtown, and Oyster Bay.
The expansion of Dutch and English settlements from the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries sparked conflicts with Native communities. This led to a long process of violent displacement, as Native groups fled North into the Hudson Valley. At the same time, the Dutch and English colonizers fell into frequent disputes. The Flushing Remonstrance, written by an English Quaker in defense of religious tolerance and adopted informally by the New Netherland governors, sat uneasily with the policies of the Anglican Church. While ordinary Dutch and English farms were typically smallholds organized for self-sufficiency, wealthy Dutch colonists held the largest tracts of land, and made the most extensive use of slave labor to clear land, build homes, and plant crops. As the English struggled to develop larger-scale plantations, the extent of Dutch land holdings frustrated their ambitions. Meanwhile, the Dutch of Bushwick and the English of Newtown fought constantly over the boundary between their towns.
The tables turned when the British Royal Navy took control of New Netherlands in 1664. From that point on, English rapidly became the lingua franca of trade and negotiation across Long Island. Modes of governance changed too, as the British adopted the county system to manage the colonies more effectively, establishing Kings and Queens counties through royal decree in 1683. But the Dutch maintained their language well into the 18th century, and continued to spar with English neighbors over land rights, boundaries, legal interpretations, and religious worship. Though the region was now formally one territory, the amalgamation was not uniform, and national particularities persisted even as Dutch power waned.
Amid these frequent disputes, colonists in the New World had to get on with the ordinary task of building houses. To this end, they brought with them widely varying carpentry skills as well as architectural “pattern languages” — mental maps of what a home should look like. In places like Queens, where people from a range of homelands mingled, builders quickly borrowed ideas, technical know-how, and architectural fashions from one another.
Within this multiethnic building culture, there was no fixed association of the gambrel roof with Dutch settlers. After all, neither the gable nor gambrel roof was distinct to Dutch or English culture, but rather shared across parts of Northern Europe, from Midlands England to Flanders, Brabant, Palatine, Wallonia, and Northern France. Colonists from these areas brought the gable and gambrel roofs simultaneously to the New World. More common traits that marked out the homes of Dutch colonists included the use of double-hung windows, front doors divided in two top-to-bottom, open pit “jambless” fireplaces, liberal use of stone and brick, and heavy “anchor-bent” H-frame timber construction.
Moreover, even at the height of Dutch colonialism during the 17th century, both English and Dutch settlers tended to build houses with gable roofs. The oldest surviving Dutch residences in New York City, the Wyckoff house built by Pieter and Grietje Claesen in 1652 and the Rikers family home built in 1654, as well as the oldest English house built by John Bowne in 1662, all feature simple gable roofs.
What we call the “Dutch Colonial” style did not really emerge until well after the period of Dutch colonialism. In the early 18th century the gambrel roof became popular for new construction in the Netherlands, influenced by the double-pitched gable-hip roofs common in the Dutch East Indies. The style spread to England, and eventually to the United States. English colonists began to refer to this dual-pitched roof as a ‘gambrel,’ after the Norman French term for the upper joint in a horse’s hind leg (gambe). The English used the same word for the butcher’s hook used to hang carcasses. The Onderdonk house in Ridgewood, one of the few surviving Dutch-American buildings from this period, features a gambrel roof on top of an English Georgian plan typical of the mid-eighteenth century.
Meanwhile, carpenters from Boston found themselves displaced by the French and Indian Wars of the 1750s, migrating into the Hudson Valley and greater Mid-Atlantic. They brought knowledge of and preference for the gambrel roof with them from New England, where the style was very popular for new construction. By the late 18th century, gambrels dotted the agricultural landscapes of New York and New Jersey, popular both for the space afforded under the bent roof and for the tax savings: the Federal Direct Tax levied in 1798 listed gambrel roof houses as one-story.
Dutch culture and influence in New York faded over the 18th and 19th centuries. To be sure, it left a lasting mark in dozens of place names such as Brooklyn, Bushwick (Boswijk), Flushing (Vlissingen), Wall Street (de Waalstraat), Nassau, Harlem, Kips Bay, and Staten, Rikers, and Coney Islands. Wealthy families such as the Stuyvesants, Van Burens, and Roosevelts continued to exert economic and political influence. Celebrated author Washington Irving kept interest in Dutch-American culture alive through Romantic portrayals of the upstate New York villages and farms where he lived. The humble gambrel roof, however, slowly disappeared from the landscape, replaced throughout the 19th century by French style apartment buildings and Federal row houses more suited to a rapidly urbanizing region.
The gambrel roof might have disappeared forever, were it not for the Colonial Revival that swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Largely a reaction to mass immigration and urbanization, the Colonial Revival plumbed the nation’s past for architectural forms suitable to express “native” sentiments. The highly popular Tudor revival style, for example, connected Americans with a supposedly long, unbroken Anglo-Saxon tradition. Georgian, Dutch, and Federal revival designs likewise emphasized the nation’s roots in Western European culture. Such architectural fictions re-asserted White Protestant dominance in a country increasingly characterized by racial, religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity. Those regions undergoing rapid urban expansion in the first three decades of the twentieth century, proved fertile ground for the proliferation of revival styles.
In this period of feverish metropolitan growth, the gambrel roof made its re-appearance under the guise of the “Dutch Colonial.” Indeed, the roof and the style became inextricably linked. Of course, the revival styles did not convey whole cloth the building and construction traditions they referenced. Architect Laura Kingston’s design for a small gambrel roof home won the 1899 “Cheap and Tasteful” competition run by Carpentry and Building magazine. With the scarcity of large timber stock, her design made use of mass-produced dimensional lumber. Traditional techniques of mortise-and-tenon joinery and anchor-bent framing gave way to nailed box frames and wall studs. Rather than hand crafted elements, her house made extensive use of pre-fabricated windows, roof trusses, build-ins, and floors. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Sears Roebuck & Co. marketed gambrel roof house kits such as The Rembrandt, an “unusually well-arranged Dutch Colonial house.” Sears delivered the $2,393 kit on a truck with all necessary lumber, lath, wallpaper, piping, gutters, hardware, siding, paint, and finishing materials.
Meanwhile, the open, multi-use room configurations that once provided flexibility to large extended farm families disappeared. After all, these rusticated interiors bore an uncomfortable resemblance to tenement life in the rapidly expanding cities. Instead, Colonial Revival homes tended to rise on a Georgian floor plan, with configurations that encoded middle-class values into the very architecture. Small, companionate nuclear families would interact through spatially segmented zones, such as separate kitchens, bedrooms, and parlors. Central heating and plumbing proved highly desirable for middle-class families, and were bundled into all new house plans by the 1920s. The “Dutch Colonial” house, like all revival styles, was essentially a modern box wrapped in a skin of architectural signifiers.
These architectural signifiers proved popular, as tens of thousands of second-generation immigrant families fled the crowded tenements, ethnic enclaves, and racially mixed streets of Manhattan. In Queens, they mingled in a landscape of open spaces, wide thoroughfares, and racially exclusive tract housing suitable to the forging of a shared white “American” identity. Revival styles satisfied the desires of Italian, Irish, Polish, German, and Russian families to connect to American traditions, laundering old-World particularities through symbols of Colonial lineage. The Federal Housing Administration underwrote this conflation of landscape, architecture, and racial identity by restricting mortgages to a narrow range of traditional and revival styles in new, racially segregated tract developments. In this sense, the rapidly expanding areas of Queens, with their revival styles and extensive use of racially restrictive covenants, fit the FHA profile of low-risk investment.
The Dutch Colonial revival rode a wave of popularity in the 1910s and 1920s. Metropolitan regions in the Northeast and Midwest that experienced rapid expansion during that time contain a disproportionate share of the style. And few places exploded like Queens, incorporated in 1898 as a borough of New York City. From a scattered population of 152,000 people in 1900, Queens swelled to 470,000 in 1920, and to 1.3 million in 1940 — a nearly tenfold increase in 40 years. (Brooklyn, by contrast, only doubled in population to 2.7 million during the same period, as much of Kings County had already filled in by the early 20th century.) Dutch Colonial houses can be found throughout the borough, particularly in neighborhoods developed in the 1910s through the 1930s.
Sometimes one finds streets occupied by a series of gambrel-roofed homes. More typically, gambrel roofs stand cheek-by-jowl with all manner of house coverings in the borough’s jumbled architectural collage. Meanwhile, most gambrel-roof homes in Queens follow the pattern of their gable-roof and flat-roof neighbors by orienting the short side and front entrance to the street. Built on narrow lots, these Dutch Colonial Revival homes abandoned the Georgian floor plan in favor of a row house configuration typical of Queens, with rooms stacked front to back. They continued to hold out the promise of the home as the private realm for the fulfillment of the white middle-class nuclear family, but for people with relatively modest means.
Although the gambrel roof presents geometric challenges, its volume and flexibility made it popular in neighborhoods across Queens. The shift to standardized dimensional lumber and prefabricated roof trusses made construction of gambrel roofs even faster and cheaper. For a modest investment, small-time contractors could secure properties in a newly opened tract, purchase a builder’s kit with plans, order standard materials, and erect a row of new gambrel-roof homes. In this way, thousands of such roofs appeared throughout the 109-square mile borough in the span of a few decades. A census of the number of gambrels is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is surely in the many thousands. Meanwhile, this ostensibly ‘Dutch’ form can be found topping not only homes, but also offices and shops across Queens.
By the late 1930s, the Dutch Colonial Revival had largely run its course. At the 1939 World’s Fair, held in Flushing, “The City of Tomorrow” exhibit showcased the latest housing styles: the gambrel roof was nowhere to be found. Federal and Cape Cod styles were increasingly popular, and early experiments with ranch and split-level houses met with widespread approval. These styles, all of which qualified for FHA loans, would dominate the postwar American landscape. Meanwhile, in the scramble to fill in the last remaining tracts of land in Queens, builders shifted from detached structures to higher-density row houses and apartment buildings. But by that time gambrel roofs dotted the borough’s landscape, an obdurate reminder of an architectural passion that briefly swept the country. Today gambrel-roofed homes continue to provide relatively affordable and flexible options, showing all of the telltale evidence of adaptation that has made Queens so popular with newcomers.
The adaptability of the gambrel-roof houses of Queens reflects what architectural historian David Smiley calls “variety within standardization.” To explore this variety in greater detail, click on an image below to open a slideshow.
On a hot day in Jamaica, Queens, a group of kids plays around an open fire hydrant, a hallowed ritual of summer in New York City. Their families came to this neighborhood from the Caribbean and the Upland South, putting down roots and building a community. Like most Americans, they live in houses they did not build themselves, but which they have modified over the years. The fire hydrant gushes water onto the corner of 111th Avenue and 168th Street — a block with 16 houses, seven of which feature gambrel roofs. That the children cavort in front of a “Dutch Colonial” home is a minor detail compared with the fun of chasing each other into the street, running down the narrow gangways between the buildings, and splashing each other with cool water.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Colonial Revival homes in many Queens neighborhoods came to be occupied by an increasingly diverse population. Decades of Great Depression and World War had scrambled the borough’s residential make up. Black families launched successive challenges to residential segregation, culminating in the mooting of racial covenants by the U.S. Supreme Court (Shelley vs. Kraemer, 1948), the Fair Housing Act (1968), and the Community Reinvestment Act (1977). Large numbers of middle class African-Americans bought houses in Corona, Hollis, Flushing, and Jamaica. After passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, neighborhoods swelled with newcomers from South Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, who moved into Dutch and other Colonial Revival style homes across the borough. Indeed, the unpretentious and highly adaptable vernacular landscape of Queens proved attractive to families who sought a modest foundation for their social and economic mobility.
Amid the turnover, the connection of the so-called Dutch Colonial style to assertions of Western European prerogative quickly faded into the background, a lost and insignificant architectural memory amid the varied jumble of the nation’s most diverse county. In this sense, urbanism overtook architecture, damping the communicative power of individual houses. A style that once celebrated White Protestant nationhood has become, in the diverse communities of Queens, a home for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, and all manner of religious and cultural groups. If the gambrel roof continues to evoke “Dutch New York” it does so only in the most oblique and attenuated sense. Such meanings, once powerful, have long been superseded by the make-do pragmatism of a striving, polyglot Queens.