The center-hall colonial revival is a lot like a well-made tuxedo: It outlasts trends and is perfect for formal occasions. But, as with a tux, it's unyielding for everyday situations. The living room usually sits too far away from the kitchen and dining room to serve as the comfortable gathering area today's families want. And a solid wall barricades the kitchen from the dining room. While the arrangement suits a sit-down dinner party for the boss, it's not conducive to more relaxed meals and activities.

Most architects know a few tricks to loosen up the colonial within its original footprint. Sarah Susanka, architect and author of The Not So Big House, likes to create an opening behind the main stairs, connecting the living room and kitchen. On a recent remodel to a 1930s colonial, Guilford, Conn., architect Russell Campaigne, AIA, installed frosted pocket doors between the kitchen and dining room to lend some transparency. And Branford, Conn., architect Matt Schoenherr, AIA, author of the book Colonials, finds new purposes for formal areas. After adding on more casual spaces, he'll turn a little-used living room into a library, study, or game room.

The old-fashioned formality of colonials, though, is often what attracts buyers to them in the first place. People want both sides of the coin: proper living and dining rooms, as well as places to kick back and relax. So a popular strategy is a rear or side addition incorporating a new kitchen, family room, and breakfast room. Schoenherr cautions architects planning side-of-the-house additions against falling into a common trap. “The colonial is a very defined house type, with its two-story form and symmetrical facade,” he says. “Additions to the sides seem to work best when they step down and back so the original front stays central. If you extend the facade to one side, the house loses that central focus.”

As venerable as the colonial is, not everyone wants to keep its easily recognizable style intact. Its intricate moldings, especially on prewar versions, can be hard to replicate. And some owners just want a different kind of house. Boston Modernists Ruhl Walker Architects remodeled one by overlaying its traditional facade with simply clad planes that, as Will Ruhl, AIA, says, “act like a mask for the house behind.” The colonial also converts fairly easily to other traditional house styles. “In some cases, the objective is to make it more of a farmhouse,” Schoenherr says. “We'll add a porch to the front and stray from the colonial details.”

Private residence, Falls Church, Va.
Moore Architects, Alexandria, Va.
general contractor:
Jeff Beuttel, Columbia, Md.
project size before:
1,741 square feet
project size after:
2,967 square feet
construction cost:
$165 per square foot