How Hard Work Built the West and Its Architecture

Hollywood loves to romanticize the Old West. From classic Westerns to stories of the gold rush, most of what we think we know about westward expansion is more the imagination of film directors and producers than actual reality. It was hard work that built the West more than anything else. You can see it reflected in Western architectural styles.

Sure, Western states had their own Greek and Colonial Revival periods. Even Mediterranean Revival was big on the West Coast for a short amount of time. But most of Western architecture was born out of a hard knock life that came with the decision to migrate from the east. Many of the same influences that determined the shape and scope of Western architecture at the turn of the twentieth century are still alive today.

Not an Easy Life


Long before settlers could think about building homes and businesses, they experienced a hard life just getting to the West. These days, we think nothing about hopping on a plane to fly from New York to California. Back in the day, they walked. Along the way they encountered all kinds of weather, wild animals, sickness and disease, hunger, and more. Just to make it to one’s destination was a major accomplishment.

Once there, settlers who filed land claims with the federal government had to erect houses and begin improvements within six months. Perhaps that was easier on land located fairly close to woodlands, but it wasn’t so easy in areas where trees were lacking. Many settlers had to start by building homes out of mud and grass. They had to get something in place in order to make good on their claims.

Building Houses and Towns


As more people began arriving from the east, smaller collections of houses gradually turned into towns. But unlike their Eastern counterparts, building methods and architectural styles were kept simple. Settlers had neither the money nor the time to build ornate dwellings with plenty of artistic flair. They had to settle for functional. They had to settle for simple. It turns out that they were the perfect audience for a Modernism movement that had just begun arriving from Europe in the late 1890s.

Wood ultimately took the place of mud and grass for frontier homes. It became the building material of choice in Western towns and cities because it was easy to work with and fairly cheap. As for glass, it was used sparingly in middle- and lower-class homes, though the wealthy thought nothing of ordering floor-to-ceiling windows manufactured in the East and shipped out on trains.

As cities grew and prospered, hard work was still the name of the game. Nothing came easy in the West and, to some extent, this is still true today. From farmers to cattle ranchers and blue-collar workers, Western states are still populated by hard-working Americans who know how to pull up their bootstraps and get to work.

Simplicity and Space


In states like Utah, Idaho, and Montana, you can still see influences of the old West in architectural designs that emphasize simplicity and space. Sparano + Mooney, based in Park City, UT, says that the most popular architectural styles in Western states succeed mainly because of these two characteristics. And no, architects have not forgotten the wood. Wood and stone remain popular choices among designers and builders alike.

Westward expansion was not easy. It was a lot of hard work without a lot of fancy things to go along with it. You can see it in the architecture of the day, architecture that still influences modern designers and builders.

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