Historic saltbox houses can be found sprinkled across the upper East Coast. Find out what makes this architectural style unique and the story behind the unusual name.

By Elizabeth Sweet
April 03, 2020
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The quaint New England saltbox house is as distinctive to the region as crisp fall foliage, rocky coastlines, and picturesque winters. Inherently charming in their simplicity, these historic homes are scattered along the East Coast from the southern and coastal areas of Maine through Connecticut and Rhode Island. Featuring distinctive rooflines and facades, saltbox-style houses are an iconic example of American colonial architecture. Although the style has historic roots, these homes remain popular today. Learn the history behind this house style (including where the name came from) and its distinguishing characteristics, then see some of our favorite examples of saltbox-style houses.

Pettengill House, a historic saltbox home in Freeport, Maine.
| Credit: Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

What Is a Saltbox House?

Built during the 17th and 18th centuries, American saltbox houses were named after commonly used wooden salt containers from the colonial period. Historic saltbox houses are easily identified by their signature one-sided sloped rooflines and simple colonial facades. They often include a symmetrical brick chimney, too.

The style originated as a quick, economical way to add living space to the back of an existing two-story home. Soon, these lean-to additions led to the popularization of the sloped roof style we see today. Early saltbox house examples from the 17th century are often additions; later builds were constructed with the sloped roof and additional living space included from the start.

Regardless of the period, however, saltbox houses were generally built to expand living space for families and help them weather New England's harsh climate. The sloping roof encouraged snow to melt more quickly in the sun while deflecting the strong winds common in that region.

Pettengill House, a historic saltbox home in Freeport, Maine.
| Credit: Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Fortunately, many saltbox houses are still standing today. A textbook example of saltbox architecture can be found in the picturesque Pettengill House, now managed by the Freeport Historical Society in Freeport, Maine. With its quintessential roofline and simple exterior, the home is described by Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., a Maine state historian, as a "nearly perfect example of the vernacular." Pettengill sits on an expansive saltwater farm near the Harraseeket River, and the house looks almost exactly as it did more than 200 years ago.

Saltbox dwellers of the past were typically farmers who maintained a strong connection to nature and weathered many challenging seasons. Shettleworth explains that owners of saltbox houses had "a very simple, rural existence that was tied directly to the land and the sea," he says. "Simplicity of the home itself was reflected in the life that happened within it; it was very much tied to the seasons and the challenge of getting through each winter."

A modern adaptation of the saltbox house style in Bridgehampton, New York.
| Credit: Ty Cole

Examples of Modern Saltbox Design

Both modernists and history buffs can find common aesthetic ground in saltbox-style homes. Modern adaptions of the style include renovations of historic saltbox homes, contemporary additions to existing structures, and new builds in the saltbox style.

A saltbox home renovation designed by Kelly Mittleman.

Left: Credit: Jane Beiles Photography
Right: Credit: Jane Beiles Photography

For example, designer Kelly Mittleman of Kelly + Co. Design updated a client's historic saltbox house in Redding, Connecticut, while preserving the home's characterful, original elements. Her goal was to make the circa-1725 home livable and fresh while preserving historic attributes. The result is a sun-filled, contemporary space with its original slanted ceilings, fireplaces, and floors still intact. "Those details have a romantic element to them that I'd never change," Mittleman says. "It is an updated home with its original soul and charm maintained."

In addition to new windows and mechanical components, the interior received a modern saltbox style makeover complete with a reconfigured kitchen, a fresh mix of furnishings, and new coats of paint throughout. Mittleman used Benjamin Moore's White Dove on all walls and ceilings for a consistently light and airy feeling.

The fresh wall color draws attention to the timeworn beams above, which are original. Mittleman finished them with a simple whitewash treatment to brighten but also preserve. All original floors were refinished using a wax coating to protect them for years to come.

A saltbox home addition designed by architect Christine L. Albertsson.
| Credit: Peter Bastianelli-Kerze

Originally designed by Minnesota architect Carl Stravs in 1923, this historic saltbox home received a modern, Scandinavian meets barn-style addition thanks to New England native and architect Christine L. Albertsson. In addition to cozy space within the original structure, a new cantilevered building with creekside views offered additional living space for a young family, complete with a sunny modern kitchen and master suite.

Interestingly, the front door of the historic home was originally centered on the facade opposite the sloping roof (facing away from the street). To improve curb appeal and usability, Albertsson shifted the entrance to the right side, adjusting the architectural plans and saving a generations-old, original oak tree on the property.

Strategically placed windows in the new addition maximize natural light, provide sweeping views, and offer privacy from close-by neighbors. Despite the challenges of working within a limited footprint, the old and new sing together in harmony.

A modern saltbox-style new build designed by architect Sarah Jacoby.
| Credit: Ty Cole

This new build in Bridgehampton, New York, designed by architect Sarah Jacoby, demonstrates a contemporary spin on a simple saltbox form. While the quintessential roofline is a thoughtful tribute to the history of the region, Jacoby's modern adaption serves a practical purpose as well. "For this particular project, it was more about site-specificity, climate, and environmental efficiency," Jacoby explains. The saltbox slope helps the home withstand extreme weather conditions while minimizing energy expenditure. The sloped roof also includes solar panels that reduce the use and cost of energy for the homeowners.

Jacoby continued to innovate the saltbox roofline by incorporating skylights (these provide great natural light from above in several spaces) and adding rooftop snow guards to ensure large amounts of snow did not slide off of the steep metal roof all at once. She chose rough cedar cladding for the exterior because this knotty, natural material minimizes maintenance and patinas beautifully over time. Ultimately, Jacoby found the saltbox style to be easily adaptable for modern use. "It has the lines and form of a modernist house coupled with the environmental efficiencies of a centuries-old vernacular style."

Whether it takes the form of an addition, historic renovation, or new home, modern interpretations of the saltbox-style house have enduring appeal. These sturdy, simple structures have housed New Englanders for hundreds of years, and the saltbox's charm doesn't appear to be waning anytime soon.

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