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4 historic buildings to inspire your perfect tiny house

Big on history, tiny in footprint

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

It seems like so many of the tiny houses touted about these days reference modern architectural styles. Whether they’re sleek geometric huts made of plywood or innovative structure constructed out of corrugated metal, the angular designs seem to best suit those who favor architecture of the second-half of the 20th century.

But what of the rest of us? What of the people whose heart melts when they see delicately carved woodwork, land-laid stone walls, and true divided-light windows? Surely there must be a way for us to get in on the tiny-house action, too.

As it turns out, there are a number of smaller-scale structures from past architectural movements and styles that, given a few adaptations—like the addition of modern utilities—would make for wonderful tiny houses of their own right. Here are four of our favorites.

1. Dovecote

Excited for next Saturday sept 24th 10am-4pm. When #clovebrookfarm has it's @thegardenconservancy #gardenconservancyopendays #gcflowerpower

A photo posted by Christopher Spitzmiller (@christopherspitzmiller) on


Dovecotes, or pigeonniers, were used throughout western Europe as homes for both doves and pigeons. They take many shapes, from the turret-like dovecote in the lead image above to more square building shapes. The tradition of building and using dovecotes, which help protect a good source of food (think eggs and pigeon meat), stretches all the way back to Ancient Rome. It gained popularity in medieval France and ultimately spread throughout most of Europe. Some are still found stateside—and a select few are still being built today, like the above hexagonal dovecote in the stunning garden of ceramicist Christopher Spitzmiller in upstate New York.

Alas, we were not the first people to consider the dovecote to be an ideal starting point for a tiny-house design. The house below—a riff off of a square dovecote—is a perfect example of how this style can be translated for today’s tiny house movement. It even seems like there’s enough space to have separate living and bedrooms...or simply a stunning double-height room.

2. Summer kitchens

Back at the beginning of the summer, we investigated the history of summer kitchens after coming across an intact example in a late-18th century farmhouse not too far from the banks of the Hudson River. TL;DR—these were clever bits of practical architecture usually made of stone or brick that separated the hot and sometimes dangerous task of cooking away from the, um, wooden, house that would ideally like to be kept at the coolest possible temperature in the summertime.

These kitchens wouldn’t even need that much adaptation to turn them into a tiny house. They're already designed for daily life—heck, they even come with a fireplace.

3. Garden folly

England in the 18th century saw an appreciation of the picturesque, idealized and not-entirely-true visions of the past and other cultures. What became popular was to dot the sprawling landscapes of grand country houses with recreations of small Roman temples, Chinese pagodas, Egyptian pyramids, or even fake ruins of antiquity—anything to give an international flair to the design and connect it with the past. The building would be constructed entirely for its artificial, decorative function (hence the usage of the term folly).

While we may not recommend replicating a ruin for a house (the concept of having an intact roof over our heads is one we won’t want to give up), many of the structures—with their colonnaded porches and carved niches—would mean that your tiny house would certainly stand out from the rest.

4. Lighthouses

While racking our brains for other types of architecture with small footprints, we couldn’t help but think of lighthouses—specifically Boston Light, which just celebrated its 300th birthday. The famed lighthouse, the only one still staffed by the United States Coast Guard, is made of white brick and metal.

The tradition of lighthouses extends back into the time of antiquity, but lighthouses as we know them today first emerged in England in the early 18th century, when engineers were trying to solve the problem of how to successfully navigate ships around the notoriously dangerous Eddystone Rocks off the southwestern tip of England.

Similar to the dovecote, the lighthouse presents the opportunity to build upwards, easily presenting the opportunity to divide the small space into defined living and sleeping areas. And hey, if you build it on a waterfront piece of land, maybe you can help navigate a ship or two into a harbor.