Legacy of German-American Architecture

February 4, 2021 by Bonn Brandt

From Barn to Skyscaper

Distinctive German-American architecture exists today in churches, barns, homes and commercial buildings from the north to the south of the United States.

Whether in the city or in the countryside, for a long time the architectures of German immigrants functioned as cultural centers of German-American life. German settlers imported their traditional architecture consisting of barns and a number of other agricultural buildings.

Drawing of the Case-Dvoor farmstead
The historic Case-Dvoor Farmstead

Johan Philip Kaes (later anglicised to Case) was born in 1680 in Anshausen, Rhineland, Germany. Together with his wife he reached America in 1720. He built a log cabin at the west bank of Mine Brook, Pennsylvania in 1738 with the help of local tribesmen.

Chief Tuccamirgan became a close and life-long friend with the Kaes’s. Following the Chief's death in 1750, Tuccamirgan was buried in the Case family cemetery.

Germans in rural areas expressed their ethnic heritage through traditional architecture consisting of barns and other agricultural buildings.

German Bank Barn

The Germanic influence set the standards for barn construction. Along the National Road from which the Germans moved west, they built bank barns that had been developed beforehand in Pennsylvania.


German Bank Barn

Originating in southern Germany and Switzerland, the German bank barn was constructed on a large scale by Germans who migrated west.


German-American vernacular architecture

Vernacular buildings in Pennsylvania reflect the strong cultural ties of the state's early settlers from the German-speaking areas of central Europe. The Germanic influence is most evident in the southeastern part of the state, where German settlement began in the early 1700s.

German Colonial House

Traditionally, early stone houses were built over a spring to provide running water and a cool area for storing food in the basement. Some houses were built into an embankment or hillside, partly underground, for similar reasons of cold storage, as well as cost and material efficiency.

The German two-door house

Family in front of double front doors house

Double front doors are a unique design in Germanic architecture. The simple German two-door house has two front rooms: a formal living room on one side and an informal family living room on the other.

German Colonial double-front-doors House

The lounge was used for receiving guests or hosting formal events such as weddings and funerals. The living room was used for daily living and eating. The 19th century German immigrants who settled in the Midwest also built the two-door house.


Buildings of faith

Fredericksburg was founded in 1846 and welcomed the first generations of German colonists. In search of land and opportunity, they arrived with an extensive repertoire of Old World building traditions and knowledge.

The architecture of Fredericksburg, Texas, is unique to the Texas Hill Country. The historic buildings are the work of the German immigrants who settled in the region in the nineteenth century.

The Hill Country was predominantly inhabited by Apache and Comanche. The founders of the town of Fredericksburg succeeded in establishing and maintaining good relations with the native Comanche, which was an exception in the history of settlement in the West.

Fredericksburg Vereins Kirche

The octagonal church in the center of Fredericksburg, built in 1847, is known as the "Coffeemill church."


In the second half of the nineteenth century, round-arch style architecture became popular through the architects of the German diaspora. They built religious and commercial buildings throughout the United States.

St. Bonaventure Church in Raeville, Nebraska

St. Bonaventure Church, located in Raeville, Nebraska was designed by architect Jacob M. Nachtigall in Romanesque Revival style and built in 1917-19.


Round arch style was commonly used in synagogue architecture. An early example in the United States is the Gates of Heaven synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, built in 1863 and designed by August Kutzbock, an immigrant from Bremen, Germany. Kutzbock also designed secular buildings with round-arched styles, such as the Carrie Pierce House (1857) in Madison.

Gates of Heaven Synagogue

Designed by German immigrant August Kutzbock for the Madison Jewish community, the Gates of Heaven Synagogue (1863) in Wisconsin is the eighth oldest synagogue in the United States.


Prominent examples of late 19th- and early 20th-century German round-arch architecture can be found in brick and stone industrial and commercial buildings in a number of urban locations.

The Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Constructed in 1879-1881 originally as the United States National Museum, today's Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building was designed by two German Americans, Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, to showcase the collections for the 1876 United States Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia.

William Ulmer Brewery

The main brew house and the extension were built in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1872 by Theobald Engelhardt. The stable warehouse was designed by Friedrich Wunder in 1890. Much like other German breweries, the Ulm brewery buildings were designed in the German Renaissance round-arch style.

Germania Club Building

In 1888, the Germania Club building in Chicago was designed by the German-American architectural firm Addison & Fielder and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Pioneers of the modern loft buildings

The Sohmer Building

170 Fifth Avenue, also known as the Sohmer Building, is a masterpiece by German-American architect Robert Maynicke. It is his most extravagant work. 170 Fifth rises from its two-story rustic columns to an octagonal spire topped by a gilded dome.


Less is more, an avant-garde contradiction

German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was an important figure of the Bauhaus in Berlin. He arrived in the U.S. in the late 1930s, introducing his powerful, innovative, and original ideas on architecture.

Seagram Building

The Seagram Building was constructed when Park Avenue transformed from an upscale residential address to a prestigious business location. The building epitomises the ambition of a leading corporation to project its image in society through architectural patronage.

Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Seagram Building on Park Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets was completed in 1958. The building is regarded as an icon of modernism par excellence. The open space in front of the building was a bold statement at the time.

Ludwig mies van der rohe with model of the seagram building
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe by Irving Penn

"We refuse to recognize problems of form, but only problems of building. Form is not the aim of our work, but only the result. Form, by itself, does not exist. Form as an aim is formalism; and that we reject".


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