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A 1910 house in Spokane is a medieval take on the Swiss Chalet, with its clipped gable and huge brackets under the balcony.

The Swiss Chalet, 1885–1910

by Patricia Poore on August 16, 2011

in House Styles

ABOVE: A 1910 house in Spokane is a medieval take on the Swiss Chalet, with its clipped gable and huge brackets under the balcony. Photo by Linda Svendsen

Widely considered to be rare in the United States, the Swiss Chalet deserves more credit for its influence on bungalows.

Those picturesque wood details people tend to call “Craftsman” are actually chalet details: the wide, overhanging eaves, big brackets and knee braces, whimsical balustrades, exposed rafter tails, corbels and banding.

Hallmarks

  • Alpine Swiss Chalets and Swiss Chalet houses in America are typically squarish and two-and-a-half storeys high. (Chalet bungalows are one-and-a-half storeys.)
  • All have a style-defining low-pitched, front-gabled roof with wide eaves, supported by decorative brackets or exposed rafter tails. The houses often look as though the galleried second floor is the main floor, the ground floor secondary (and sometimes of a different material, especially stone or stucco). This mimics the chalets in Germany and Switzerland, which were often tucked into hilly slopes with only a partial first floor.
  • Balcony details are repeated in the porch balustrade on this Chalet Bungalow in Berkeley; the cut-outs look like exclamation points. Drawing by Rob Leanna.

    Balcony details are repeated in the porch balustrade on this Chalet Bungalow in Berkeley; the cut-outs look like exclamation points. Drawing by Rob Leanna.

    Balconies and balustrades are, along with the roof, the identifying characteristics of the Swiss Chalet. In the Alps, a wide gallery above the ground storey was typical. In this country, the balustrade morphed into a second-storey porch, a balcony, or simply a decorative effect.
  • Some American chalets were built entirely of wood. Others are brick, stone, or stucco with wood above. Earlier chalets might have ornate carving and even polychrome paint decoration. Decorative work appears to have structural use: gable ornament looks like a truss, brackets are oversized, and diagonal boards evoke framing timbers.

A Brief History of Chalet

ALPINE An Alpine (German, Swiss, Austrian, etc.) dwelling built for snow-covered mountain areas, usually in wood with a sloping gabled roof and widely overhanging eaves. Stucco and occasionally brick are also used, but decorative wood trim remains prominent. Generally a 19th-century type, based on ancient vernacular forms.

AMERICAN Swiss architecture was promoted along with other Romantic styles by Downing in the mid-19th century. “Swiss” cottages were popular in 19th-century England. The style was not widely built here, but did have brief periods of popularity during the 1850s, during the late Victorian era (when it was related to the Stick Style), and during the bungalow years of the early 20th-century. As a residential style, it is particularly associated with Cincinnati and seaside resorts in New Jersey.

RESORT Overscaled chalets with whimsical or bold wood details—decoratively cut rafter tails and vertical cladding, balconies, vergeboards, roof trusses, brackets—have long been built in ski areas and mountain resorts, for use as inns, restaurants, and lodges. In the hotel industry today, “chalet” is used interchangeably with “cottage” or “bungalow” to mean a small, discrete housekeeping unit.

A ca. 1900 Chalet in Milwaukee shows the influence of the Stick Style. Drawing by Rob Leanna.

A ca. 1900 Chalet in Milwaukee shows the influence of the Stick Style. Drawing by Rob Leanna.

VERGE & TRUSS European chalets generally have only a scalloped vergeboard at the eaves, and exposed (sometimes carved) rafters or knee braces as gable details. In this country, fanciful, non-structural trusses, brackets, and gable ornament were more common.

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