Building Influence

  • The Brooklyn Bridge in New York City was designed by German-born American civil engineer John Augustus Roebling. Photograph by MACLEK LULKO/Courtesy Flickr

From log houses to iconic buildings, examples of German-inspired architecture can be found across the United States. 

From President Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin and rural German-style buildings in Texas Hill Country to the skyscrapers and famous bridges of U.S. cities, Irwin Richman finds multiple examples of German-inspired architecture in the United States. A specialist in American arts and architecture, Richman traces the influence of German immigrants on American style and structures in his book, “German Architecture in America: Folk House, Your House, Bauhaus, and More.” He is also the professor emeritus of American studies and history, humanities at Penn State Harrisburg in Middletown. 

German immigration to the United States began in the 1600’s. By the late 1620’s, German immigrants started settling in the Dutch New Amsterdam, renamed New York in 1664. This was followed by German Lutherans and other church people and sectarians escaping Europe’s religious wars to settle in Pennsylvania from 1683 to 1790. In 1848, another wave of mostly German economic refugees to the United States was followed by the settling in of Christian and Jewish intellectuals and professionals. Finally, due to the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930’s, many German artists, architects and engineers made their way to the United States.

German heritage

Across the United States, reminders of German heritage abound, from city and town names like Berlin and Hanover in New Hampshire, and Rhinebeck in New York, to the breweries of Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and Schlitz. “The impact of Germans on architecture has been multifaceted, from folk architectural traditions to our most sophisticated built environment, with some of America’s iconic landmarks designed by German architects,” says Richman.

For instance, the Brooklyn Bridge, the 1883 engineering feat connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan Island in New York, was designed by German-born American civil engineer John Augustus Roebling and completed by his son George Washington Roebling. The Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., was designed by John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, a German American architect.

Architectural modernisms
In the 1930’s, renowned architect Walter Gropius left his job as the director of Germany’s legendary art school, Staatliches Bauhaus, and brought Modernist architecture to America. While serving as the chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Architecture from 1938 to 1952, Gropius designed his Modern house in the Bauhaus style in Lincoln, Massachusetts, as the perfect statement of the new architecture melding traditional and industrial materials, including the newly developed glass blocks. Now owned by the Historic New England, a nonprofit preservation organization, the Gropius House has been declared a National Historic Landmark. 

Gropius’ name is often associated with the reputation of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design as the cradle of American Modernist architecture. According to an article in Harvard Magazine, “His tenure at Harvard marked the end of the academic French Beaux-Arts method of educating architects. Gropius’ philosophy grew out of his leadership of the German Bauhaus: an emphasis on industrial materials and technology, functionality, collaboration among different professions, and a complete rejection of historical precedent.”

Another pioneer of Modernist architecture was German American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of Bauhaus. He influenced an entire generation of architects while tenured as head of the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1938 to 1953. His iconic works include the Seagram Building, designed in conjunction with American architect Philip Johnson, in New York City in 1958. Inspired by Mies’ design of Farnsworth House near Chicago, Johnson created his famous Glass House in Connecticut in 1949.

Folk architecture

Examples of German folk architecture dot not only the landscape of states adjacent to New York, the initial immigrant destination, but also surface in the Kentucky one-room log cabin of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, and in churches and farms of the Midwest. Half-timbered “fachwerk” homes, infilled with brick or rubble stone and plastered over for weatherproofing, are found throughout early German-settled areas. Pennsylvania is often deemed the birthplace of the American concept of log homes. “The homes used German log technology for their three-room floor plan with a kitchen (küche), a parlor (stube) heated through the back of the kitchen fireplace and an unheated bedroom (kammer) downstairs and three bedrooms with no central hall upstairs. The logs were often sheathed with siding and looked from the outside like normative English-influenced architecture,” says Richman.

Tracing the bank barns built in Pennsylvania and through the Great Valley of Virginia reveals a German migration route to North Carolina. The two-level bank barns were built into a hill and gave farmers a lower level for their cattle, with their hay and grain stored directly overhead.

Coast-to-coast influence

Midwest cities in the United States are replete with examples of German-inspired architecture like St. Louis Union Station, Milwaukee City Hall and the efficient glass-walled automobile factories of Detroit. “The German influence was so widespread that in 1843, a Republic of Texas law called for the printing of all laws in German as well as English,” says Richman.

By 1855, New York City had the most German-speaking people in the world, following only Berlin and Vienna, with many living in the Kleindeutshland “Little Germany” neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Credit must be given to German immigrants in cities across the country, who became the architects and patrons of numerous Modern and Post-modern 20th-century landmarks. The Waldorf Astoria hotel and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City were built or started by multi-generational Germans as were Texas’ Neiman Marcus department store and Cincinnati’s Music Hall located in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. This area’s distinctive name comes from its builders and early residents—German immigrants of the mid-19th century. 

With these and many other landmark structures across the United States, German influence on American architecture has created a lasting legacy.


Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.