A-Frames: not as simple as they seem

Posted in: Cultural Resources

A-frame building with red roof
Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

A typical A-frame seems easy enough to define: a small, simple, triangular building. The more I learned about A-frames, though, the more I realized there are nuances to what actually constitutes an A-frame. The histories surrounding the style have predicated its form.

A-frames are buildings with steeply pitched, symmetrical, roof truss systems. This form became popular for small vacation cabins after World War II, making the second vacation home more attainable for middle-class Americans. Homeowners could purchase kits that included plans and materials to build themselves, or contract with a local company. There are high-style residential examples, too: A-frames were also used for churches, restaurants, and motels throughout the country. The style permeated American culture—who can forget the Der Wienerschnitzel hotdog restaurant with its distinctive red roof?

In Colorado, the A-frame cabin became popular in the 1950s, as ski areas started to lure American families into mountain communities close to Denver. Usually nestled within a dense forest, A-frames featured deep overhanging eaves, multiple windows on the facade, rustic outdoor decks, and cozy accommodations, ideal for evoking feelings of comfort in guests.

Variations of the style developed to solve two of the most common critiques: the lack of natural light in the interior and the lack of floor space and head room due to the angled roof and walls. To combat this, the form could be built as a Gambrel, flat-top, or even an arch, usually with dormer windows that helped bring more light into the structure. Floor space and head room could also be increased with wings, nested A-frames, or staggered A-frames.

series of drawings of A-frame building types

Though A-frames seem simple on the surface, there is always more to learn and understand. The A-frame is a prime example of how a deceptively simple architectural style can actually reveal a lot about the histories that helped shape it. Learning what can and can’t be defined as an A-frame became a fascinating project—one that helps contribute to our understanding of how the culture in postwar America helped propagate a wide variety of architectural forms and styles.

Dianna Litvak

About the Author

Dianna Litvak is a public historian who specializes in surveying overlooked historic properties such as irrigation ditches, railroad grades, and roads. Her favorite recent projects include writing about building I-70 through Glenwood Canyon and Vail Pass, and researching the history of meatpacking at Denver’s Union Stock Yards. When she isn’t reading or writing about history, Dianna loves to hike, cook, and travel.

Read more posts by Dianna Litvak

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