The Characteristics That Define a Victorian House

Victorian House

For over 200 years, the dollhouse- like exteriors, intricate trims and vibrant colors of Victorian houses have been catching the eyes of potential buyers and causing millions of us to re-think our housing budgets. What some of us aren’t aware of, however, is that Victorian architecture in America isn’t limited to just one style; it’s actually a vast collection of different styles and approaches that all carry their own set of unique features and qualities. What defines and unites Victorian houses is the era in which they were created- i.e. the reign of Queen Victoria, a period which spanned 1837 to 1901. To find out more about the era, let’s take a closer look at the architectural styles that defined it.

The History

The architects of the Victorian era had the privilege of what few of their predecessors had: access to new technologies, affordable materials, improved availability and mass-transit. All these benefits came courtesy of the Industrial Revolution, the mid-17th/ early 18th century phenomena that swept Great Britain and the US, transforming their chemistry, manufacturing, and transportation industries and giving rise to their status as global superpowers. Post- revolution, architects could rely on the mass availability (and affordability) of ornamental fitments and decorative metal work for the first time, and they didn’t hesitate in incorporating them into their designs. Today, intricate brackets, spindles and fancy ornaments are all emblematic of Victorian era architecture. But there’s a lot more to Victorian design than fancy metalwork, as we’ll go on to discover.

The Styles

Of all the different architectural approaches that gained traction during the Victorian Era, there are 10 key styles that had the greatest (and most lasting) impact: Italianate, Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Folk Victorian, Shingle, Stick, Second Empire (Mansard), Richardsonian Romanesque, Eastlake and Octagon.

Manheim Park Victorian Home

Italianate Style

Italianate architecture came to prominence post 1845, just as the Victorian era began to hit its stride. While examples of its stylistic design can be seen across the States, Cincinnati, Ohio (along with its neighboring districts of Newport and Covington) are perhaps best known for their high concentration of Italianate buildings. Characterized by its romantic vibe, high square towers, low roofs, wide eaves and decorative brackets, the style is heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance (hence, no doubt, its name). The Italianate Style has its origins in the picturesque movement of the UK, an idea built around creating buildings fully in sync with their natural surrounds. The moment gained traction in the US thanks to the works of such architects as Henry Austin (1804-1891) and Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), who borrowed heavily both from the picturesque movement and the romanticism of the Italian Renaissance era. According to Thoughtco, the typical Italianate home will have a balanced, rectangular shape, 3-4 stories, overhanging eaves with ornate brackets and cornices, tall, narrow windows, heavily ornate doors, side bay windows and segmented arches above windows and doors.

Gothic Revival Style

Keeping one eye on the past and the other firmly on the future is a characteristic inherent to all great architects, and all great architectural styles. One of the best examples of this is the Gothic Revival style. Combining medieval architecture with modern technologies and newly available materials, the style became known for its elegant recreations of Gothic buildings. While it may have cast the flying buttresses aside, the delicate wooden carvings, ornamental fittings, grouped chimneys, pinnacles, pointed windows, battlements, clover shaped windows, pitched gables and leaded glass are all highly reminiscent of medieval England. The lacy wooden bargeboards and factory-made ornaments, on the other hand, made sure the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution weren’t going to waste. One of the most prominent figures in the movement was New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis. Davis was, among other things, responsible for creating one of the best-known examples of the Gothic Style in Lyndhurst, an impressive country estate in Tarrytown, New York that is considered by many to be one of the grandest mansions in the US.

gothic victorian house

Queen Anne Style

Want to know how to recognize a Queen Anne style house? Look for rounded towers, pediments, expansive, wraparound porches, a strong bilateral symmetry, wooden shingles over brickwork or terracotta tiles, classical columns, and (more often than not) a front garden with a wooden fence. As you can imagine from this extensive (but not exhaustive) list, the Queen Anne style is one of the more elaborate of those of the Victorian period, perfectly encapsulating the inventiveness and creativity of the architects of that era. The Queen Anne style itself is all- encompassing term that covers 3 distinctive sub-styles: 1) The Spindled Queen Anne. This is the most typical and common variant of the Queen Anne style. Buildings in this style are something similar to gingerbread houses, with lacy, decorative spindles and delicate porch posts. 2) Free Classic Queen Anne. What this style lacks in decorative spindles, it makes up in classical columns, palladian windows and dentil moldings. 3) Half-Timbered Queen Anne. Thick porch posts and decorative, half timbered gables are the two defining features of this sub-style. 4) Patterned Masonry Queen Anne. More commonly found in the city than the country, Patterned Masonry Queen Anne buildings can be recognized by their attractively patterned brick, stone or terracotta masonry.

Folk Victorian Style

As the CraftsMan Blog notes, the Folk Victorian Style is the most commonly found style of historic home in the US. The style gained popularity between 1810-1910 as an affordable alternative to the pricier Queen Anne and Second Empire styles of design. In its essence, the Folk Victorian Style is simply a pimped up folk home; the founders of the movement took the bare bones of a rustic folk home, added a few pretty dressings, and voila- a new style was born. The style gained traction largely as a result of the expansion of the nation’s infrastructure: architects could now rely on the railroads to transport all the machinery needed to craft the cheap, mass-produced Victorian detailing needed to transform a simple folk home into a highly ornate, unique dwelling. Some of the characteristics most common to a Folk Victorian house are decorative detailing on the porches and cornice line, spindled or square beamed porch supports, lacy spandrels, jig-saw cut balustrades, simply trimmed windows and ornamental gables.

Shingle Victorian House

Shingle Style

Known for its austere simplicity, the Shingle style was, as Thoughtco notes, one of the most popular choices for the extravagant summer houses of the nation’s richest. Despite it’s somewhat misleading name, architects of the shingle style would as often use brick or clapboard on the exteriors of their buildings as they would shingle. The style is characterized by a rustic, informal elegance that marked a deliberate turning away from the more extravagant designs of the early Victorian period. Despite their simple features, Shingle style dwellings were rarely the domain of the underclass; more often than not, they were created as the weekend and holiday cottages of some of the nations’ wealthiest (case in point: the Walker’s Point mansion now owned by George W Bush).

Stick Style

A stick style house is characterized by its use of overlaying vertical, horizontal or diagonal planks to mimic the half-timbered frames reminiscent of Tudor buildings. The stickwork has no structural import but serves to create a decorative appearance that belies the otherwise simple nature of its design. Missing from a slick house are the elaborate scrolling’s, decorative ornaments or huge bay windows characteristic of Victorian era dwellings built in the Second Empire or early Queen Anne style (although some similarities with the later Queen Anne style can be found in the wrap around porches, paneled brick chimneys, and spindle detailing). Thanks to its simplicity and relative affordability, the style enjoyed much popularity towards the end of the 19th century and was widely used in the design of both private and public buildings. Classic examples of the genre can be found at the Chatham Train Station in Chatham, Massachusetts, the Swampscott Railroad Depot in Swampscott, Massachusetts, Hereford Inlet lighthouse in North Wildwood, New Jersey and Hinds House in Santa Cruz, California.

second empire victorian house

Second Empire Style (Mansard Style)

A house built in the Second Empire style shares certain commonalities with one built in the Italianate style. Both have a robust, boxy build, and both enjoy similarly decorative features. What distinguishes a Second Empire style house from an Italianate is its high mansard roof. In basic terms, a mansard roof has 4 sides with each side bearing two slopes. The lower slope is steep enough to sometimes appear vertical. The Mansard roof became popular during the 1860’s and 1880’s (after previously enjoying huge success in Paris under Napoleon III) for its immense practicality: the design offered enough attic room for space-poor city residents to convert into a usable living space. According to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, other notable characteristics of a Second Empire dwelling include elaborate detailing, rounded, arched windows with decorative surrounds and dormers, columned porches, quoins, towers, balustrades and an iron roof crest. One of the most prominent examples of the style can be seen at Philadelphia City Hall, which features a crested mansard roof, dormers with decorative hoods and heavily ornate window surrounds.

Richardsonian Romanesque Style

One of the most dramatic of all the Victorian era styles is the Richardsonian Romanesque. The style grew to popularity thanks to the pioneering work of Henry Hobson Richardson, who took the basic elements of the medieval Romanesque architectural style and incorporated enough modern elements, materials and functionalities to create some of the most significant buildings of the 19th century. The style is characterized by strong picturesque massing, rounded arches, short columns, solid masonry stone work, hipped roofs with gables (although mansard roofs and front gabled roof were more typically used in townhouses), decorative windows clustered in groups of three or more, and sunken doorways with arched tops, small columns and decorative trims. The style initially took off in the east of the country (see Richardson’s hugely impressive Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston as one the many examples of the style to be found in and around the city). It later spread to the west and gained some traction in Oklahoma before diminishing in popularity at the turn of the 20th century.

Victorian queen anne mint

Eastlake Style

In the last half of the 19th Century, a new movement began to sweep America that transformed the nation’s interior and exteriors. The reform was inspired by the works of English designer Charles Eastlake, a designer that encouraged homeowners to move away from the ostentatious furniture, thick upholstery and heavy draperies that had been so popular up until that point, and fill their homes instead with well-made, attractive items from workers who displayed a pride in their work, whether they crafted by hand or by machine. Eastlake’s book “Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and Other Details” contained numerous designs that were quickly taken up by others. Using new advancements in machinery and transportation, furniture- makers were able to reproduce Eastwood’s designs cheaply, easily and on- mass. The resulting furniture was characterized by simple, low relief carvings, moldings, incised lines, and geometric ornaments. The reform of the nation’s interiors soon spread to its exteriors; influenced by the fancy detailing, geometric lines, modest curves and light carvings of the popular new furniture, architects began to adopt the same style in their designs, turning away from the heavier, highly elaborate styles of the early Victorian period in favor of fresher, airier and although more subtle dwellings.

Octagon Style

The Octagon style enjoyed brief popularity between 1850 and 1870 after being introduced to the public by Orson Squire Fowler in his book “The Octagon House: A House for All”. The Octagon style built on the Italianate, Greek and Gothic Revival traditions to create a distinctive approach to architecture characterized by its light, airy feel and reliance on new innovations to create well-lit, economical dwellings renewed for the practicality and energy efficiency. As noted by Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, the Octagon style house is characterized by its octagonal, 8 sided exterior, low, hipped roof, wide overhanging eaves, a full or partially wrapped porch, and bracketed cornices. Although the style was relatively short- lived, it gained enormous traction among Quakers, largely as a result of the parallel between its simple, practical take on architecture and the Quakers own approach to faith.


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