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The Victorian Styles:
Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic & Eastlake
J. M. Edgar, JD, CMC
Victorian house styles flourished after the Civil War in 19th century America. The trend throughout the 19th century was toward more ornate homes showcasing the increasing wealth produced by the Industrial Revolution. Mass production processes had made even very elaborate ornamentation relatively inexpensive, and the expansion of railroads made it possible to ship great quantities of mass produced goods into every city and hamlet. This abundance was increasingly reflected in American housing styles and decoration.
Gothic Revival (1840-1880)
The relatively simple Gothic Revival style was the first departure from the rectangular Colonial footprints of the 18th century. Earlier houses, built primarily of local materials, were usually devoid of ornamentation except what could be laboriously produced by local craftsmen. It was expensive and thus sparely used. Victorian architecture changed all that. The Gothic house was the first example of industrial abundance reflecting the increasing wealth of Americans. Its irregular shape, arched windows and steeply pitched complex roof, elaborate vergeboard trim along roof edges, high dormers, the use of lancet windows and other Gothic details heralded a break from the less elaborate architectural styles of the earlier period.
Simple Gothic houses were built for middle-class owners all over the Midwest, often by itinerant carpenters who stayed around just long enough to build the house and any furnishings required, then moved on. Many were also commonly built from kits sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other "ready-cut" house kit makers such as Aladdin. The house came as pre-cut lumber in one or two boxcars, complete with a detailed instruction book, ready to be assembled by the homeowner or a local builder.
As the industrial base of the United States grew, so did the nation's prosperity and wealth. The simple Gothic style fell out of favor with the very well-to-do who moved on to more elaborate designs for their mansions and estates. In the latter years of the 19th century, only a few stone and brick versions of the Gothic house were built for the prosperous. But, the style endured as a favorite of the rising middle class, and continued to be widely built in Folk Victorian and Carpenter Gothic versions, mostly out of wood, until the very end of the Victorian Era.
Its enduring popularity owed much to the endorsement of period trend makers like Andrew Jackson Downing, a noted architect of the pre-Civil War era who believed the style ideal for modest dwellings suitable for the middle class. Downing featured Gothic style cottages in his widely-admired and influential Architecture of Country Houses1 (1850), which ensured their widespread and continuing popularity.
The Italianate style began in England in the 1840s. For most of two centuries English homes had tended to be formal and classical in style, following the trend established in the 15th century by Christopher Wren. With the Italianate style, however, builders began to move toward romantic, fanciful recreations of Italian Renaissance homes.
When the Italianate style migrated to the United States in the late 1840s, it was almost immediately stamped with a purely
American character — much less fanciful and much more practical. It was widely adopted almost immediately, due
in large part to the support of Andrew Jackson Downing, who featured the style in his two very influential books,
Cottage Residences1 ( 1842) and
Architecture of Country Houses2 (1850). both Widely read by architects and members of the public alike. His endorsement set off a wave of Italianate home-building around the country. As a result, by the late 1860s, Italianate had become the most popular house style in the United States, admired by such notables as Lt. Gen. and later President Ulysses S. Grant, who at various times owed at least two of them.
The homes were typically two to three stories high, with flat or hip roofs, corniced eaves, fanciful bay windows with inset wooden panels, corner boards, two over two double-hung windows, Corinthian-columned porches and a square tower or cupola. The windows often had curved or molded window caps. It could be built of just about any material — stone and brick for the affluent, wood siding for the rest of us, and it could be scaled to fit even a fairly modest budget. The elaborate moldings and pressed metal fittings required for the style were becoming abundant and cheap due to growing mass production.
Its primacy was short lived, however. Starting in the 1870s it was being overtaken by more ornate late Victorian styles such as Queen Anne and Eastlake, and by the 1890s was retired. During its short reign, however, a great many were built. The prosperity resulting from the Civil War and increased industrialization made the 1870s something of a boom time, resulting in lots of building, primarily in the Northeast but also in the then rapidly growing Midwest.
When people think "Gingerbread House" this is the style they most often have in mind. Stick style is considered by some architectural historians to be a transition between simple Gothic Revival and later, more ornate Queen Anne houses. Others believe the style to be a high Victorian elaboration of the venerable gothic style without the defining Gothic elements.
Popular from about 1860 to 1890, there is little question that the style was built on Gothic foundations, but was also greatly influenced by new construction technologies just becoming available: most notably the lighter and more flexible "balloon" or "stick" framing with dimensioned lumber which was replacing more ponderous post and beam framing used up to that time. Stick framing started in Fort Dearborn, Illinois, a town of fewer than 100 inhabitants. After the invention of stick framing by Augustine Taylor in 1833, most houses in town were built using this innovative, easier, faster system. At the time, local builders thought the notion of light framing was so ludicrous that they ridiculed it as "balloon framing," saying the buildings were so light they would just float away in a good breeze. They didn't. In fewer than 60 years the town had a million inhabitants and had been renamed Chicago.
The style is recognizable by the relatively simple layout typical of Gothic designs, frequently accented with trusses or decorative shingles on the gable ends. Large, wrap around porches, and bold paneled brick chimneys are design features the style carried over into the Queen Anne period. Stick-Eastlake expanded the simple cross-gable roof lines of the Gothic house into complex, intersecting roof planes that were bequeathed to Queen Anne houses as a defining design feature. The houses often feature enormous, overhanging, second-story porches which led to the name "Swiss Chalet" houses.
The single most distinguishing design feature of the style is small vertical, horizontal, or diagonal planks placed on top of the exterior walls. Elaborately decorated and very fanciful Stick houses are often referred to as the "Eastlake" style because of the lavish use of furniture designer Charles Eastlake's favorite ornamentation, the spindle. Eastlake himself hated the style, and even filed a lawsuit to have his name disassociated from it. Obviously, he was not successful.
During its fairly short primacy a great many Stick style houses were built, but relatively few survive when compared to more enduring styles of Victorian architecture. In part this is due to the fact that most Stick houses were wood, and more susceptible to fire. But, in many cases, the cost of keeping the elaborately detailed houses in repair proved too much for later owners. Spindles and elaborate exterior detailing broke and went missing or succumbed to storms and the elements, and were difficult, if not impossible, to replace. So, a great many of these houses faded into decrepitude over the years and were eventually torn down. The few that survive, such as the privately owned Charles Yates House, pictured above, located in Lincoln's Near South Neighborhood are architectural treasures well worth the cost of preserving.
Second Empire (1865-1880)
After the American Civil War, French influence crept into American residential architecture in the form of the Second Empire style. The house was typically 1-1/2 or two stories tall with a mansard roof. It sometimes featured a tower
that was at least as tall as the rest of the house, and often extended above the roof of the main part of the structure.
The style originated with the rebuilding of much of Paris during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, called the Second Empire. The characteristic French mansard roof style, which gives the Paris skyline its unique character, migrated into American architecture as the defining element of the style. Typical design features include tall, narrow windows on
the first floor with dormer windows that project from the roof ("eyebrow" dormers) and round cornices at the top and
base of the roof. Brackets below the eaves, balconies and bay windows were common as was wrought-iron galleries or "crests" above the upper cornice. A small entry porch is also very common.
The mansard roof and narrower eaves distinguish the style from Italianate which often has the same rectangular form and similar detailing.
Second Empire was supplanted with the revival of the Queen Anne style and its many variations by 1880.
Queen Anne (1870-1910)
When most people think "Victorian house", the image in their minds is often of a story book Queen Anne with its gabled roofs, angled bay windows and turret or tower.
Common from about 1870, Queen Anne houses were built of stone, brick and wood siding. Wood siding was usually clapboard, but combinations of siding styles: clapboard with shingles and board and batten are common. Exterior
decoration was more or less elaborate: more if the house was up-scale, less if not. Towers, turrets, wrap around
porches, and other fanciful architectural details were typical. But many such homes, especially middle-class houses built without the aid of an architect, lacked elaborate ornamentation. Essentially, any Victorian Era home with a turret or tower is probably going to be classed as a Queen Anne no matter the amount of decoration.
The style at its most extreme is characterized by overwhelming excess, featuring large projecting bay windows, towers,
turrets, porches (often on multiple stories), balconies, stained glass decoration, roof finials and crestings, curved walls, carvings and/or inset panels of stone or terra-cotta, cantilevered upper stories, acres of decorative trim,
patterned shingles, belt courses, elaborate brackets, banisters and spindles — even the chimneys on Queen Anne houses were often spectacularly crafted.
A large, open, spacious porch that often wrapped around to the side of the house — often called a veranda — was one of its most striking and identifiable features. Some houses featured cupolas and detached gazebos to anchor elaborate gardens.
Shingle Style (1875-1910)
The Shingle style is a muting down of elaborate Victorian fussiness that evolved from the vacation homes and hunting lodges of the well-to-do. It is considered by many to be the bridge style between High Victorian excess and the simple and earthy Craftsman and Prairie houses of the early 20th century.
Many shingle houses were indeed built as summer and vacation homes. But, as the style grew more popular, it began to appear in suburban developments as middle class housing, primarily along the Atlantic coast, but also in the mid-west where there remain many fine examples.
The style is distinguished by the use of natural or single-color shingles as exterior covering. Rarely are corner boards used. Shingles are usually woven at the corners. The house lacks elaborate ornamentation of other Victorian styles — the often elaborate stone work and shingles were considered all the ornamentation needed.
One of the best examples in Nebraska is the Arthur C. Zeimer house in Lincoln's Near South Neighborhood completed in 1910. Mr. Zeimer was a self-taught interior designer and evidently designed the building himself. In any event, there is no architect known to be associated with the building of the structure.
The foundation, circular tower and arcaded porch were built of Colorado Redstone, while the remainder of the house is covered in wood shingles originally stained moss green. The interior is classical except for the library which is more in the style of H. H. Richardson with its high, vaulted ceiling and large arched windows featuring stained glass.
Mr. Zeimer was a Christian Scientist and the library was used intermittently as a Christian Science reading room open to the public. A portion of the original grounds is now a city park. The house is in the National Register of Historic Places and still privately owned.
Unlike most other Victorian styles, the Shingle style is purely North American. It has no European antecedents. It was never built in abundance, so surviving examples are fairly rare. The style is most notable not for the elements of its design, but for the fact that its very existence heralded the coming demise of Victorian opulence, and the beginning of a return to simplified forms that eventually culminated in the earthier architecture of the Arts & Crafts period.
Richardson Romanesque (1880-1890)
Henry Hobson Richardson was the first American architect to break away from European traditions in designing structures that were truly original American styles. The grandson of Joseph Priestly, generally acknowledged for his discovery of oxygen, Richardson studied at Harvard and Tulane in the U.S. and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Heavily influenced by designer William Morris and philosopher John Ruskin,
both regarded as founding fathers of the Arts & Crafts movement that had begun to eclipse Victorian styles by the end of the 19th century, Richardson returned to earlier, simpler medieval forms in his architecture.
Most of the buildings designed by Richardson himself (as opposed to one of his students) were massive stone public works such as the Trinity Church in Boston and the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, for which his heavy
Romanesque style was especially well suited.
But, the style also migrated to the private residences of the well-to-do, and fit nicely with the elaborate Queen Anne houses then in vogue. Richardson's
use of rugged stone and natural materials with a minimum of applied ornamentation also influenced the features of the more free-form Shingle style,
particularly in the work of Charles F. McKim and Stanford White, both of whom worked and studied under Richardson.
R. O. Phillips was a founding resident of Lincoln, a Town Trustee and Clerk of the original Board of Trustees that chartered Lincoln (then called Lancaster) as a "city of the second class" in 1871. His house in Lincoln's Mt. Emerald Historic District, designed by J. H. W. Hawkins and completed in 1890, is an example of the Richardson influence on late Victorian residential design. The heavy stone structure shows elements of Queen Anne styling, but the rugged stone facade, "Roman" patterned stone supporting the porches, and gothic roof line are all typical Richardsonian design elements. The exterior of the house has been restored. The interior was divided into luxury apartments in the 1980s, but the owners were careful to preserve its distinct Victorian character, including the staircases, woodwork and plaster walls.
Folk Victorian & Carpenter Gothic
While architects were building stately stone and brick Queen Anne and elaborate Eastlake homes for the one-percent, we "just folks" were also building houses and taking full advantage of the growing availability of consistently dimensioned lumber, inexpensive steel nails, fancy mill work and the national network of railroads to transport materials from where they were made to where they were needed.
Variously called "Folk Victorian", "Prairie Gothic", "Frontier Victorian" or "Carpenter Gothic" and derived largely from the Gothic Revival style, these houses became common from about 1850 as middle class residences.
Gothic design elements such as pointed arches, steep gables, and towers were added to traditional frame construction. The style received considerable impetus from the publication of detailed plans and elevations in pattern books, the most notable of which
was The Architecture of Country Houses1 (1850) by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852).
Downing, a landscape designer, long-time editor of the Horticulturist magazine and architect, had a profound influence on American architecture of the last half of the 19th century that is still felt today. He is, for example, credited with the popularization of the large front porch or veranda as a necessary transition between the house and nature — which is the primary reason American houses up to about 1941 commonly featured generous porches, while European housing did not, and still does not. After 1941 this transition structure did not disappear from American housing, it just moved to the back yard for better privacy where it now takes the form of patios and decks. If you are lucky enough to own a pre-War house, you probably have both a generous front porch and a back patio or deck, or both. For these useful and pleasant adjuncts to the American home, you can thank the creative vision of Andrew Jackson Downing.
Downing died at age 37 in a boiler
explosion aboard the Hudson river paddle-wheel steamer Henry Clay on July 28, 1852, but during his short 15-year professional career Downing was a prodigious worker and prolific writer on nature, horticulture, landscaping, architecture and social betterment. He profoundly believed that a "good home will encourage its inhabitants to pursue a moral existence," a view shared by many of his contemporaries.
Downing, however, put the theory into practice with Country Houses and his very influential earlier book Cottage Residences, written In 1842, with Alexander Jackson Davis. The pattern book of house designs featured Carpenter Gothic house styles. Both he and Davis were proponents of the style as sensible, comfortable, housing for the growing middle-class. Jackson's books are one of the reasons the style persisted for most of a century.
As the re-designer of the Mall in Washington D.C. in concert with the building of the Smithsonian Institute, and the landscape architect for the White House, Downing became something of a minor celebrity, and his books were very influential. Country Houses went well beyond being just a plan or pattern book, detailing the processes involved in building a house, including such arcana as how to make paint and stain from local materials, how to design effective ventilation, and how to build a fireplace that draws well. The book is very interesting reading, even today.
Downing's influence survived his lifetime. His student and partner, Calvert Vaux with junior partner Frederick Law Olmsted designed or redesigned many of the major public parks in America, including Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, and the nation's first state park, Niagara Reservation, in Niagara Falls, and the nation's first municipal park, Elm Park, in Worcester, Mass. Downing and Olmsted are generally considered the founders of American landscape architecture.
Downing was not a fan of elaborate applied ornamentation. His view was that houses should fit into their natural setting. Nature provided all the decoration needed for a properly sited and landscaped house. Any other decoration was just an unnecessary distraction. His viewpoint largely prevailed.
Folk Victorian houses, especially rural houses, were relatively unadorned, retaining only the basic elements of tall narrow windows and steep gables and lacking the towers, bay windows and elaborate moldings of the grand Victorian styles. The invention of the steam powered scroll saw and mass-produced wood moldings allowed builders to use factory-made detailing to mimic High Victorian houses made of stone and brick, but for the most part they used it sparingly. In part this was a matter of cost — even though available, factory-made moldings, with shipping added, were still not cheap. But, it was also a matter of taste. Rich decoration might be suitable for the bankers and robber barons, but in most middle class neighborhoods, modest decoration was the norm. Anything more was "putting on airs."
The most common siding was clapboard followed by board and batten, and the most common decoration, if any, was site-made scroll work. A Folk Victorian stayed a simple, work-a-day, house: solid, practical and long lasting for most of the Victorian century. Very long lasting. Folk Victorians were still
being built in this area in the 1940s, and many built in the late 19th century are still very much in use.
Victorian Interiors: The Evolution of Opulence
A Victorian house was arranged as a showroom up front with family quarters and service areas at the rear. The public areas of the home, the parlors and drawing rooms, were the show places, intended for display and designed to showcase prestige and social status; to awe and impress visitors with the wealth, refinement and good taste of the homeowners… more »
1. Downing, Andrew J., Cottage Residences, New York, Wiley & Putnam (1842) is available for reading on line courtesy of Google Books.
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