When you picture a Victorian house, you might envision a colorful dollhouse, or maybe an imposing haunted house comes to mind. Both are quintessential Victorian style homes, but Victorian architecture technically refers to the era and not a specific style. That era was, of course, the time when Queen Victoria reigned in Great Britain, from 1837 to 1901. As Grant Marani, a partner at New York’s Robert A.M. Stern Architects, explains it: “Victorian means different things to different people.” But generally, the styles that are most strongly associated with this time period “emphasize verticality, decoration, and a mix of materials and colors,” Grant says.
“What is most frequently called Victorian in America today is an exuberant version of the Queen Anne, with its roots in Great Britain,” Grant says, “or what is more properly termed Italianate.” These styles of homes surged in popularity in the United States in the mid- to late-19th century, spurred on by the 1876 Centennial International Exposition (the first official World’s Fair). The advancement of building techniques, the increased accessibility of diverse materials and ideas via new railroad systems, and more widespread house pattern books also further popularized these home styles as well.
So what exactly falls under the Victorian category?
The two architecture styles Grant noted to be the most famous of the Victorian period (Italianate and Queen Anne) are both technically revivals of earlier architecture styles, though both took on lives of their own and were “often exuberantly decorative without much concern for historical accuracy,” Grant says. Each has distinct characteristics (noted below), but what they have in common is an emphasis on vertical elements—homes often stood at two or three stories with tall windows and porches—and detailed ornamentation that almost bordered on over-the-top. After all, a running theme throughout the Victorian era was a prioritization of form over function.
Italianate homes were popularized first, beginning in the 1840s and lasting until after the Civil War, drawing inspiration from 16th-century Italian villas. The main structures were fairly simple, rectangular-shaped houses with low sloping or sometimes flat roofs that protrude quite far out from the exterior walls. The windows are tall and skinny, often rounded at the top, and there is trim, trim, and more trim. Some Italianate homes even feature a square tower or cupola that rises out of the center of the house, adding to the Tuscan villa feel. Italianate homes are seen in greatest number in the American cities that experienced exponential growth during the mid-19th century: Cincinnati, Ohio; New Orleans’ Garden District, and parts of San Francisco, and Brooklyn, New York.
Queen Anne homes, which were popular in the U.S. from the 1880s until around 1920, are theoretically a revival of the style du jour during the actual reign of Queen Anne (1702 to 1714), but there is very little resemblance in practice. Queen Anne homes are the quintessential Victorian home: They are asymmetrical, two or three (or more) stories tall, have steeply pitched roofs and large wrap-around porches. They are often adorned with differing wall textures and ornate trim—which gives them the “gingerbread” effect commonly associated with Victorian homes—that is typically painted in a variety of accent colors. Some Queen Anne homes also have octagonal towers (topped with a round pointed roof) and ornate bay windows—in short, nothing about these homes is subtle.
They’ve had good—and bad—reputations over the years.
Queen Anne homes are widely seen in San Francisco, and even more so than Italianate homes—a result of it being a “boom town” during this time period. The city’s most famous are undoubtedly the “Painted Ladies,” a block of Queen Anne-style townhouses painted three or more colors (you know them from the opening credits of “Full House”).
While the Victorian era officially ended in 1901, its accompanying architecture styles stuck around for another decade or so until the Colonial Revival movement surpassed them in popularity in the 1920s. But instead of just falling out of style, Victorian homes actually became disliked in the following decades. “There was a time when the Victorian house was considered an unwelcome presence in many neighborhoods,” Grant says. “Indeed, it became the stereotype for the ‘haunted house.’” But as Grant also notes, “Victorians' quirky charm has endeared them to new generations more recently.”
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