American Victorian Architecture, Homes From 1840 to 1900

American Victorian Architecture, Homes From 1840 to 1900

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Victorian architecture in America is not just one style, but many design styles, each with its own unique array of features. The Victorian era is that time period that matches the reign of England's Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. During that period, a distinct form of residential architecture was developed and became popular. Here are a few of the most popular house styles-known collectively as Victorian architecture.

The developers of Victorian homes were born during the Industrial Revolution. These designers embraced new materials and technologies to create houses like no one had ever seen before. Mass-production and mass-transit (the railroad system) made ornamental architectural details and metal parts affordable. Victorian architects and builders applied decoration liberally, combining features borrowed from many different eras with flourishes from their own imaginations.

When you look at a house built during the Victorian era, you might see pediments which are characteristic of Greek Revival or balustrades echoing a Beaux Arts style. You may see dormer windows and other Colonial Revival details. You may also see medieval ideas such as Gothic windows and exposed trusses. And, of course, you'll find lots of brackets, spindles, scrollwork and other machine-made building parts. Victorian-era architecture was emblematic of the new American ingenuity and prosperity.

Italianate Style

Italianate Lewis House in Upstate New York. Jackie Craven

During the 1840s when the Victorian era was just gearing up, Italianate style houses became the hot new trend. The style spread quickly across the United States via widely-published Victorian pattern books, many still available in reprints. With low roofs, wide eaves, and ornamental brackets, Victorian Italianate houses are reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance villa. Some even sport a romantic cupola on the roof.

Gothic Revival Style

W. S. Pendleton House, 1855, Staten Island, New York. Emilio Guerra/Getty Images

Medieval architecture and the great cathedrals of the Gothic age inspired all sorts of flourishes during the Victorian era. Builders gave houses arches, pointed windows with diamond-shaped panes, and other elements borrowed from the Middle Ages. Diagonal window muntins-dominant vertical dividers in the windows, as seen here on the 1855 Pendleton House-are typical of the 17th century Post-Medieval English (or First Period) style homes built by English colonists, such as seen on the Paul Revere house in Boston.

Some Victorian Gothic Revival homes are grand stone buildings like miniature castles. Others are rendered in wood. Small wooden cottages with Gothic Revival features are called Carpenter Gothic and are very popular even today.

Queen Anne Style

Albert H. Sears House, 1881, Plano, Illinois. Teemu008 via, CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

Rounded towers, pediments, and expansive porches give Queen Anne architecture regal airs. But the style has nothing to do with British royalty, and Queen Anne houses do not resemble buildings from the medieval times of the English Queen Anne. Instead, Queen Anne architecture expresses the exuberance and inventiveness of industrial-age builders. Study the style and you'll discover several different sub-types, proving that there's no end to the variety of Queen Anne styles.

Folk Victorian Style

Folk Victorian Home in Middletown, Virginia. AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) (cropped)

Folk Victorian is a generic, vernacular Victorian style. Builders added spindles or Gothic windows to simple square and L-shaped buildings. A creative carpenter with a newly-invented jigsaw may have created complicated trim, but look beyond the fancy dressing and you'll see a no-nonsense farmhouse right there beyond the architectural detail.

Shingle Style

Shingle Style Home, Schenectady, New York. Jackie Craven

Often built in coastal areas, Shingle Style homes are rambling and austere. But, the simplicity of the style is deceptive. These large, informal homes were adopted by the wealthy for lavish summer homes. Amazingly, a Shingle Style house isn't always sided with shingles!

Stick Style

Emlen Physick Estate, 1879, Architect Frank Furness, Cape May, New Jersey. Vandan Desai/Getty Images (cropped)

Stick style houses are, as the name implies, decorated with intricate stickwork and half-timbering. Vertical, horizontal, and diagonal boards create elaborate patterns on the facade. But if you look past these surface details, a stick style house is relatively plain. Stick Style houses don't have big bay windows or fancy ornaments.

Second Empire Style (Mansard Style)

Evans-Webber House, Salem, Virginia. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

On first glance, you might mistake a Second Empire house for an Italianate. Both have a somewhat boxy shape. But a Second Empire house will always have a high mansard roof. Inspired by the architecture in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, Second Empire is also known as the Mansard style.

Richardsonian Romanesque Style

Old Red Courthouse, 1892, Dallas, Texas. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

U.S. architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) is often credited with not only reviving the medieval Romanesque architectural style, but also transforming these romantic buildings into a popular American style. Constructed of rusticated stone with rough surfaces, Romanesque Revival styles resemble small castles with their corner turrets and identifying arches. The style was often used for large public buildings like libraries and courthouses, but some private homes were also built in what became known as the Richardson or Richardsonian Romanesque style. The Glessner House, Richardson's Chicago, Illinois design finished in 1887, not only influenced the Victorian-era styles of American architecture, but also the future work of American architects such as Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Because of Richardson's great influence on American architecture, his 1877 Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts has been called one of the ten buildings that changed America.


The Eastlake Styled Frederick W. Neef House, 1886, Denver, Colorado. Jeffrey Beall via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (cropped)

The ornate spindles and knobs found on so many Victorian-era houses, especially Queen Anne homes, were inspired by the decorative furniture of English designer Charles Eastlake (1836-1906). When we call a house Eastlake, we're usually describing the intricate, fancy detailing that can be found on any number of Victorian styles. Eastlake style is a light and airy aesthetic of furniture and architecture.

Octagon Style

McElroy Octagon House, 1861, Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco, California. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In the mid-1800s, innovative builders experimented with eight-sided houses. The thought behind this design was the expression of a belief that more light and ventilation was healthier in a sooty, industrialized America. The style became particularly popular after the 1848 publication of The Octagon House: A Home For All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building by Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887).

Besides having eight sides, typical features include the use of quoins to accentuate the many corners and a cupola on a flat roof. The 1861 McElroy Octagon House in San Francisco has a cupola, but it is not seen in this low angled photograph.

Octagon houses can be found from coast to coast in the United States. After the Erie Canal was finished in 1825, the stone mason builders never left upstate New York. Instead, they took their skills and Victorian-era cleverness to build a variety of stately, rural homes. The James Coolidge Octagon House in Madison, New York is even more unique for 1850, because it is inlaid with cobblestones - another 19th century fad in more rocky locales.

Octagon houses are rare and are not always inlaid with local stones. The few that remain are wonderful reminders of Victorian ingenuity and architectural diversity.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Bright, Michael. "Cities Built to Music: Aesthetic Theories of the Victorian Gothic Revival." Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984.
  • Garvin, James L. "Mail-Order House Plans and American Victorian Architecture." Winterthur Portfolio 16.4 (1981): 309-34.
  • Lewis, Arnold and Keith Morgan. "American Victorian Architecture: A Survey of the 70's and 80's in Contemporary Photographs." New York: Dover Publications, 1886, reprinted 1975
  • Peterson, Fred W. "Vernacular Building and Victorian Architecture: Midwestern American Farm Homes." The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12.3 (1982): 409-27.


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