A Detailed Beginner’s Guide to Victorian Architecture

If you live in a Victorian home, you should embrace both its quirks and elegance.

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Exterior of Victorian house

The Victorian era, spanning the reign of Queen Victoria, was a period of dramatic change in many aspects, but perhaps none more so than house styles. The variety and grandeur of Victorian houses remain a testament to this revolutionary epoch. Let’s delve into the intricacies of Victorian architecture that make these structures so captivating.

Brief History of the Victorian Era

The Victorian era, spanning 1837 to 1901, coincided with significant advancements in Britain. Rapid industrialization and the expansion of the railway network led to the growth of suburban neighborhoods. The distinct style of Victorian architecture began to flourish in these areas due to increase accessibility.

The period was marked by social reforms, improved sanitation, and the introduction of specific rooms for different purposes in houses. New construction methods allowed for the mass production of decorative elements, making the grandeur once exclusive to the wealthy accessible to more people. This era’s architectural evolution mirrored the significant societal shifts and technological progress of the time.

Common Victorian House Styles

From this innovation and creativity emerged several defining styles. Each style contributed to the eclectic character of Victorian architecture, including the most common:

Gothic Revival

Stucco Gothic Revival Victorian cottage

Victorian Gothic Revival houses looked back to the Middle Ages, with the spirit of the Gothic era captured in pointed arches, steep gables, and complex stone carvings. Builders showcased a reverence for medieval detail on everything from mansions to commercial buildings to cottages. These architectural designs imbue the Victorian landscape with a sense of nostalgia.

Stick Style

Stick style Victorian house exterior

Predominant in the United States during the Victorian era, the Stick style house was distinguished by its use of linear ‘stickwork’ on the building’s exterior to suggest the underlying framework. It acted as a transition between the Gothic Revival and the Queen Anne styles, emphasizing asymmetrical facades, decorative gables, and porches with diagonal or curved braces. Stick Style houses brought a rustic aesthetic to Victorian architecture, serving as a homage to craftsmanship and structural clarity.

Second Empire

Exterior of a Victorian Second Empire Home

Named after the reign of Emperor Napoleon III in France, the Second Empire style was popular during the late Victorian era. It is most recognizable by its distinctive mansard roof, complete with dormer windows. Additional features often include a square tower, elaborate brackets under the eaves, and tall, narrow windows. Second Empire buildings represented a sense of sophistication and worldly elegance, adding a touch of French flair to the Victorian architectural landscape.

Italianate

Victorian exterior of an Italianate hotel

Borrowing inspiration from the Italian Renaissance, this design favored symmetrical layouts, tall, gracious windows, and low roofs with broad eaves. The Italianate style brought a slice of Italian culture to Victorian Britain, painting the architectural scene with a touch of European elegance.

Queen Anne

Exterior of Queen Anne Victorian house

Arguably the show-stopper of Victorian styles, the Queen Anne style house was unashamedly ornate and was recognized by asymmetrical designs, large turrets, and grand porches. Its character was shaped by flamboyance and a joyous embrace of ornamentation. Beyond its extravagance, the style also served a practical purpose, offering spacious living areas, plenty of natural light, and a layout that fostered a unique blend of privacy and sociability within the home.

Learn More

If you want to dive deeper into the stylistic influences of this era, Judith Flanders’ book, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed, is an insightful read. The book not only explains the architectural intricacies of Victorian homes but also offers a fascinating view of life during the era.

Key Features to Know

What makes a Victorian home so distinctive? These structures include features woven with precision, flair, and an appreciation for the theatrical. Keep an eye out for:

Large stained glass windows in Victorian architecture
  1. Elaborate Shapes and Rooflines. Complexity and diversity define a Victorian home. Steep, intricate rooflines and irregular shapes add to the alluring grandeur of these structures. Victorian architects rejected the simplicity of the preceding Georgian style, favoring instead dramatic shapes that commanded attention.
  2. Gingerbread Trimmings. Victorian homes wear ornate woodwork like a badge of honor. This “gingerbread” detail is part of their identity. From detailed spindles on the porch to intricate trims along the roofline, each ornamental feature adds a layer to the home’s character.
  3. Towers and Turrets. Tall towers and turrets add a vertical dimension to their charm. These features, often housing bedrooms or studies, offer unique vantage points and underscore the romantic aesthetic of the era.
  4. A Palette of Colors. Victorian homes aren’t wallflowers. Their bold, varied paint colors earned them the moniker “painted ladies.” From bright blues to deep reds, these homes were a canvas for architects and homeowners to express their individuality.
  5. Stained Glass Windows. Victorian homes often showcase windows with intricate stained glass designs, adding a vibrant splash of color and sophistication to the property.
  6. High Ceilings. Typical of the Victorian era, high ceilings create a sense of grandeur and spaciousness, amplifying the home’s regal ambiance.
  7. Fireplaces: Nearly every room in a Victorian house has a fireplace, a nod to the era before central heating. Each real or faux fireplace is adorned with ornate mantels and tile work.
  8. Bay Windows. Protruding from the main walls, bay windows are common and add extra interior space. They provide ample sunlight and contribute to the overall aesthetic appeal.

Important Restoration Tips

Preserving the grace and character of a Victorian home, while ensuring it’s fit for contemporary living, is a tightrope act. It’s absolutely labor of love filled with both challenges and rewards. Here’s what you need to know if you’re undertaking the journey:

Victorian living room with wallpaper, patterned drapes, and antique furniture
  • Cherish Original Features. Treat original elements like hardwood floors, plaster walls, and stained glass windows should as heirlooms. They amplify the house’s historical and aesthetic worth, serving as a tangible link to the home’s past.
  • Embrace the Color Story. Be bold with color, but ensure it harmonizes with the home’s style and setting. A careful understanding of the era’s palette can help you maintain the authenticity of the home while allowing your personal taste to shine.
  • Modernize Utilities. Bring utilities such as heating, plumbing, and electrical systems up to date. This is crucial for ensuring the home is livable by modern standards. However, you should complete these updates with care to prevent inadvertent damage to the home’s historic fabric.
  • Preserve Original Walls. One of the key elements of a Victorian home’s character is its layout, often featuring separate rooms for specific functions. Resist the contemporary trend of open-plan living; removing walls can detract from the historical accuracy and charm of these properties. If a more open feel is desired, consider creating wide archways between rooms instead.
  • Repair, Don’t Replace. Wherever possible, repair original features instead of replacing them. This includes elements like wooden floorboards, intricate plasterwork, or stained glass windows. Modern materials and finishes often can’t replicate the quality or aesthetics of the original.
  • Seek Professional Advice. Due to the historical significance and unique structural aspects of Victorian homes, it’s advisable to work with professionals who specialize in Victorian architecture. They can provide valuable guidance on how to preserve original features while updating the home to meet modern building standards and living comforts.

Learn More

Scott T. Hanson’s book, Restoring Your Historic House: The Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners, is invaluable for anyone embarking on a restoration adventure. It offers practical advice, from planning to execution, helping you navigate the path of restoration with confidence and respect for the home’s historical integrity.

What to Expect: Being a Steward

Victorian bedroom

Residing in a Victorian home is a unique experience, allowing you to absorb the home’s idiosyncrasies and challenges while appreciating its beauty and charm. And inhabiting a Victorian home is not just about ownership; it’s about becoming a steward of history tasked with preserving its architectural integrity for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

Expect surprises, like finding small closets (wardrobes were a luxury in the Victorian era) and dealing with the demanding maintenance these older structures require. Yet, also anticipate the sheer delight of discovering hidden architectural features and the joy of living in a space that oozes character and style.

Above all, revel in the distinctive charm and character that only a Victorian home offers. Whether it’s sipping a cup of tea in an ornate, sun-drenched turret room or hosting a dinner party in an intricately detailed dining room, life in a Victorian home is an experience like no other.

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