A Brief History of Victorian Architecture

We are sometimes asked where our detailing comes from and why we spend so much effort in trying to emulate some of the epic periods of Victorian Architectural History.  From an early age I was inspired to build houses based on the the American Masters of the Victorian Era. This unique Era evolved through much of the 19th Century in America as the United States grew and prospered making its way Westward. Looking around today you will discover that, as Americans, we define and ourselves and our heritage by this architecture. Our compilation of the history of Victorian Architecture in America is intended for those of us you are fascinated by this revolutionary period.

The Victorians a Brief History...

The history of the Victorian Architectural period roughly parallels the same period in which the British Monarch, Queen Victoria, ruled The British Empire, hence the name. Within the time of her reign, 1837 to 1901, American evolved through several distinct architectural styles. Beginning with the stately “Greek Revival”, which developed in both England and the US at the end of the 18th century, then continued well into the first half of the 19th Century. This movement was surpassed in popularity in the 1830 to 1850s very romantic style, generally referred to as either “Gothic Revival” or Carpenter Gothic. By the Civil War preferences turned to the example set by Napoleon, III, as he rebuilt the center of Paris in a style now referred to as the “2nd Empire”. By the 1880s this style was supplanted again. This time by the “Queen Anne”, a fanciful, ornate style developed in England and first imported to America in the 1870’s.   

One could argue that the “Italianate”, the “Eastlake”, “Colonial Revival” and a few others were also Victorian Styles and that would be accurate. In truth very few residential designs were pure forms of any one design period. Italianate detailing was expressed in Gothic, 2nd Empire and Queen Anne extensively and visa versa. In this brief summary, we will only deal with the four historical styles that we build and of which we have some knowledge.  

What follows is a brief description of the histories of each type of architecture, the elements that define each and some illustrations, we have added to help visualize the sometimes mysterious architectural terms used to describe them.    

The Greek Revival 1750-1850  

Although one of the oldest definable architectural styles, there is no evidence that Greek architecture was replicated until the time of the American Revolution. Because of the closed nature of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the lands of ancient Greece from the Dark Ages onward, the ancient treasures of Greece were largely unknown to the world’s architectural community until Englishman James Stuart traveled to Greece in the mid 1750s. After Stuart’s studies were published as “The Antiquities of Athens”  in 1776, the “Greek Revival” movement began. This historic style soon became the only accepted “modern” style of the English aristocracy. Within a very short time thereafter, monumental public and private buildings of all sizes were designed with the characteristic Doric columns and Pedimented facades of the ancient Greeks.

In America, Thomas Jefferson was said to have been greatly influenced by Stuart’s book and it is he who is often credited with introducing the “Greek Revival” to America.  His appointment of Benjamin Latrobe as surveyor of public buildings in 1803 created a driving force in the use of the style.  Latrobe, using his passion for the Greek style, executed a number of monumental designs of public structures in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, including the US Capitol Building, which cemented the popularity of the style in America.  

In residential architecture, the purest form of this historic style is found in the “Antebellum” homes of the South. Often referred to as “Plantation Style”, the use of large colonnaded facades with classical Greek pediments and large encircling entablatures are unmistakably of Greek origin. Between 1810 and 1850 this architecture became the very symbol of wealth and stability throughout America and virtually every town built in this era has numerous examples.   Because of the formality and large mass of a Greek Revival home, it is rarely built outside the Southern States today, however elements of Greek Revival Architecture are seen in nearly all historic buildings and serve to remind us of the brilliant forms invented by those ancient architects and craftsmen.


How to Identify Greek Revival Architecture

Column Symmetry - Large evenly spaced columns, always an even number, extending from foundation to roof entablature,

Pediment - A triangular shaped gable over the columns, referred to in architectural terms as a pediment. The pediment was often ornamented inside the triangle and was trimmed in heavy Grecian period moldings,

Entablature - A large horizontal beam, which appears to support the roof between columns. This beam is known as an entablature and is made up of three essential elements,

  • Cornice, a heavily molded piece at the top,
  • Fascia, a vertical flat surface often ornamented in the middle and
  • Architrave, a smaller piece of molding running along the bottom.

Symmetry of Windows and Doors - Openings are always spaced symmetrically between the columns.  All openings were framed with moldings constructed of classical patterns. A pediment usually topped the openings.  

Carpenter Gothic (or Gothic Revival)
the “American Romantic Movement” Begins  

The history of this architectural style stems from the European Gothic period of the 11th through 15th century. The essential elements of the style are based on the steep pointed gables and carved stone tracery so familiar in Gothic Europe, where such details were used for domestic, as well as, religious buildings for centuries. In terms of the “Gothic Revival”, the movement is based on the proportions of the traditional Gothic farmhouse-cottage of rural England.  The design style found a rebirth in mid 18th century England when “modern” Gothic country cottages began to be built or rebuilt as summer country homes for the well healed gentleman farmers.

The style did not take hold in America until the 1830s when a young horticulturalist, Andrew Jackson Downing, championed Gothic Revival in a romantic, even noble way, by suggesting it as the ideal home for the self sufficient American farmer. The image of a quaint cottage surrounded by fruit trees, vegetable gardens and flower beds immediately appealed to a nation that was settling new farm lands and building their own homes.  Downing published his ideas on the “Perfect American Home” in a book titled “Cottage Residences”(1842) and went on to publish a second book “The Architecture of Country Houses” (1850). Both books (still in print) were worldwide best sellers and resulted in the style being spread throughout North America, Australia and to numerous British Colonies.

In America the Carpenter Gothic style soon pushed aside the pre-eminent Greek Revival and the stoic Colonial styles and began want is commonly referred to as, the “American Romantic Movement”. In paintings and in print, the style has become emblematic of the ideal American frontier farmer’s house of the 1800s as Middle America was being settled.

Band Saws, Gingerbread and Land

The Origins of the American Romantic Movement

The most distinctive detail of the “Gothic” is a steep roof with intricate carved “Verge Boards” following the sloping eaves. These Verge designs were often copied from the ancient patterns carved in stone during the middle Ages.  The American version of the Verge board was always executed in wood, as was all of its decoration.  This detail was made financially feasible by the mill-powered band and jig saw, whose invention coincided with the introduction of the Gothic Revival in America.  

 East Coast lumbermen and sawmills were quick to adapt to the new style and tools, and in so doing, created an entirely new product, mass-produced "gingerbread".  These new decorative products offered homebuilders from Maine to California a chance to display the finest “carved details” and intricate wood moldings without the need for skilled carvers, saving countless man hours of hand tooling.  The introduction of this affordable ornament to the middle class homeowner touched off a phenomenon in America, as home designers quickly adapted the American Gothic style and started, what has come to be known as, “The American Romantic Movement”.  

Characteristics of the Gothic Revival

In addition to the steep Verge boards, most Carpenter Gothic buildings are decorated with a combination of both classical and Gothic details including plinths, entablatures and pediments.  Shown at left is a sketch of a typical Carpenter Gothic with some of the details that create the look.   

Second Empire 1852-1890...

The roots of the “Second Empire” style can be traced to the Lourve in Paris and subsequently to the adoption of the style by Francois Mansart during the reign of Louis XIII in 17th century France.  Mansart developed the steep sloped Baroque style of the Louvre into an elegant, classically detailed manor house style that was considered the epitome of refinement throughout the reigns of the last three Kings of France. After the French Revolution of 1848, which created the 2nd Empire of France, the newly crowned Emperor, Napoleon III directed his architect, Baron Haussmann, to transform Paris into “the world’s city of high fashion”.  Haussmann responded by tearing down most of medieval Paris and replacing it with wide boulevards lined with row after row of elegant Mansart inspired apartments and manor houses.  Napoleon showed off his new city at the Paris Expositions of 1855 and 1867.  Attendees of the expositions returned to their home countries with rave reviews of the new Paris and its high fashion architecture.  Thus the 2nd Empire movement was launched.

In America, the Second Empire rapidly became the favored style and quickly replaced the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles, which had previously dominated residential architecture.  The style became so popular during the term of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) that the 2nd Empire was also referred to as the “General Grant Style”.   Elements of the Second Empire – In American residential architecture the style was defined by the prerequisite Mansard roof, often decorated in colored or pattern roof shingles. The façade often featured a narrow square tower with Mansard roof that extended above the main structure and created a framed main entrance porch to the home.


Elements which identify the 2nd Empire Style:

  • Iron Cresting at the upper roof line
  • Classical Moldings at the upper and lower edges of the Mansard
  • Oriel Windows through the Mansards
  • Small Entry Porch with a pair of columns
  • Flat Arched Windows
  • Large Decorative Moldings around windows and doors  


    The Queen Anne Takes America by Storm 1876-1910...  

    As the fashion statement of the French 2nd Empire Style faded in America during the early 1870s, a new picturesque style began to take form in England.  The British referred to the new style as the Queen Anne. The term was historically inaccurate, since the architecture in Queen Anne’s time (1702-1707) had nothing in common with the emerging extravagance of the Victorian style.  It is generally thought the name was coined because Queen Anne’s reign was thought to be an age of grace and style. Coincidentally, numerous histories and romantic novels about Queen Anne and her times were being published at the time of the style’s development. House plans containing elements of the style were first introduced and popularized by British architects, George Devey and Richard Norman Shaw during the 1860s. Shaw published a book of architectural sketches delineating the Queen Anne as early as 1858 but the style was not utilized until his works were extracted and republished in various British builders’ publications in the 1870s. By the mid 1870s British builders were constructing homes with the towers, trim and extravagance that we now associate with the style. In 1876 a British builder shipped two pre-cut versions of his Queen Anne homes to America, which were subsequently constructed and displayed at the British Pavilion of the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. The Queen Anne was an instant hit in American. People returning from the exposition quickly spread the word about the new European style. Almost immediately the style was being constructed on this side of the Atlantic and quickly replaced the Second Empire style as most favored.

    Queen Anne’s of the South were normally built with long covered porches surrounded by turned or sawn balustered rails. In the North and West the balconies were usually restricted to the entry porch. Color is also a characteristic that varies greatly by region. In the Northeast the style is normally expressed as a conservative solid white with color applied only to window frames and/or shutters. In the West, color was applied on every possible surface in patterns and textures that accented every shadow line. The bright colors and patterns of the “Painted Ladies” of San Francisco and the boomtowns of the gold rush era are extreme examples of the Queen Anne in “Technicolor”. 

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