The most popular style of architecture prior to the Victorian era was the
Greek Revival. This style was used almost exclusively for public buildings where
simplicity and dignity were considered the most important attributes. By the 1840s the
Greek style was no longer fashionable for a private residence. Its popularity had waned
about the time Victoria became Queen. Many early cottages were built as summer residences
only, with no insulation, yet the underlying surfaces were of solid construction.
Architects and builders often submitted alternate designs for a house where the floor
plans were identical, and only the facades varied. But when frame construction came along,
houses were built quickly and ornate details were added later. Many early homes had
neither kitchens or bathrooms. As is typical of these early homes, additions often house
the kitchens and baths.
Most of the early homes, especially those built in England, were built of
stone, and enhanced with decorative "stone tracery". The number of full-blown
Gothic stone mansions was never large. Only the wealthy could afford such homes which
required the labors of highly skilled stone carvers. The costly Gothic style was
eventually translated into wood, and thousands of "Carpenter Gothic" houses
American Carpenter Gothic style is characterized by steep gables and pointed windows.
Often the construction was vertical "Board and Batton" which was considered
particularly fitting for a Gothic cottage because of its upward tendency. In a wider sense
we now apply the term "American Gothic" to all homes of typically Victorian
design. These homes mark the real beginning of modern architecture. The homes are planned
from the inside out - the layout of the rooms and the
traffic pattern determines the outward look. Inside they have a happy hide-and-seek
quality of surprise.
When Gothic came to
America and was translated to "Carpenter Gothic", the stone tracery was replaced
by wooden Gingerbread. The ornate wooden detail is considered a folk art. Each carpenter
had his own ideas and employed his own fanciful designs.
architectural period mostly spans the period of roughly 1825-1900. The Victorians drew
deeply from history, nature, geometry, theory, and personal inspiration to create their
designs. Prior to 1890, designers, though properly trained in the academics of standard
architectural systems, still managed to employ their own creative ideas.
structures were relatively simple in style, while those built after the Civil War became
more complicated. They combined styles as they saw fit. The end result was often a
stunning visual effect. The building styles of post-Civil War America were elaborate and
flamboyant, very much fueled by new industrial society. Now collectively called
"Victorian" the architecture was made up of several main styles. These include
Italianate, Second Empire, Stick-Eastlake, and Queen Anne. Generally, Italianate style
structures have flat roof lines, corniced eaves, angled bay windows and
Corinthian-columned porches. Stick-Eastlake structures often include square bays, flat
roof lines and free-style decorations. Queen Annes have a gabled roof, shingled insets,
angled bay windows under the gable and on occasion a tower.
Contemporary critics accuse the Victorians of needless complexity and clutter.
Victorian architecture up to 1870 was thought by some, especially Europeans, to be a
failure. This near revulsion by critics was expressed at first only by a few, but as the
decade went on, criticism increased.
However, this view was obviously not shared by all then or now. A
charmed critic writing for the San Francisco Morning Call on April 21, 1887 described San Francisco's Victorian architecture as follows:
"The architecture of San Francisco in our residence streets
has no counterpart in the world, and we have no reason to be ashamed of it. It is light,
airy and pleasing in style, and is to the architecture of Europe
and the Eastern States as Spanish music is to the grand and heavier compositions of
The latter part of the nineteenth century brought a new attitude toward color.
Before then, the houses of the tract builders tended to be painted all one color, usually
white, beige or gray. By 1887, many people were painting their houses in lighter, brighter
colors. The vibrant colors are one of the more easily identifiable features of Victorian
The years from 1870
to 1906 produced the bulk of San Francisco's Victorian buildings
in which there was much overlapping in style trends. One cause of the seemingly infinite
variety of Victorian architecture in Northern California is the abundant coastal redwood.
Both the structural members and much of the decoration on San Francisco Victorian homes
are redwood, a local material that had many advantages. It was cheap and plentiful; it
resisted rot, termites and fire; and it was easily worked into different shapes.
Many interiors were done in the grand manner
reflecting their owners and builders. As with the exteriors, two general styles prevailed
during the period: the Italian or Renaissance style and the medieval or Queen Anne.
Interiors of the Renaissance mode included smooth plastered walls often in light colors,
marble fireplaces usually with heavy gold mirrors above, elaborate ceiling cornices,
elaborate pediments over doors, frescoed ceilings, and chandeliers. French influence was
very strong during the 1870's and early 80's. Italianate interior design had heavily
molded , yet graceful door frames and wainscoting that complemented contemporary furniture
styles. Door frames of this type disappeared with the dominance of the Queen Anne
interior. The shift to the brooding medieval style resulted in dark colorful interiors.
Californians at this period closely followed national trends.
From about 1895 to
1915, middle-class tastes turned away from the clutter and closed off rooms of the
Victorian home to more simple, open, flexible spaces: the living room replaced the parlor.
Natural wood furniture and interiors displaced the artificial,
upholstered and multi-layered look typical of the Victorian home. At the turn of the
nineteenth and into the twentieth century, working-class and middle-class homes reflected
contrasting material standards.
Today, all over the
United States, many homes from the Victorian architectural period still stand and are
considered among the most beautifully rustic in almost any neighborhood. Many have been
turned into bed and breakfast inns, hotels and some just opened to the public as historic