In Defense Of the Victorian House

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The architecture of the first Industrial Age, which we have labeled “Victorian” for want of a better name, has long been in total disrepute. Respectable professors and accredited historians of U. S. architecture lapse into shocked silence at the end of the Greek Revival. They mumble about “disintegration of taste” and a “reign of horror” in a footnote, briefly recover their breath to laud Richardson Romanesque and resume only with Sullivan and a sigh of relief.

 

The architecture of the first Industrial Age, which we have labeled “Victorian” for want of a better name, has long been in total disrepute. Respectable professors and accredited historians of U. S. architecture lapse into shocked silence at the end of the Greek Revival. They mumble about “disintegration of taste” and a “reign of horror” in a footnote, briefly recover their breath to laud Richardson Romanesque and resume only with Sullivan and a sigh of relief.

This is very odd. The half century during which Lincoln and Disraeli, Dickens and Dostoevski, Wagner and Verdi, Darwin and Pasteur, were all contemporaries, was no mean age. It was an age of frenetic activity and massive achievement. It seems strange that architecture—then still known as “The Queen of the Arts”—should have been completely sterile during such a creative period. Is it plausible that the generation which designed and constructed the Atlantic cable and the transcontinental railroad was incapable of building a decent house? Architecture was a respected and socially most acceptable career—did only incompetents and charlatans choose this profession? This would be strange indeed, and it is in fact quite untrue.

Old-fashioned history books are overly concerned with reigns and monarchs; architectural history and criticism are still top-heavy with discussions of churches and palaces. This distorts the real character of the Nineteenth Century’s work because in their ceremonial buildings the Victorians put their worst foot forward. A Victorian gentleman did not walk out hatless and shirt-sleeved, a Victorian architect would not erect a public building unless it was properly clothed in some historical garb.

Each historical style was deemed particularly fitting for certain classes of buildings: armories and prisons were naturally in the “castellated style.” Tudor was preferred for institutions of higher learning and the dead hand of this “collegiate Gothic” continues to rule right up to the present. Gothic also reigned supreme in the ecclesiastical sphere. But in the small towns where the costly Gothic manner was translated into clapboard by the local “Carpenter & Builder” we find many homey and delightful churches; their design is often highly original and seems to have a touch of whimsy about it.

There are other curious and lesser known examples of this preoccupation with historical styles: the beer business was in German hands and many tall breweries were done in a pseudo-Teutonic manner with multicolored brick and coppered towers, vaguely resembling German castles or at least the romantic notion of what a German castle ought to look like. Even non-Western styles were tried: Egyptian had a brief and minor vogue for cemeteries and jails; oriental design was considered the epitome of glamorous luxuriousness and a number of “Saracenic” villas were built for gentlemen of means (P. T. Barnum owned one called “Iranistan”); with striking disregard for logic most synagogues were designed to look like mosques.

To enumerate these conceits and follies is to flog a very dead horse; more than any other factor, this “Battle of the Styles” has given Victorian architecture its present bad name. The Nineteenth-Century builder faced many problems of an industrial civilization—railroad stations, department stores, hotels—for which there were no historic precedents. These problems were frequently solved very boldly. The perceptive Swiss genius, Siegfried Giedion, first brought out the long-obscured fact that the historicizing flummery of Nineteenth-Century U. S. architecture often hid a very sound body.

There is another potent and emotional reason why the reputation of Nineteenth-Century architecture stands so low today: we have condemned the buildings because we disapprove of the people who built them. The word “Victorian” has come to mean “smug, pompous, hypocritical, narrow-minded.” These are generalizations, as inexact as the popular image of Victoria as a lifelong old prude who was never amused. Nor were the men of the Lincoln era as crushingly stern and dignified as they appear to us in the magnificent Brady photographs. Their faces are always unsmiling, not so much because they lacked humor but because they had to keep still for minutes before the camera.

The Nineteenth Century was the time of the sweatshop and the slum, but it was also the time of reform, of emancipation and of the universal franchise. The Victorian record is thus split and many of the buildings have the same dual or “muddle-headed” character. Occasionally the utilitarian and romantic elements are blended with complete success, as in the Brooklyn Bridge, the one major American Victorian structure which has always remained popular with both experts and public.