In Defense Of the Victorian House

PrintPrintEmailEmail

We can find much admirable and grossly underrated work in residential architecture. The beautiful and serene Greek Revival was essentially an architecture of façades; the symmetrical ground plan was made to fit the elevation ordained by Palladio and the rule books. These handsome Grecian homes properly belong in formal gardens and they are best viewed head-on from the fixed standpoint of Renaissance perspective. The “romantic” Victorian house breaks free from this academic and aristocratic scheme. It is designed from the inside out, the open, asymmetrical interior layouts are often close to contemporary, functional planning—much closer than we have long been led to believe. These are good houses to walk around, to view at different times of day and year. Their broken, “picturesque” exteriors are not out of keeping with the irregular plans and they were cleverly designed to make the most of light, shade and foliage.

 

Nineteenth-Century U. S. homes are among the most American of Americana. There was no outright imitation then, as there was around the turn of the century when the eclectic Beaux Arts system of architectural education became dominant in the U.S.

Gothic was first upon the scene; promoted in print by Andrew Jackson Downing (who opined that it was particularly suitable for America—"a wilder, romantic and more picturesque country where the hand of man has been only partially laid on the forest”) and most successfully put into practice by Alexander Jackson Davis. American Gothic homes range from the baronial estates of the Hudson River Valley to the plain “carpenter Gothic” frame houses which still stand in a thousand towns. Gothic stone tracery was the original model for the wooden scrollwork which trimmed the porches and hung from the gables (“bargeboards”). The period has been so neglected that no study has yet been made of this delightful “gingerbread” and its thousands of patterns. Yet it is a vigorous and authentic American folk art.

The blocky Italianate villa with loggia and square tower was fashionable in the Forties and Fifties; unlike Gothic it remained modish and never became quite at home in America. This is of course typical masonry architecture, but when stone was lacking, these designs were sometimes executed in frame and clapboard—arched windows and all. The results are charming and should shock only extreme purists. The cube-shaped houses which carry a jaunty cupola or “belvedere” atop a flat roof are also of Italian ancestry.

The French-type house with the Mansard roof was at its height in the Sixties and Seventies. The style was successfully adapted to both row and detached city houses, country homes and even farmhouses, in stone, brick or wood, a most pleasant variety within unity. These houses have come in for much dogmatic criticism; they are said to be in the “General Grant style”—a form of guilt by association, branding them as the corrupt buildings of a discredited regime. In reality, the best of them with their deep porches, tall French windows, heavy cornice resting on massive corbels and the sweeping roof topped with iron cresting are buildings of striking power and dignity. In the Eighties the style degenerated into a coarse and overblown mannerism. We have never given the Nineteenth Century the benefit of the doubt, yet only a thin line divides the “vulgar and ostentatious” from the “bold and self-confident.”

The Nineteenth Century built its share of houses which are monstrosities, beyond reasonable doubt. Like an ugly character actor who steals the scene from the smooth-faced leading man, they have a peculiar fascination for the eye. We constantly refer to the Victorian houses in terms like “dark, dank, gloomy, somber, forbidding, foreboding.” At best they are called “uncomfortable.” In popular fiction the Victorian mansion is a likely background for murder and the preferred haunt of ghosts. Mr. Charles Addams has tenanted it with fiends, though it is obvious that he really loves those houses. What are the facts behind these entrenched clichés?