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.

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?