October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
Colonial houses are rarely called “dark” although their windows are tiny, glass being then a rare luxury. In the Nineteenth Century, glass had become a factory-made staple and the Victorian house has large windows and plenty of them. It is true that they were barricaded by a fivefold layer of shutters, blinds, muslin curtains, velvet drapes and tasseled valances (“lambrequins”) but most of these have been discarded and light is pouring in.
We know that the Victorians filled their rooms with a mass of overstuffed chairs, ottomans, marble-topped tables, carved sideboards and canopied beds. The walls were covered with gilt-framed paintings and chromos, petit-point mottoes, fret-saw racks and scrollwork brackets. The remaining space was garnished with potted plants, plaster groups, bronzed statues, wax flowers, shells, beadwork and other bric-a-brac arranged on multi-tiered whatnots. When stripped of this overgrowth, the Victorian parlor with its high ceiling, tall windows, strong moldings, parquet floor and ample fireplace emerges as a very handsome room.
As for comfort, the Victorian home boasts porches, lofty rooms, a big kitchen, ample storage space in both a cellar and an attic, both a front and back yard —conveniences which are not found in the cramped houses put up by today’s speculative jerry-builders.
The charge of “gloom” is absurd. The period is characterized by its exuberant and pleasurable design! In most large cities the center of gravity has shifted; once respectable “downtown” sections have become blighted areas. Their Victorian houses have fallen into disrepair, and empty, shuttered houses which have not had a coat of paint in decades naturally assume a mournful look.
In smaller towns, Nineteenth-Century homes have remained family residences and have usually been kept up. There they can still be seen in their true, cheerful colors. The Nineteenth-Century builder was not limited to the traditional shades of white, gray, buff and brick; walls were painted in the most vivid colors, set off by contrasting cornices, trim and shutters. Besides the conventional white with green accents, there are green with white, yellow with green, gray with red, pink with yellow and a wide range of rich reds trimmed with vibrant greens.
We have already mentioned the gay “gingerbread”; the equally delightful ornamental ironwork is now popularly associated with New Orleans. However, most of it was manufactured in the North and it was common all along the eastern seaboard. Thousands of these charming railings, porches and balconies, painted a shiny green or black, are still in place.
Prefabricated iron buildings are another American Victorian invention which has been unjustly condemned in toto . Iron frame commercial buildings were erected more than a hundred years ago and iron fronts could actually be ordered from catalogs. Again the great technological achievement was masked by making factory-made warehouses look like replicas of the Farness Palace. Hundreds of these mercantile structures still stand near the waterfronts of the large eastern and middle western cities. The bold façades, hung with a tense web of fire escapes, are often painted in the most brilliant colors; on weekends when these streets are deserted, the effect is that of a giant stage set.
Many other types of nonresidential buildings are of great interest; they are rarely the work of professionally trained architects (the first school of architecture in the U. S. did not open until 1865) but were designed by forgotten carpenters and builders. These barns, stables, feed mills, grange halls, schoolhouses—red and otherwise—factories, railroad stations, boat-houses, firehouses and so on, are all around us but no one seems to have taken a close look at them except Walker Evans. This American vernacular with its many regional variations remains unexplored territory.
Anyone tampering with the most insignificant early American building would be branded a Benedict Arnold by the local historical society and women’s club. No voices have so far been raised in defense of Nineteenth-Century buildings which are being torn down by the tens of thousands. On the contrary, it is considered a mark of civic virtue and rectitude to demolish a magnificent building like the Grand Union Hotel at Saratoga.
Few buildings of the period have yet become shrines, sights or tourist attractions. There are no Mount Vernons or Monticellos, only Lincoln’s pleasant Springfield home. The octagon houses devised by the eccentric phrenologist Orson Fowler sometimes enjoy some local fame, as do such delightful monstrosities as “Nutt’s Folly,” an eight-sided oriental villa, left unfinished at the outbreak of the Civil War near Natchez, Mississippi.
The chaos of U. S. townscape should not be blamed on the Nineteenth Century. The Twentieth has been the chief offender.