Victorian architecture: the good, the bad, the ugly (2024)

Everybody loves a Victorian-era house. It’s hard not to be charmed by such a big and boisterous creation, and to be sure, Victorians had many good qualities. Spaciousness was certainly one. Another was the almost incredible amount of effort lavished on their famously ornate detailing. And there’s always something appealing in a building that expresses such confidence in its own time.

Yet often overlooked in the haze of nostalgia is the reason why Victorian architecture plummeted from favor toward the end of the 19th century, and why it was held in contempt for another six decades thereafter. And lurking in that story is a lesson that’s even more applicable to the new homes of our own time.

The Victorian house, with its towering scale and almost fanatical devotion to surface ornament, was a child of the industrial revolution. For one, the introduction of automatic machinery around the mid-19th century meant that moldings and countless other decorative doodads could now be mass-produced for pennies rather than being laboriously produced by hand. This put elaborate ornament–once an exclusive emblem of wealth–within reach of the working class for the first time.

Meanwhile, a new machine that mass-produced nails from wire coil did away with the trouble and expense of hand-wrought square nails. Wire nails, in turn, went hand-in-hand with balloon framing, a revolutionary construction technique developed in Chicago during the 1830s. Balloon framing replaced the costly and cumbersome post-and-beam construction in use since Colonial times with relatively thin, light pieces of lumber–today’s familiar two-by-fours.

These expedients made it possible to build houses faster, cheaper, and also larger and more elaborate than ever before. Predictably, putting such once-unattainable luxuries within reach of millions quickly resulted in a popular mania for large, ornately decorated houses.

Yet toward the end of the 19th century, the very traits that people had coveted in their new homes–vast size and elaborate detail–engendered a powerful backlash. Even at Victorian era’s peak, a vocal minority led by John Ruskin had decried its architecture as clumsy and vulgar, and this view now began to prevail. Housewives and social critics alike began agitating for smaller, more practical and easier-to-maintain homes. Architectural pattern books were soon ridiculing Victorian clutter while touting the latest thing in simple, modest, and clean-lined homes–the soon-to-be ubiquitous bungalow.

By the century’s end, gimcrack-laden Victorians were already seen as hopelessly crass, and this sea change in taste, combined with their nightmarish maintenance demands, soon left these houses decaying and despised. Only a revival of interest during the 1960s–long after many of the best examples had been demolished–managed to rehabilitate Victorian architecture’s dreadful reputation.

Needless to say, today’s housing trend in many ways retraces that of Victorian times. Ornament is once again cheap, thanks to plastic moldings, fake columns, and the like, which make it easy for builders to put a glitzy “Beverly Hillbillies” sheen on their increasingly bulked-up creations.

Today’s houses are built bigger because it’s easy to do and because, like the Victorians, today’s home buyers seem convinced that a huge house is that much better a modest one.

We Americans are notoriously bad at learning from history, and no doubt we’ll slog through this whole inevitable cycle all over again, until we finally rediscover what the Victorians had already taught us.


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Victorian architecture: the good, the bad, the ugly (2024)


What is the Victorian architecture style? ›

Victorian homes often have steep, imposing rooflines with many gables facing in different directions. The Second Empire Victorian style has a flat-topped Mansard roof with windows in the side to allow for maximum space inside the house.

Why was Victorian decor so dark? ›

“The rooms felt really heavy and dark and kind of foreboding,” Kelsey says. The era's characteristic stained glass and thick draperies added to the ominous vibe, but they actually had a utilitarian purpose, too: They protected elaborate furniture and decor from the sun.

How is Victorian architecture different from modern architecture? ›

While ranch style builds and modern architecture both tend to spread out and look flat, Victorian homes are almost always very tall with multiple stories. The height was a sort of status symbol—a tall home meant a noteworthy status. It also just made sense in more urban settings where ground space was limited.

What are the problems with Victorian architecture? ›

Victorian homes are mostly constructed with solid masonry walls that are prone to rainwater penetration. The damp could eventually penetrate through to internal surfaces, causing plaster to crumble and paper to bubble.

What are the elements of Victorian architecture? ›

Victorian architecture consists of many different styles. However, certain features were often present across many styles, such as steep roofs, painted brick, bay windows, and asymmetrical design.

How to identify Victorian architecture? ›

“Recognizable characteristics are steep, tiled roofs, painted brick, bay windows, and asymmetrical design,” Dadswell says. “Wooden floorboards, plaster cornicing, sweeping staircases, wooden sash windows, and tiled entrance hallways would have been incorporated into most Victorian homes.”

Why did Victorians want pale skin? ›

Clean skin then did not only serve as a marker of health, but it could bring women closer to the upper-class ideals of cleanliness and beauty. During the last years of the nineteenth century, healthy, white skin had effectively been transformed by Pears and other soap brands, as a symbol of class, race, and beauty.

What did poor Victorian houses look like? ›

The houses were cheap, most had between two and four rooms – one or two rooms downstairs, and one or two rooms upstairs, but Victorian families were big with perhaps four or five children. There was no water, and no toilet. A whole street (sometimes more) would have to share a couple of toilets and a pump.

What did poor Victorians sleep on? ›

There were more expensive shelters available in London, such as a "four penny coffin" (where the clients were provided with a coffin-sized box so that they can sleep lying-down), and a "two-penny hangover", in which clients were allowed to sleep on a bench in an upright position, with a rope to stop them falling over ...

What is unique about Victorian architecture? ›

Victorian-era architecture is marked by its unapologetic devotion to ornament and flourish and its ornate maximalist interior design. While there are many different styles encompassed in Victorian-era architecture, some common features that will help you spot a Victorian from the outside include: Steeply pitched roofs.

Why do Victorian houses look like that? ›

During the Industrial Revolution, successive housing booms resulted in the building of many millions of Victorian houses which are now a defining feature of most British towns and cities. Typical Victorian terraced houses in England, built in brick with slate roofs, stone details and modest decoration.

What city is known for their Victorian architecture? ›

San Francisco is particularly well known for its extensive Victorian architecture, especially in the Haight-Ashbury, Lower Haight, Alamo Square, Western Addition, Mission, Duboce Triangle, Noe Valley, Castro, Nob Hill, and Pacific Heights neighborhoods.

Did Victorian houses have cavity walls? ›

Builders and architects started to experiment with cavity or 'hollow walls' from early in the Victorian period. By the first decade of the 20th century, most pattern books for houses included examples of outer walls with two separate leaves of brickwork.

Why were Victorian homes so large? ›

Balloon framing replaced the costly and cumbersome post-and-beam construction in use since Colonial times with relatively thin, light pieces of lumber–today's familiar two-by-fours. These expedients made it possible to build houses faster, cheaper, and also larger and more elaborate than ever before.

What were the facts about Victorian poor houses? ›

The homes of the poor were small, cold and damp and often infested with lice and vermin. Water would be collected from a dirty pump in the street and filthy outdoor toilets would be shared with dozens of neighbours. Stoves were new and expensive, so many homes didn't have any way of making hot meals.

What was the most popular style of design during the Victorian era? ›

Victorian architecture interior rooms were heavily decorated with various wallpapers, designs, tapestries, art, flowers, trinkets, shelving, and more. Patterns that were especially popular at the time included plaids, stripes, florals, leaves, vines, etc. with unique patterns and vibrant color combinations.

How do you describe the Victorian era? ›

The Victorian era saw revolutionary breakthroughs in the arts and sciences, which shaped the world as we know it today. These transformations led to many social changes with the birth and spread of political movements, most notably socialism, liberalism and organised feminism.

What are the characteristics of the Victorian era? ›

Key themes include the following:
  • The Industrial Revolution.
  • Population growth and migration.
  • Social reforms.
  • The rise of the middle classes.
  • The growth of democracy.
  • Expansion of Empire.
  • Idealisation of the family.
  • The growth of leisure pursuits.

What are the different styles of Victorian houses? ›

The most common Victorian style is Folk Victorian. The classic Victorian styles (Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Stick Style, Romanesque Revival, and Shingle Style) were created by professional architects, and were built mostly by the well-to-do.

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