So You Want to Buy an Old House, Part 2

By Patrick F. Cannon

The So-Called Victorians.

Queen Victoria and the industrial revolution marched hand in hand, particularly after Prince Albert’s  hand was removed by his early death. Technology brought new wealth and largely created the middle classes as we know them today. Although the industrial revolution began in England, we soon surpassed the Mother Country, due largely to our incomplete appreciation of business ethics. With new wealth at hand, everyone wanted a splendid new house. Excess was not uncommon, and to it we now owe the once despised, but now cherished, “Victorian” home.

You should be warned now that the term “Victorian” does not apply to any particular style; rather, it is an umbrella term covering several distinct styles, unrelated but similar. I hasten to add that some houses were built using elements of various styles. These are sometimes called the “Eminent Victorians.”  Since more of these houses exist than any other kind (with the exception of Subdivision Grotesque), you should study the following with great care.

Italianate. This is our interpretation of the country houses built in the early 19th century by romantic Italians to house their mistresses. While ours resemble the originals not at all, they do exhibit much of the Italian passion for irrelevant detail. Cupolas abound, as do ornamental brackets, widow’s walks, bay and oriel windows, and other assorted fripperies. The hip roof is cherished here, rather than despised. General Grant lived in such a house, which may be all we need to know.

Stick. This is the only Victorian style native to these shores, although one sees them inland as well. The name was coined by Professor Vincent Skully of Yale University to describe a type of house he often noted on his solitary walks through the back streets of his beloved New Haven. “Stick” refers to the method of construction. Rather than covering the framing members, the siding is placed between them. Still visible, the members look a bit like sticks – hence the name.

There is an interesting story in connection with Skully’s scholarly breakthrough. It  seems that one-day he was giving his famous seminar: “Architecture and Jurisprudence,  An American Dilemma.”  A slide was on the screen, illustrating the as-yet­ unnamed style. As he pointed to the slide, he was heard to mutter that “the frame seems to be little more than a series of sticks. . . “  With that, an enterprising student – secretly a stringer for the New York Times – crept unseen from the room to the nearest phone.

Within days, the world of architectural history was shaken to its very foundation when the Times announced in a front-page headline: “Yale prof says ‘Stick is it’, discovers ‘lost’ architectural style.” With a single word, Skully had made room for 14 new doctoral dissertations. He later tried to recant, but nothing doing.

Tudor. King Henry VIII was largely responsible for this rustic style, which first saw the light of day as a result of the famous building materials crisis of 1538. Henry’s mania for building stately homes had left the British Isles denuded of native stone, and his contretemps with the Pope over his (for the times) eccentric marriage habits had effectively closed the door to imports of Italian marble . Good King Harry was equal to the task, for his domain still had plenty of trees and vast resources of plaster.

What if, he pondered, these could be joined together in some useful way? He soon had Sir Thomas More on the   job, and the future saint solved the technical problems in an exemplary manner. It is to him that we own the invention of lath. Alas, to insure that he would get all the credit, Henry had Sir Thomas  beheaded .  But the wily future saint had the last lath, since Jesuit spies managed to spirit his secret notes out of the country. Thus it is that the style is today called “Tudor” only in English-speaking countries; in the rest of the world it is commonly called “Moorish.”

Queen Anne. Queen Anne reigned in England from 1702 to 1714. The building style named after her was popular in the 19th century. Why this is so is inexplicable (except to the English, to whom it seems to make perfect sense). Nevertheless, the style was quite popular in rural areas, and it wasn’t long before it was exported to America in a converted tea clipper. Perhaps because the hold was wet, the style was somewhat watered down in transit.

Its unveiling caused a sensation at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. We didn’t swallow it whole, however, choosing its more banal and excessive motifs for exploitation.  A typical example might have turrets, bays, Palladian windows, sweeping porches with classical columns and pediments (and in extreme cases, impediments), and a variety of surface materials such as might boggle the mind (and numb the eye).

Depending upon how all this was arranged, the results can be classified as Traditional Queen Anne, Non-traditional Queen Anne, Perpendicular Queen Anne, Rectilinear Queen Anne, Perpendicular-rectilinear Queen Anne, Simplified Queen Anne, or Over-simplified Queen Anne. The wise homebuyer will be familiar with all of them and good luck to him .

Shingle. See above, but with shingles.

Prairie. The only 20th century style that need concern us is the Prairie, invented by that brilliant but insufferable genius, Mr. Frank Lloyd Wright. It was his inspiration that the flat or gently rolling countryside of the Midwest demanded a horizontal line. While his architecture changed many times over the years, he was always to maintain a dominant line.

Those willing to wade through the purple can find an incomprehensible   description of the style’s genesis in Wright’s In the Cause of Architecture. The houses themselves are notable for their simplicity of line and materials. Where there is ornament, it is organic and understated. Many of the houses one sees in today’s subdivisions owe their basic form to a misunderstanding of Prairie School principles .

Wright’s originals are naturally rather expensive, and are said to be a roofer’s dream. Those designed by his disciples are less expensive and have the added advantage of often being mistaken for the master’s work. Some indeed are blatant copies, but since Wright paid his employees very little or not at all, there seems to be a kind of rough justice at work.

Unfortunately, Wright’s architecture became influential in Europe and eventually  led to the International Style of the 1920s and later. Many of these houses were essentially all glass and led to booms in voyeurism and the drapery trade.

Go Forth!

Armed with information I have provided, anyone should feel supremely confident as they go forth to seek a house for renovation or restoration. This knowledge will not prevent heartache or even bankruptcy, but it will certainly add to the pleasure one should feel for having preserved something of the nation’s architectural legacy. And, to be blunt, no one ever asked the owner of a tri-level to open it for a house walk.

Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon

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