Victorian: It’s an Era, Not a Style.

Let’s be honest: we all like historic architecture, but not all of us know quite how to talk about it.  Maybe you can wrap your head around Colonial vs. Victorian vs. Art Deco vs. Modern, but in a city like Chicago, we’re blessed with building stock that challenges those descriptors.  And getting the nomenclature right when there are dozens of architectural styles and infinite substyles can be frustrating, even when you’re at your most eloquent.

ARCH-RES_introThere are plenty of books out there to help us non-academics understand and identify historical styles, the best of which might be Virginia and Lee McAlester’s Field Guide to American Houses.  It’s a practically exhaustive guide to about 350 years’ worth of American historic styles, and essential reading/reference for the architecture enthusiast.  Plus, it’s illustrated, which means that it’s got lots of pretty pictures of all kinds of pretty houses, which makes it fun to flip through.  Promise.  There are also plenty of informational blogs out there dedicated to elucidating the many nuances of historic architecture for you more modern types.

But taking a page (nailed it!) from Ginny and Lee’s book, let’s run down one of the most ubiquitous and misused architectural terms.

Victorian.  What does it mean, really?  What houses are Victorian, really?  Is Victorian even a style, really?  Who are we?  What are we doing here on this great blue orb?

We owe a lot to Queen Vicky when it comes to architectural style.

We owe a lot to Queen Vicky when it comes to architectural style.  Personal style, maybe less so.

Well we can’t answer all of those questions, so let’s go for the first three.  “Victorian” is a term that applies to a wide range of styles that came into popularity during the reign of Queen Victoria.  In Britain, the Victorian era refers to a set of movements, especially in material culture and architecture, during the span of Victoria’s reign: 1837 to 1901.  The U.S. came a little later to the party, and in general, American Victorian architecture dates from 1860 to 1900.  “Victorian” refers to a historical time period, not a style.  Repeat it with me: “Victorian” refers to a time period, not style.  It’s a common mistake, but getting that straight will help you better understand all of Victorian architecture’s various sub-styles and will also make you sound really smart at your next architecture-themed cocktail party.

Victorian architecture is everywhere, especially in Chicago, where the building boom coincided with the American Victorian era.  The invention of balloon framing in Chicago also helped things along, as builders could put up houses with more stories in more interesting floor plans much more quickly than they could before.  Most Victorian styles were either based on European medieval prototypes or American colonial architecture, especially starting in 1876.  Early Victorian houses tended to be a lot more faithful to their historic precedents, while late Victorian houses tended to combine lots of features from various styles.

Enough chatting.  Let’s get down to business. Here are some of the major sub-styles of Victorian architecture:




This is probably the style you think of when you think Victorian, but it actually came about a generation prior.  Still, it really gained steam around 1855-60, when greater railroad networks allowed the mail-order catalog industry to explode.  What does that have to do with anything?  Glad you asked.  Builder’s catalogs allowed homeowners across America to order pre-cut decorative wood elements which they could nail onto their houses (this turned into a sub-sub-style called Carpenter Gothic).  You could completely customize your house, which was a very attractive principle to the masses of middle-class Americans who were leaving urban areas in favor of life in the country.

In the rural Midwest, pointed windows and one-story gabled porches were often added to existing farmhouses for a bit of flair.  Think of that famous painting we all know and love — those two just scream “flair.” Gothic wasn’t just for the masses, though: there are plenty of mansions out there built by the wealthy industrialists of the era.  Gothic was castle architecture, after all.


Major features: pointed-arch windows, oriels, one-story porches, gable roofs, clapboard or board and batten siding, decorative wood trims, complex  floorplans.



Second Empire is another hugely common Victorian style.  It’s so named because its characteristic elements are based on Parisian architecture that was popular during the reign of Napoleon III, otherwise known as — you guessed it — the Second French Empire.  It was considered a very elegant style that was still very practical.  Very tall paired windows on all sides of the house allowed for greater cross ventilation, which was important in the pre-air conditioning era.  Mansard roofs turned storage attics into livable space.  The style also lent itself well to small rowhouses as well as large mansions.  Trés chic.

Interestingly, Second Empire was one of the few styles other than Classical Revival that was considered appropriate for government buildings.  Two of the better surviving examples are the Vice President’s Office in Washington and Philadelphia City Hall.


Major features: tall hooded windows (often in pairs), mansard roofs, one-story porch, centered or asymmetrical tower, deep eaves, simple bracketed cornices.


queen-7queen-anne-sm 3.29.06 PM

Queen Anne came into vogue in the 1880s, as Second Empire began to fall out of favor.  It’s kind of a confusing one, because it’s named after a British style that became popular between 1702 and 1714 while Queen Anne was on the throne, but our Queen Anne style and their earlier Queen Anne style don’t have all that much in common.  The misnomer supposedly comes from the author of an 1850s furniture book, who mistakenly labeled a modern chair as one that existed during Anne’s reign, and apparently the name stuck.  It’s also tricky to effectively summarize the style, as it combines several other types, but this is where we got the wraparound porch, the rounded turret, and “gingerbread” woodwork.

As with Second Empire, it was very adaptable to several building types, so that it was not uncommon to see Queen Anne cottages, town homes, and mansions.  Whereas Second Empire was an elegant, almost minimal style, however, Queen Anne was about getting as much decoration as possible into one facade.  A good example of textbook Queen Anne is San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, so picture those in moments of deep despair when you just can’t remember what the style looks like. Queen Anne also has a few sub-sub-styles, the most common of which are Shingle and Stick.  Queen Anne also coincided with the development of resort towns, so you’ll see a lot of Shingle on the East Coast and in New England, and Stick along the Midwestern lakes.


Major features: steeply pitched and irregular roof, intricate spindles, half-timbering, textured shingles, patterned masonry, projecting bays and wings, varying windows, colorful paint.



Chicago has excellent Richardsonian Romanesque building stock, from the Glessner House to Bronzeville’s greystones.  Named for H.H. Richardson, the architect who popularized it, Richardsonian Romanesque was a riff on the elements of European architecture before Gothic took hold.  Richardson saw something interesting in the rough, massive masonry and round arches in early medieval churches, and decided those features were perfect for homes of the American social elite in the 1880s and 90s.  As one does.  It was often used for big, detached urban houses.  Fortress-like Glessner House, designed by Richardson himself, is often considered the shining example of the residential version of  Romanesque.



Major features:  rusticated stone masonry, round arches, Syrian arches, heavy or squat columns, small windows, arched windows, arcaded porches, front gables, carved decorative plaques.

What have we learned today?

  • Victorian is an era, not a style.
  • We contrary Americans call our Victorian era 1860ish-1900, but it was named after the British queen who reigned from 1837 to 1901.
  • Most Victorian styles are based on historic European prototypes, and the biggies are Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Richardsonian Romanesque.
  • A unifying feature of practically all Victorian styles is that they were high and low — they were found on country mansions and urban town houses and tiny farmsteads alike.

Next up:  Everybody’s got to follow the rules.  But in preservation, are there any?  We run down the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.  We know how to have fun here.

3 responses

  1. Well, around here (Indiana in general), “Victorian” is almost always Queen Anne, that is, the latter is the style most apt to be called “Victorian.” (Argh!) We have rather little Gothic Revival anywhere in the state, although I just ran into several nice examples in New Albany, where we recently held our state preservation conference. (I usually run up to Marshall, Michigan for my Gothic Revival fix.) New Albany has some fine Second Empire, too, which I would submit is the second most likely style to be mislabeled “Victorian.” Richardsonian Romanesque is so distinctive that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone call it that name. Our Union Station in Indianapolis is one of our finest examples.
    Been doing this for years; I’m a public historian who has spent much of her life in historic preservation and written scores of national Register nominations.

    • Glory June-

      Thanks so much for the comments. Glad folks are reading. I know your Union Sation well. I was in Indy for the 2014 preservation conference and spent LOTS of time there. Actually, I travel to Indy at least once a year for a weekend getaway from Chicago. I really like Indy.

      I know it seems odd grouping Richardsonian into this but I write for a target audience of historic homeowners (I am a real estate broker) and much of what I experience in my day-to-day business is people that love historic homes and buildings but don’t necessarily have the knowledge or vocabulary to express their passions. I have a masters in Historic Preservation so I try to combine the academic with the hands on, in-the-field experience. Sometimes it works and sometimes, not so much. Bless you for your dedication in Nat’l Register nominations. They can be a bear!

      Monday’s post will be about Secretary of the Interior Standards. I hope you read it and get a chuckle out if it.

  2. Pingback: Hey, nice glass! « I Speak Vintage

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