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Forbes Home asks Questions about Victorian Houses

Updated: Apr 11

1. What is the most distinguishing feature of Victorian homes in your opinion?

The most distinguishing feature of Victorian homes has to be the Gingerbread. Architectural gingerbread is that ornate detailed decoration you see on these old homes, deriving its name from the icing, piping, and candied decor of a gingerbread house. The intricate woodworking was displayed throughout the exterior of the home, but also carried into the interior as well.

Examples of Gingerbread can be found in trim, fretwork, spindles and balusters, corbels, gables and more. Delicate and intricate designs such as, lace, floral or geometric patterns were often carved into these pieces. You could find woodworkings, stone carvings, and metal work throughout the homes, even down to the smallest details. Scalloped or saw tooth moldings, for example, often lined every union between walls, ceilings, floors and fenestration. Even brackets, hardware, and visible structural supports would be decorative. Larger and more noticeable gingerbread would be used to adorn eaves, gables, railings, porches, verandas, and roof overhangs. It adds a feeling of whimsy and ornamental charm to these otherwise large, cold, and at the time, modern homes.

Victorian architecture followed the Georgian style. People were eager to break away from the traditional, uniform and simplistic blandness of the Georgian aesthetic. The industrial revolution gave birth to machines that could more quickly and more easily create these architectural pieces. Taking advantage of these readily available tools, people were able to accentuate this style with the elaborate decoration, mixed materials, and eclectic styles. The style incorporated very noticeable differentiations, such as towers or turrets, large conical or steep roofs, eye-catching spires, beautiful stained glass, multiple porches, innovative asymmetrical designs, exotic materials and of course, bold color schemes. All of these elements were pulled together to form a cohesive and elegant look through the playful details of Gingerbread.

2. How would you describe the style in your own words?

When describing it to clients, I often find myself relating it to a classic dollhouse, or haunted house, as they are often portrayed through current pop culture.

As an aesthetic I would describe it as an eclectic and ornate style, identified by intricate details, elaborate decorations, and often asymmetrical designs. Regardless of which substyle, all Victorian homes tend to have that specific and eye-catching appearance with features like decorative trim, steep roofs, and colorful facades, that are all sure to grab your attention.

As an architectural style, I would describe the Victorian style architecture as a group of various substyles that showcase a diverse collection of (mostly European) architectural elements, details, and materials, all presented as an artistic expression of wealth and social status in a maximalist mindset.

3. Victorian-style homes have seen a recent surge in popularity and search interest on social media. Why do you think this style lends itself to so much conversation and interest?

The growing popularity for Victorian-style homes on social media could be attributed to several factors. I feel that the style is aligning with people currently, because of the similarities between the socio-economic issues of the Victorian era, and now.

On a very basic level, the unique and romantic aesthetic provides great backdrops and attention commanding visual content. Picturesque qualities such as colorful exteriors, lush gardens, inviting spaces, and elaborate details are seen as worthy features for visually focused social-media. Influencers and Celebrities use historic luxury homes like these to highlight their aspirational lifestyles, while using nostalgia to connect to their followers.

Folks in these social media communities may not be able to afford extravagant lifestyles, especially in the currently overpriced housing market. However, they may, on occasion, be able to afford one of these gems. The pandemic pushed people to be more apt to renovate their homes, and really discover the historical charm and individuality of these vintage houses, even if in a state of disrepair. Home restoration and renewal inspired by individualism became trending content almost overnight, and a craving for returning to a bygone era followed. Victorian project homes seemed to be the perfect solution for what people were needing at the time.

We also saw these homes continue to be prevalent throughout television and media exposure. Home improvement, historical documentaries, scary movies and gothic television shows love to feature these characters exuding structures that we know and love. It’s not a coincidence that these remnants of the gilded age are coming back to our art right now, when wage disparities and wealth inequality is on the rise.

Of all the home styles that have the potential to trend on social media, the Victorian style seems the most appropriate. These symbols of gross materialism and excess, dominated their neighborhoods in their day. They were indicative of wealth, social status and influence. These visually striking houses would appeal and impress on social media today for the same reasons they did in the streets during their prime.

The surge in popularity and interest in Victorian homes can be attributed to how they connect people to the nostalgic lifestyles they aspire to maintain, also because they provided solutions for the needs left over from the social and economic post-pandemic state.

4. Victorian homes are also seen in the horror genre of movies and films quite often. Can you speak to any features of this kind of home that may lend itself well to horror films or “creepy” aesthetics?

Victorian homes are often featured in horror films, and are easily associated with the paranormal, or “creepy” aesthetics for several reasons, but none more prevalent, to me, than Victorian spiritualism. The Victorian aesthetic lends itself to this archetype as spiritual encounters were the zeitgeist (no pun intended) of the period.

It is widely known that the season of the seance room was the Victorian era. During this time people would convert rooms in their homes to “seance rooms” and hold gatherings where spiritualists would often “make contact” with spirits of deceased people. People were openly and some would say, recklessly, opening what they considered “doorways” or “gateways” to other realms or dimensions, in these homes. It was commonly believed that once these doors were open, it was very difficult to close, leaving these homes to be conduits or cages, to catch the spiritual energy. These rooms were often renovated or custom built to provide secret passages, trick doors, and low lighting, with the intent to cater to these sessions.

These elaborate parties and sessions being held by Victorian spiritualists, were limited to the privilege of the wealthier classes. These privileged people had the time, money, and room in their houses to accommodate these activities. Therefore, the stigma was applied to the newer and more prestigious homes of the time, rather than the older or smaller homes. As time went on and the great depression set in, these homes began to be sold, or abandoned, as they could not be maintained and the upkeep was excessive. As they fell into disrepair they decayed, often overgrown with garden vegetation as if they were dead and returning to the earth. They were often associated with having been abandoned due to hauntings, rather than the fall of industrial tycoons.

These upper echelon home owners were looked back on with disgust and resentment from the middle and lower class. As neighborhoods and subdivisions grew around these dying grandfather structures, they were stigmatized to be the homes of the indifferent, eccentric, (and possibly even) evil, rich folks. The dark color schemes, gothic elements, and dramatic grandness often left people with an imposing feeling in their gut. The long hallways, low natural light (to protect expensive furnishings) and towering turrets definitely contributed to a sense of foreboding.

Real architecture takes into account the effect our environment and shelter has on our existence and how we feel in these spaces. Sometimes, through historical events, like explained above, the architecture takes on a character all its own, and what once was inviting and enticing, can turn scary and spooky. Filmmakers seem to be aware of this. Victorian homes have great spaces for scary scenes. They tend to be large homes, with numerous rooms, hallways, staircases, passageways, attics and basements. The large rooms, houses and estates can be isolating, and leave one feeling vulnerable. Creaking floorboards, drafty windows, and antique decor are all hallmarks of horror movies. These homes really seem to provide the visuals needed to create suspenseful and mysterious scenes, but they draw from us a carnal unease that is deep seeded in our culture.

The fusion of the historical context, social settings, and architectural features create a sense of mystery, isolation, unease and decay. This leaves Victorian homes as the obvious solution and popular choice for filmmakers.

5. Why do you think these homes have gotten the reputation to some as “haunted houses?”

As previously mentioned, these houses have reputations of being haunted, primarily because of how they provided spaces for talking to spirits and ghosts, in the height of what was known as Victorian Spiritualism. Beyond this historical and architectural factors contributed to the idea that Victorian homes are haunted.

At the base of this idea is the fact these houses are old, and people associate old buildings with hauntings. The more people, and the more deaths, that have occurred on or around the property, the more likely folks will consider it haunted. So the older the home, the more potential for paranormal activity.

Then of course, the architectural features I mentioned before just seem to create a haunting ambience. The grandeur, the dark woodwork, hidden rooms, complex floor plans, creaking floors, drafty windows, overgrown gardens, they all give off a dead energy.

Also consider a lot of these homes have been turned into historical landmarks, or museums, and haunted attractions bring tourists. Stories and folklore circulate throughout communities and become a part of a house’s reputation. These reputations create a commercial incentive to promote the idea that these houses may be home to the undead.

The reputation that Vitorian homes have as being haunted in a complex interplay of historical factors, architectural features, and most of all the cultural influence from Victorian Spiritualism. Together they contribute to the enduring belief that these homes often harbor supernatural activity and ghosts.

6. Do you think the class and wealth disparities during the time period when these houses were built affected how these homes were perceived?

Absolutely. Like I had mentioned before, these houses were statement homes, meant to be visually overstimulation, and commanding of attention. They acted as blatant reminders of wealth disparities and are still seen as an antiquated symbol of excess wealth, and industrial tycoon corruption.

They housed numerous qualities that modest homes just couldn’t afford. The grand scale, mixed and exotic materials, excessive detail, elaborate furnishings, and access to amenities like indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating. They also showcased their wealth, with sprawling estate grounds in prime locations with complex gardens that often needed full ground crews as well as domestic servants to maintain them.

The public perception was one of excess grandeur that contributed to the social prestige of the wealthy. Their homes were symbols of success and prosperities, at the same time they served as reminders of the separation between economic classes.

7. What, if anything, do you wish people understood about this design, or is there anything you think they get wrong about this type of home?

Victorian Architecture is one of my all time favorite styles of architecture because at its core it is an eclectic style. Because it is so inclusive, there are often misconceptions about what a Victorian style home really is. Most people don’t realize there are numerous styles of Victorian homes. When we talk about Victorian Homes, most people will imagine a Queen Anne style home, somewhat asymmetrical, perhaps with a hexagonal bay, maybe with a tower on one side, tall thin windows or stained glass, and wrap around covered porches. But there are so many more styles! Here is a short list of styles and some key elements to spot them.

  • We will start with my favorite, Gothic Revival, inspired by medieval Gothic architecture. Look for pointed arches, steeply pitched roofs, and quatrefoil motifs.

  • Italianate, inspired by Italian villas, features tall, narrow windows, bracketed eaves, and often a cupola or belvedere.

  • Second Empire, named after the Second French Empire, look for the mansard roofs with dormer windows. They often resemble a French chateau.

  • Romanesque Revival includes massive, rounded arches, rough stone or brickwork, and usually a prominent central tower.

  • Stick Style is characterized by exposed structural elements such as decorative trusses and stickwork on the exterior.

  • Shingle Style focuses on a seamless, shingled exterior, this style features large porches, and a rustic appearance.

  • Folk Victorian is a more simplified and affordable version of the classic Queen Anne Victorian architecture.

  • Eastlake Style, incorporates geometric motifs, spindle work, and ornamental details.

  • Richardsonian Romanesque style highlights massive stone arches, rusticated stonework, and a fortress-like appearance.

  • Moorish Revival or Neo-Moorish is an exotic style that includes horseshoe arches, intricate tile work, and ornate detailing.

  • Colonial Revival or Late Victorian showed up at the end of the Victorian era, bringing back a revival of colonial architectural elements, with homes featuring columns, pediments, and returning to a more symmetrical appearance.

Victorian style homes are rich in history, and architectural diversity from around the world. Whether admired for their complex beauty and character, or feared for their social, cultural and economic symbolism, they will continue to command attention and appeal to generations to come.

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