No longer gauche, Victoriana comes into its own

Ten years ago, Victorian meant overdone, pretentious, flamboyantly bad. Victorian houses were pariahs best leveled for parking lots and their contents shunted off to Goodwill.But not anymore.

"There's been a remarkable change in perception about Victorian things," says Clem Labine, editor of the Old House Journal and America's guru on home restoration. "When we started the Old House Journal back in 1973, Victorian was synonymous to bad taste. Now it's the opposite."

After years of neglect the art, architecture, furniture, and even the fashions of the Victorian age are being sought after and collected. What can't be found in sufficient quantity, whether a mechanical doorbell or a lace-trimmed blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves, is being manufactured and marketed as "Victorian reproductions."

Why has opinion changed? Kristina Butvydas, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Victorian Society, sees the revival of interest as the "natural swinging back of the pendulum. Today Victorian means unique, romantic, tasteful," she says. "People are choosing the best of our 19th-century past to make life today a little richer." Accordingly, the Victorian Society has grown from a handful of enthusiasts in 1966 to 10,000 members spread across the country today.

Victorian zealots speak of the desire to recapture the elegance and optimism of an era, which for easy record-keeping stretches from Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne in 1837 to her death in 1901. Carol Spickler of a home-restoration firm in Lancaster, Pa., believes the movement reflects "a desire to believe in fairy tales, to idealize the past, and to escape today's harsh realities."

"People have gotten bored with modern bleakness," says Mr. Labine. "They are attracted to the philosophical and decorative richness of the Victorian era. Besides, the materials and workmanship in a house in a house made up by a cookie- cutter developer 100 years ago is vastly superior to the average development house today. The Victorian architects made houses more than machines for living. They created beautiful, romantic dwellings. What we consider the ultimate in craftmanship was available to the middle class in the 19th century."

Those old houses with turrets and towers that were practically given away 10 years ago are being purchased at respectable prices and lovingly restored. Since many of these 19th-century buildings have lost much of their original detail to both changing tastes and neglect, their restoration has spawned the manufacture of tin ceilings, pull-chain toilets, and 19th-century wallpaper patterns. Older craftsmen, who have managed to survive years of sluggish demand for stained-glass windows and plaster ceiling medallions, report both thriving trade and eager young apprentices.

After years of stepchild treatment, Victorian furniture has come into its own. "High-style, 19th-century furniture is beautiful," says Margaret Caldwell of the 19th-century furniture department at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York City, "but we've see it as grandmother furniture covered with fringes, knickknacks, and antimacassars. Cleaned up and in a less cluttered setting, the furniture takes on a fresh look." Today the public, whether driven by a desire to furnish a Victorian home with period pieces or to collect still affordable antiques, is buying.

What once could be picked up at the Salvation Army now shines in the windows of the finest antique shops in the country. More respect means higher prices. To take one spectacular example, an 1855 rosewood table made in the workshop of John Henry Belter sold for $60,000 last year.

"That sale price was exceptional," explains Miss Caldwell, "because the piece was in its original condition. No parts had been replaced or repaired. Its finish, which some of us might call dingy, was original. And Belter furniture always commands a lot of money, because of its reputation for workmanship of the highest quality. His pieces were expensive, even when they were first made."

Most Victorian furniture does not come from Belter's factory and sells for much less than $60,000. Says Miss Caldwell: "Fine pieces can still be had for under $5,000, which is far below what 18th-century furniture costs. And in Victorian furniture, unlike 18th century, you have so many styles to select from. You can choose among the serpentine lines of American rococo, the simplicity of Eastklake, the strength of cast iron, or the solidity of American Restoration."

Throughout the 64 years of Queen Victoria's reign, styles in furniture and fashion, art and architecture range widely from surprisingly simple to complex. What all seem to share is an optimism, a celebration of the buying power of the middle class.

The Industrial Revolution brought prosperity to a rising middle class, who enjoyed a new position of wealth and influence. Ambitious and hard-working they enjoyed putting their dollars where they showed.

"The current interest in the 19th century," says Pauline Chase Harrell, vice-president of Boston Affiliates Inc., "has grown out of the broadening of history. History used to be a study of great men and great events. Now we're more interested in the ordinary person. How did they live a century ago? And, perhaps because we're getting bored with clean lines and sparsely furnished rooms, the material goods of the ordinary person in the 19th century have great appeal today."

"Recently," says Clem Labine, "someone suggested to me that people tend to reject that which they saw in their grandmother's house, but they like their great-grandmother's things. To the current crop a new homemakers, Victorian things are a brand new look."

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