The Lost World of The Victorians

EVERY spring I take a group of students on an architecture field trip to St. Louis. One of my favorite moments comes when we are touring Tower Grove Park, a landscape developed by Henry Shaw, an Englishman who built a very successful hardware and real estate business in America. Shaw gave this park to the city of St. Louis along with a number of gazebos and statues that he placed along drives.On our field trip we turn into a circle that includes a Moorish bandstand, complete with an onion-shaped dome. This remarkable building is surrounded by a circle of pedestals topped with busts of the composers favored by Shaw. Each time I find myself saying to the class, "Somehow we have lost something over the years. Can you imagine a philanthropist constructing something remotely like that today?" Is this comment based on envy, sorrow, or just plain nostalgia? There is no question that post-Civil War America was a nation that was motivated by a desire to gain and display wealth. Technology made it possible to purchase at reasonable prices furniture and carved details for houses that would have been prohibitive in the era of handwork. But the 1870s produced catalogs that offered buyers a richness that had never been available to the middle class. From all indications, our ancestors reacted with a sense of abandon. No color was too rich, no carving was too lavis h, no combination of styles was too improbable for them. And it appears it was all done with the confidence that they were displaying good taste. In California, there are several places where we still have substantial evidence of the optimism of Victorian builders: Eureka, Ferndale, and San Francisco, to name a few. A number of years ago I had breakfast in the dining room of the exuberant Carson mansion in Eureka. This massive essay in woodcarving typifies the determination of a lumber baron of the middle 1880s. Again I was somewhat envious of the freedom expressed in the richness of the wood used throughout the house. But I also noticed that the many carved details on the exterior have given house painters the chance to create their own color essays in our own time. And probably that is the appeal of the San Francisco wooden houses that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. They offer us a chance to "dress" ourselves in the clothes of the past, a way to express individuality in a time that seems to insist on conformity. The boldness of the dark interiors and the variety of the stained-glass windows all point to a confidence we all would like to express. Somehow it makes more sense to restore and nurture one of these houses than it does to find a modern expressio n of richness. We love the beauty and utility of the wooden houses, and we find ourselves fitting in well with the high ceilings and heavy chandeliers of a bygone age. I must confess that in the 1950s my commentary on Victorian architecture would have been quite different, strewn with references to heaviness, decadence, and a society that did not value originality. Brainwashed by the disciples of modernism, my first reaction to the Moorish bandstand might have been one of derision. But the 1960s brought a renewal of interest in the frame houses of San Francisco. They gained a respectability because they denied the principles of the age of corporate conformity. Now we are a step beyond being revolutionaries; we savor the details and color of these Victorian houses that are now described as "Queen Anne." In 1932, a senator described the Old State, War, and Navy Building in Washington (now the Executive Office Building) as covered with "gimcracks and spizzerinktums." Modern guidebooks that cover architectural styles refer to Queen Anne wooden buildings in serious terms, even noting that the next development in American taste was the colonial revival. Stylistically, these houses had nothing to do with the architecture of Queen Anne's age, which was neoclassical. Rather, they show an interest in the half-timbered buildings of the Tudor age of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth. The turrets and bay windows may even show a love for medieval castles, even causing some homeowners to think they were barons defending their domestic peace from a hostile world. What do we notice when we survey these buildings with the trained eye of the photographer? First, nearly all these structures are tall, their height accentuated by their vertical towers and elaborate roof decorations. The cornice details are richly carved brackets, and the single-paned windows are usually arched. Large interior rooms frequently have classical columns as dividers. Fireplaces are dark and ornately carved. The exterior walls show a dislike of plain surfaces so clapboards or shingles fill nearly all empty spaces, along with bands of horizontal boards. Wooden statues were common in niches inside the houses, along with stained-glass windows that often depicted classical heads or scenes from plays. It seems that Victorians wanted to show that they were cultured by combining all available art forms into their homes. Our age cherishes continuity and romance. No wonder we look up to the porches and turrets of the Victorian houses with their appeal to the imagination. It is exciting to think that technology freed our ancestors to express themselves in terms of the past. The care that is lavished on these wooden houses is almost an apology to the Victorians for having ignored them for so long. Now we sit comfortably on their overstuffed furniture, and we ascend their carved staircases with a sense of delight.

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