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The Victorian style of house includes five subgroups:

  • Second Empire
  • Stick
  • Queen Anne
  • Shingle
  • Richardsonian Romanesque

The long reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria lasted from 1837 to 1901 and, in the most precise sense, this span of years makes up the Victorian era. In American architecture, however, it is those styles that were popular during the last decade of her reign—from about 1860–1900—that are generally referred to as “Victorian.” During this period, rapid industrialization and the growth of the railroads led to dramatic changes in American house design and construction. The balloon frame, made up of light, two-inch boards held together by wire nails, was rapidly replacing heavy-timber framing as the standard building technique.

This, in turn, freed houses from their traditional box-like shapes by greatly simplifying the construction of corners, wall extensions, overhangs, and irregular ground plans. In addition, growing industrialization permitted many complex house components—doors, windows, roofing, siding, and decorative detailing—to be mass-produced in large factories and shipped throughout the country at relatively low cost on the expanding railway network. Victorian styles clearly reflect these changes through their extravagant use of complex shapes and elaborate detailing, features hitherto restricted to expensive, landmark houses.

Most Victorian styles are loosely based on Medieval prototypes. Multi-textured or multi-colored walls, strongly asymmetrical façades, and steeply pitched roofs are common features. Little attempt is made, however, at historically precise detailing. Instead, stylistic details are freely adopted from both Medieval and Classical precedents. Most Victorian styles tend to overlap each other without the clear-cut stylistic distinctions that separate the Greek, Gothic, and Italianate modes of the preceding Romantic era. This architectural experimentation continued beyond Victorian times to reach a climax in the early decades of the 20th century when the first truly modern styles—Craftsman and Prairie—rose to popularity.

A second trend that was to end the Victorian era turned toward more precise copies of earlier styles, especially those of Colonial America. This movement began with the Centennial celebrations of 1876 and picked up momentum through the 1880s and ‘90s to become dominant in the 20th century. Its influence is evident in the borrowed Georgian and Adam details seen in many late Victorian houses built in the Shingle and Queen Anne Styles.

Excerpted from A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia and Lee McAlester, Alfred Knopf, New York, © 2000.