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How Art Shapes Our Lives: Victorian Era Architecture

By Sal Maccarone —

Preceded by the Georgian era, the Victorian era refers to the reign of Queen Victoria. At 63 years-plus years (1837-1901), her reign in the United Kingdom was the longest of any monarch until recently as her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II now holds the new record.

In terms of progress and architecture, though, Queen Victoria ushered in a period of unprecedented development which coincided with our industrial revolution in America.

In the United States and Canada, the term ‘Victorian architecture’ actually includes a variety of different building styles. The Victorian era was a time period., so much of the architecture that evolved between 1837 and 1901 is considered Victorian.

John Muir mansion built in 1883

For example, the John Muir mansion built in 1883 located in Martinez, California, is an Italianate style Victorian. Muir is considered by many to be the father of the National Park system — his home is now a National Historic site and park we can all enjoy.

Some of the features evident in this house include projecting eaves, low-pitched roofs, corbels and bay windows. These are all appealing elements of Mr. Muir’s Italianate Victorian.

To point out a few differences, some of the prominent features of the American Queen Anne style include a dominant front-facing gable which cantilevers over the wall below, round towers, porches and balconies at every level. Wall textures such as shingles or relief panels are also commonly used.

These buildings can be one, two, or three stories high — often with basements. Queen Anne is the building style most often thought of as a true ‘Victorian.’

San Francisco’s famous ‘Painted Ladies.’

San Francisco’s famous ‘Painted Ladies’ are all great examples of this familiar genre, but the grandest Queen Anne Victorian in the west has got to be the ‘Carson Mansion’ in Eureka, Ca. Constructed by lumber baron William Carson in 1886, the house was built with many thousands of board feet of redwood.

Here is a short video with aerial footage that does a good job of showing the features of the Carson house. This magnificent building is now home to a private club and, fortunately, it is also open for tours.

With the advent of motor-driven power during this era, it became much easier to produce beautiful architectural elements. Components such as moldings, turnings and curved windows could now be pre-fabricated in shops and then shipped to the worksites for installation.

Everything was trimmed and accentuated.

This new procedure allowed for crude joints made in the field that were then covered with ornate caps and moldings. This same principle applied to the interiors of these homes of the time. Everything was trimmed and accentuated with moldings, corbels, plaster, ornate turnings and the like.

Thanks to power and machinery, attention paid to detail became the name of the game for the many designers of Victorian era architecture.

Victorian interior.

Sal Maccarone is a foothills-based artist and craftsman

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