Monday, March 7, 2005

Vice and virtue in Victorian architecture

Victorian houses in America differ so radically from their 21st-century counterparts in style and layout that they beg us to ask why.

The Victorians lavished ornament on the outsides of their houses to a degree that has seemed excessive, even repulsive, to later generations. They indulged in architectural whimsies like turrets, stained-glass windows, widow's walks, muliple gables, and exotic paint schemes that expressed the exuberance of the age (we don't think of the Victorians as exuberant, but they were) as well as its ostentation. Only the passage of many decades has made these excesses seem venerable and quaint rather than sentimental and tasteless.

But other features of Victorian houses reveal forgotten virtues of the people who lived in them. Nearly all Victorian houses had relatively large, roofed verandas; middle-class houses usually had a front parlor which was reserved for the reception of guests; and they built their houses close to the street, putting their grander houses on big, busy streets or on corners.

Thus, in Greensboro, the Sternbergers built large houses that fronted Summit Avenue, a road which Caesar Cone himself helped finance as a major thoroughfare between his textile mills and Greensboro's downtown.

The Victorians' devotion of so much of their houses' square footage and design to spaces for social interaction tells us how greatly they valued the virtues of hospitality and engagement in community life. Read, for example, some of the advertising copy that went along with the house plans I've posted above, which were drawn up for a physician:
The walls are wainscoted, ceiling finished in wood, giving an old-time welcome and an hospitable appearance to those coming in to visit the family, and that which should be felt on entering any house, no matter how humble it may be . . . . The Doctor said he wanted no paint, no graining, but his pine was to be pine--his ash, ash. No deception was to be put in his house and he has got none . . . This home is not an expensive one, but a home in every sense of the word, where the homely virtues daily grow stronger, and the true, manly acts of kindness, charity and good feeling toward all men are the ruling principle.
It is revealing, too, that the doctor's house was built so that he could receive patients there, in his own home.

Now compare some typical real-estate advertising copy from last Sunday's News & Record:
Backyard private paradise offers multi-level outdoor living w/gazebo, hot tub, & bar. Hardwoods . . . . Beautiful sunroom that overlooks yard and backs up to woods . . . . Fireplace w/gas logs, renovated Kitchen w/stainless gas range . . . . Great ranch on cul-de-sac! Den with skylight and wet bar. Extra large Master Bedroom.
On the whole, I think it's fair to say that the Victorians saw their houses as places to exercise and strengthen "the homely virtues" of both public and private charity, kindness, and hospitality. They believed in this strongly enough that saying so helped sell house plans! Whereas we (myself very much included) tend to see our houses primarily as retreats for privacy, restoration, and pleasure. Or, as Philip Bess once put is, as places devoted to "the care and tending of the autonomous self."

Of course, we're never going back to the Victorian way of life. But I think we could learn a thing or two from they way they thought about their houses.


Rob Ainbinder said...

What the Victorians had right were the social spaces and neighborly orientation. Unfortunately, what they had wrong (asthetic, mass produced, cookie cutter detail) prevented them from enjoying the social spaces or burdened them with hiring house staff to keep it clean.

As an unfortunate carry over into current housing we find baseboard trim with a profile so ornate that no vacuum or duster can clean it.

From here, I'll let the words and inspiration of Stickley do the rest of the speaking:

Stickley quotes a chapter from a book called "England's Ideal" by Edward Carpenter. The chapter is called "The Simplification of Life" and the following is an excerpt:

"No doubt immense simplifications of our daily life are possible; but this does not seem to be a matter which has been much studied. Rather hitherto the tendency has been all the other way, and every additional ornament to the mantelpiece has been regarded as an acquisition and not as a nuisance; though one doesn't see any reason, in the nature of things, why it should be regarded as one more than the other. It cannot be too often remembered that every additional object in a house requires additional dusting, cleaning, repairing; and lucky you are if its requirements stop there."

Michael said...

Detail, square footage, and expense were given to public spaces. While you credit this to the "virtues of hospitality and engagement in community life", an at least equally credible view is that detail and expense was given to formal front parlors and such because those were the spaces your neighbors would see and it was about a public display of material wealth more than anything else. The industrial revolution and mass production of consumer goods allowed the middle classes to engage in the war of keeping up with the Jones' in a way that had not been previously possible.

I would not give too much credence to 19th century ad copy. Advertising doesn't reflect how we are but how we want to think of ourselves or how we want other people to think of us.

Certainly many people enjoy living in older Victorian homes today, but almost no one decorates them as a Victorian would. Very dark, patterned wallpaper on the walls and ceiling. Full to bursting with over stuffed furniture. Bric-a-brac everywhere. We tend to impose modern, minimalist decoration to a Victorian shell (even if we have antiques).

Homes were closer together, on smaller plots, closer to the street, and the grand homes were on the major streets (Summit and Elm). This is still desirable (to you and I) today. However, remember that these homes were built pre-car. None of these characteristics were particular to Victorians, just to pre-car architecture. It is difficult to convince a car culture to embrace pre-car architecture.

David Wharton said...

I think it's probable that the Victorians were motivated both by a social ethic of virtue and the vice of ostentation in the organization and decoration of their houses. The presence of the vice doesn't necessitate the absence of virtue. In fact, I think public-spiritedness and ostentation often go hand-in-hand. (Think of Hollywood fundraisers, for example.)

I still think that the advertising copy is very revealing of cultural differences between us and the Victorians. It shows that they regarded virtue highly, whether or not they were able to live up to its demands.

Modern real estate advertising, on the other hand, appeals overwhelmingly to our desire for convenience, privacy, pleasure, and -- at the higher end -- status. I have never seen a modern real estate ad that appealed to my sense of charity, kindness, and goodwill toward all men!

It's true that pre-car cities were built more densely by necessity. But we all know about "making a virtue of necessity."

David Wharton said...

Rob, thanks for the Stickley quote. I know from experience that living in a Victorian is *very* labor intensive.

Michael, I've thought more about house setbacks, and I'm convinced that they're not totally car (or non-car) driven. In G'boro, Westerwood, Sunset Hills, and even Reedy Fork (!) have short setbacks & small lots -- all post-car neighborhoods. I hear through the grapevine that the Reedy Fork developers consider it to be a "neo-traditional" development.

David Wharton said...

Rob, thanks for the Stickley quote. I know from experience that living in a Victorian is *very* labor intensive.

Michael, I've thought more about house setbacks, and I'm convinced that they're not totally car (or non-car) driven. In G'boro, Westerwood, Sunset Hills, and even Reedy Fork (!) have short setbacks & small lots -- all post-car neighborhoods. I hear through the grapevine that the Reedy Fork developers consider it to be a "neo-traditional" development.

Rob Ainbinder said...


Closer set backs, snoutless home designs and Craftsman facades are being made (in some floorplans)by one builder just over the Forsyth/Davie Co. border.

I wonder if the trend will move further east? My only issue with this neighborhood is the price range. What about the "common man"?

It doesn't look like we've made much in the way of residental design for the masses since the end of W.W. II where hordes of Frank Lloyd "Gone Wrong" ranch homes were built.

Sure, technological strides have been made in home systems (e.g. plumbing, HVAC, windows) and the like but, design has suffered.

Residental design seems to be stuck in "Mcbox" sameness where "supersizing" is the only attribute desired. As one builder's billboard declared. "It's not a big house, just more than you're used to"

Michael said...

Where I grew up in Connecticut (born 1973), if you wanted a new house you generally bought a lot, hired an architect, then you hired a contractor who built you the house. Today more and more it seems that large developments of cookie cutter houses are built with all of the design centrally controlled by the builder. While the individually built houses suffered design problems, at least each house was different, and this broke up the monotony of bad design. And occassionally someone showed the taste and foresight to build a well designed house. Why have we almost completely abandoned the owner built house. I am a city apartment renter, but if I were to ever to desire to buy a new freestanding home, it would be something that was designed specifically for me in collaboration with a talented architect.

Anonymous said...

David, the house diagram brought me such a wave of nostalgia--it is exactly the layout of a magnificent Victorian home in my hometown of Goshen, Indiana (13,000 souls in the 1950s, maybe twice that now), and the home and office of my family's physician, Dr. Mary Bartholomew (they switched me to a male doctor at puberty). The house still stands at the corner of 7th St. and Lincoln Ave., though it has by now been subdivided into apartments, I think.