Victorian architecture is characterized by an eclecticism that moves from one building or part of a building to the other, describing features and influences and sometimes even redefining trends.
An example from the United States is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, once the home of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester.
The architectural curiosities and numerous oddities like doors or stairs to nowhere, windows into other rooms, and stairs with odd-sized risers, are typical of the Victorian search for identity.
Names and phrases characteristic of periods or countries were often used to describe and label the multiple architectural styles or influences—Renaissance, Gothic, Corinthian, Tudor-Elizabethan, Baroque, Tuscan, Moorish—as Victorians searched in vain for a style that defined the age.
Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire, England, combines elements of Jacobean and Elizabethan with symmetrical Baroque.
Victorians had eccentric and sometimes exotic tastes. They loved what became known as “bric-a-brac”—small decorative objects of ornamental or sentimental value—that helped define the image of English coziness and charm.
Perhaps this helps explain the elaborate decoration in unexpected places like Victorian sewer systems, public lavatories, or post boxes.
In London, Victorian hopes and utopian ideas melded with social and moral desperation—Booth’s Salvation Army on the one hand and the depravity of East End slums and Jack the Ripper on the other.
This melting pot of ideas was reflected in Victorian architectural styles across the world from the romanticism evoked by Queen Anne and Italianate to the more austere Gothic Revival. Here are six of the most popular styles:
Rooted in the English Queen Anne style, named after the monarch reigning from 1702 – 1714, the American Queen Anne loosely describes a range of picturesque, romantic buildings featuring textured surfaces, decorative patterns of wood or stone, and rainbow pastel colors. Other features include polygonal towers, overhanging eaves, balconies, pedimented porches, and painted balustrades.
Inspired by villas in Northern Italy. Characteristics include rectangular massing of the body, low-pitched roofs with elaborately carved supporting brackets under the eaves, and windows with elaborate surrounds.
A transitional style between Gothic Revival and Queen Anne, featuring small planks placed on top of exterior walls. Sometimes has an overhanging second-story porch similar to a Swiss chalet. Examples with additional decoration near the top of the house are called Eastlake—after British furniture designer Charles Eastlake.
In contrast to other styles that were designed by professional architects for the monied classes, Folk Victorian was common among the aspiring middle class, who designed their own houses or had a local carpenter do it. They combined elements from fashionable styles with some unique ideas and tended to be smaller and plainer than those of the wealthy.
Distinguished by mansard roofs named after French architect Francois Mansart, with pierced dormer windows having elaborate surrounds. Victorians often added corner quoins, belt courses, and other decoration.
Inspired by Medieval Gothic cathedrals, characterized by steeply pitched roofs with vergeboard trim along edges, pointed-arch windows, high dormers, lancet windows, and vertical board and batten siding.
Picturesque architecture, popular in the later 19th century, combined elements from various styles to create a whimsical and romantic visual effect, which perfectly captures the essence of examples like the Gingerbread House in Savannah, Georgia, and the Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk, Maine.