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Ornate as decorate– Victorian home design

Our last article on Victorian Houses in the “Watching Buildings” column addressed the influence of Victorian society on the design and layout of houses. This week, we take a more in-depth look in the details that you will see on the exterior of Victorian homes. The level and detail of ornamentation makes these structures especially unique!

Victorian architecture, of which there are many examples in Jonesborough, reflected the social and industrial developments of the nineteenth century. These houses were characterized by ornaments and flourishes, both on the exterior and in the interior. Decorative exterior features of the Victorian era included clipped gables, steeply pitched dormers, and elaborate scroll-cut bargeboards and porch trim. These ornaments demonstrated an appreciation of contemporary trends, and the desire to reflect middle-class success and respectability. The interior features were usually equally ornate, and included grand staircases, carved wood paneling, divided interiors with formal spaces (such as parlors, dining rooms, and studies, decorative fireplaces), high ceilings, and stained-glass windows. 

Victorian architecture was the direct result of modernization and reflected a future-oriented mentality. Two architectural approaches generally prevailed: one attempted to convey clear, geometric order and the other concentrated on the picturesque, which emphasized “natural” values. In many cases, Victorian architecture replaced classical symmetry with picturesque asymmetry. Additionally, technological innovations created new building techniques (like lamination and electroplating), the mass-production of building materials, and systems of transportation, which led to housing booms in the 1850s and 1870s. This has also been referred to as the “Age of Indecision,” because of the variety of architectural styles.

Regardless of the exact architectural style, Victorian homes generally reflected certain social virtues. Victorianism was often associated with seriousness, including a sense of moral urgency and the language of “duty” and “virtue.” Above all, Victorians prioritized order, which came to define their personal lives. Within their orderly and secure homes, Victorians could practice self-improvement, which the design of their homes helped to facilitate.

Famous landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing explained that between traditional architecture and the new Victorian style, the choice was obvious: “… with more cultivated minds the taste and imagination are active, and call for a more lively and varied kind of beauty, and the irregular building would be chosen, as affording more intense and enduring pleasure.” Fortunately, these architectural treasures continue to offer us both beauty and pleasure well over a century later.  

This Watching Buildings article was contributed by Megan Tewell with the Heritage Alliance