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Painted Ladies Victorian homes in San Francisco

What Are Victorian Homes?

Rachel Burris7-Minute Read
September 25, 2020

Architecture doesn’t merely add beauty and interest to its surroundings; it also provides beholders with a window into the past. A home’s design speaks volumes about the lifestyles of those for whom it was built.

Just as contemporary style homes speak to our desire to lead informal, convenient lives, Victorian homes have a story to share about their former owners.

The Victorian era was a time of rapid change. Technologies were advancing, and the middle class was growing larger and wealthier. Victorians built their homes to reflect the new world and show off their new affluence.

So, what are Victorian homes actually like? Learn about the history and features of Victorian houses and see if purchasing one is right for you.

What Is A Victorian Home?

A Victorian home is not a single style of architecture so much as it’s a representation of a specific era. Victorian houses emerged during Queen Victoria’s reign over Great Britain and the British colonies from 1837-1901.

While they’re known for their colorful, ornate facades, there’s a broad range in architectural features present in each of the different types of houses that comprise the Victorian style.

Why Are They Called Victorian Houses?

Victorian houses were very much a product of their time. Although they were named after Queen Victoria, they were far more inspired by the Industrial Revolution. The advances in manufacturing and transportation enabled builders to access better quality materials, actualize more complex, decorative designs and apply colored paints to buildings for the first time.

“The Industrial Age was in full force, and designers used materials and mass-producing techniques to break out of traditional design convention and create an architecture that was ornate, ornamental and perhaps overly decorative, telegraphing the wealth and success of the age,” explains Tim Bakke, director of publishing for The Plan Collection.

Although Victorian houses were first built in England, the British Empire’s extensive reach at the time caused the architectural style to flourish abroad. As British architects traveled to the colonies to take advantage of business opportunities, they brought with them the Victorian style.

However, given the differences in building materials and preferences, the architectural style began to evolve. Although you can find strong examples of the Victorian style in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, you’ll notice that the houses are all quite different from one another.

What Are The Different Styles Of Victorian Houses?

Spreading across the colonies, Victorian houses maintained their popularity over the course of the century. Instead of remaining stagnant, the architecture evolved, creating a handful of different styles that would all be considered Victorian. Three prominent Victorian styles include the Gothic Revival, Folk Victorian and Queen Anne.

Gothic Revival (And Carpenter Gothic) Style Home

Rose Hill Mansion, Gothic Revival Victorian-style home

Influenced by medieval architecture and the Romantic art movement, the Gothic Revival style is present in many cathedrals and university buildings. However, a sub-type of this style is Carpenter Gothic, which can be found in houses in more rural areas that were once owned by single families.

Architects of the time applied the awe-inspiring features of the castles and churches of the Middle Ages to these impressive homes. These houses are known for their pointed arches and windows, which often include diamond-shaped panes, steep, front-facing gable roofs, decorative eaves and wooden board-and-batten siding.

Queen Anne Style Home

Queen Anne-style Victorian home.

The Queen Anne style home has become the most iconic and popular of all Victorian houses. These homes employed the latest advances in construction to create elaborate floor plans that feature asymmetrical designs. They can be identified by their use of bay windows, round towers, turrets, porches and steep, peaked roofs. They’re highly decorated with intricate trimming and brightly painted facades.

The ornate designs of Queen Anne style homes furnish them with a whimsical appearance similar to dollhouses. While this style became prominent in the late 1870s, it continued to be built through the early 1900s and can be found throughout the United States.

Folk Victorian Style Home

Folk style gingerbread Victorian house

Once the Victorian style became all the rage within wealthy circles, it wasn’t long before working-class families wanted to build similar homes for themselves. Without the funds necessary to hire architects, these families relied on carpenters to design and build their properties.

The style became known as Folk Victorian because these houses were basic folk houses (small, common structures) that were decorated with pre-fabricated embellishments. Since Folk Victorian homes generally have simplistic floor plans, they lack the more complex architectural elements that are indicative of the era.

Features Of A Victorian House

Row of Victorian houses.

The features of these houses can be varied, depending on the specific style of Victorian architecture and whether it was built during the Victorian era or during the revival period. However, Victorian houses can typically be identified by the following features:

  • Colorful facades: Victorian houses tend to be immediately recognizable due to their painted facades. The exterior of these homes may be painted in bright pastels or more muted tones with decorative features painted a different color.
  • Two or three stories: Because these homes were built on narrow plots of land, often in a row, Victorian houses are usually two to three stories high.
  • Embellished millwork: Victorian houses are known for the intricately carved woodwork that typically adorns windows, doorways and eaves. It’s this ornate trimming that gives these homes their gingerbread house look.
  • Glazed bricks: For Victorian houses that were made out of brick instead of wood, bricks were sometimes glazed in different colors to add ornamentation to the structure.
  • Eclectic array of windows: Part of Victorian houses’ charm comes from the decorative nature of their windows. A single home could possess a variety of styles, shapes and sizes including stained glass, eyebrow, porthole, cameo, arched and multi-pane windows.
  • Bay windows: Victorian houses often include a windowed area that protrudes out of the home’s facade.
  • Towers, turrets and dormers: During this time, builders began experimenting with asymmetrical architectural designs. As a result, round or octagonal towers and turrets became a prominent feature of Victorian homes, as did dormers with windows that extended out of the homes’ sloped roofs.
  • Porches: Many Victorian houses include front porches or those that wrap around the side of the home. These porches often include ornamentation that enhances the homes’ visual appeal.
  • Steep, gabled roofs: The roofs of Victorian houses are typically pitched with a triangular shape that faces the front. 

Interior Features Of Victorian Houses

The interiors of Victorian houses were also highly decorated and designed to accommodate the more formal lifestyles of their residents.

“Victorian homes tend to be ‘closed’ floor plans with long areas of transition like halls and stairs,” says Justin Riordan, interior designer, architect and founder of the Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles home staging company, Spade and Archer Design Agency. “We commonly see heavy crown molding, window and door trim as well as 8” – 16” baseboards.”

These homes were not only meant to be enjoyed by their owners but also by their guests. As a result, the house would have multiple parlors – in place of a living room – and a formal dining room. “It’s common to see double parlors with fireplaces sporting wooden mantles and separated by sliding pocket doors,” adds Riordan.

Characteristics Of Victorian Home Decor

Salon Rouge in a Victorian home

Victorian home decor exuded opulence. Rooms were filled with dark woods, lush textiles and ample artwork. No space was left bare in these homes, as their interiors were presented as a symbol of their owners’ status.

“Wealthy Victorians decorated their homes in the latest styles,” says Dawn D. Totty, interior designer and owner of Dawn D. Totty Designs in Tennessee. “Parlors were designed with very ornate and heavy decor. Textiles had a large influence with the usage of heavy draperies, hand-loomed area rugs, as well as silk and cloth wall-coverings.”

Some current owners of these houses choose to preserve the sanctity of the Victorian style. Totty finds that those who do “decorate with the implementation of dark wood finishes, curvy antique sofas usually covered in velvet or silk, window treatments and plenty of area rugs. Accessories such as paintings, family portraits and plants are great fillers.”

Credit: Ruum Media

However, this style is not conducive to every lifestyle. While the lavish interiors of these homes were ideal for the Victorians, many now find this type of home decor to make for overly crowded, dark rooms. Riordan warns that decorating Victorian houses in Victorian furniture is “a wonderful way to trap yourself in a very uncomfortable museum.”

For those who are looking to modernize their Victorian homes, he says, “My best advice is to fill it with things you love. We recently filled our Queen Anne Victorian with very modern frosted glass globe fixtures.”

How Much Does A Victorian House Cost?

Abandoned Victorian home.

While you can find Victorian houses priced at around $500,000, fully restored Victorians can cost millions of dollars. While the purchasing price of Victorian homes may seem somewhat reasonable, given their spectacular facades and historical significance, the cost of maintaining these homes can be considerable.

“If you’re buying a true Victorian home, know that with age comes a host of problems. Victorian homes are typically built on a thin foundation, so you may need to have the entire thing redone. Roof replacements are another costly (and likely) con to this style, and you’ll also have to account for the fact that some Victorian homes may not meet modern standards for structure and wiring,” says Courtney Keene, director of operations for MyRoofingPal.

Victorian houses can make for spectacular homes, assuming you know what you’re in for. Totty advises, “Do your due diligence and research the costs of labor and materials to complete the entire restoration prior to purchase.”

Before you make any final decisions, it’s also crucial to remember that these homes were designed for Victorian lifestyles, not ours. While many people love the quaint formality of Victorian homes, others find them to be stuffy.

In fact, even in the 19th century, there were those who considered the Victorian style to be ostentatious and wanted to return to simpler, handmade designs. Thanks to them, the Craftsman style house was born.

If you want to buy a historic house, you must first think about your priorities and compare your way of life to that of the time period you’re interested in. Contemporary homes tend to be the most popular because they were designed with present-day habits in mind.

However, open layouts and natural light aren’t necessities for everyone. Browse the homes on the market to help you determine what’s most important to you.

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    Rachel Burris

    Rachel Burris is a writer covering topics of interest to present and future homeowners, as well as industry insiders. Prior to joining Rocket Companies, she worked as an English teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a licensed real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Bucknell University, a postbaccalaureate certificate in psychology from Columbia University and a master's degree in English education from Teachers College, Columbia University.