UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, our focus isn’t on a specific feature per se, but more on a combination of features; a whole architectural style, in fact. And we’re focusing on how mutable cultural values created and then reviled that style, resulting in its being the focus of nightmares in popular culture. To honor Halloween season in a preservation-minded way, instead of covering traditional hauntings, we will examine how the aforementioned phenomena collectively created our modern vision of what is “creepy.” This month’s feature is: “HAUNTED” VICTORIAN HOUSES. 

Prototypical image of a “haunted” Victorian house. Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.

 

Why are “haunted houses” usually Victorian in style?

Many authors (here, here, here and here, to name a few) have pondered and analyzed this question. Sarah Burns (2012) summarized it best in her article “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, querying: 

“If we consider the Victorian house in its own time and place…there is nothing ominous about the mansard-roofed house…Half a century later, however, that very same style had become a signifier of terror, death, and decay. How, when, and why did the ghosts take over?”  (p. 3)

 

The answer comes down to what Burns refers to as a “shifting context” (p. 3), where architectural changes coincide with and are influenced by cultural and social reforms. There are many reasons for these shifts.

People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time. Many people naturally rebel against what their parents’ generation considered en vogue. The generations after the Victorians were no exception. The fact that the height of Victorian homes’ popularity coincided with the old tradition of laying out the dead in the family parlor (prior to the advent of the funeral parlor) did not help their image and may have added to the “creepy” mystique as trends moved away from wakes at home. These small scale reasons contributed to aesthetic preferences shifting away from Victorian style.

On a greater scale, aesthetics were influenced by social reform and philosophical ideals. The Victorian era – especially the latter-half – was a time of great economic (and other) disparity. Traditional Victorian homes visually represented this disparity with ostentatious displays of wealth, frequently characterized by conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche. Heavy ornamentation and detail indicative of most Victorian styles – inside and out- represented the wealth of a small portion of the population. Some of this ornamentation was also made possible due to the second Industrial Revolution (itself a partial cause and manifestation of wealth disparity). Mass production enabled cheaper, quicker access to materials. But this also meant the wealthy became wealthier, the middle class became wealthier, and the poor stayed poor. In fact, the increase in urbanization made for overcrowded, unhealthy living conditions for the poor (who made up the greatest number of factory workers). They were also practically chained to their factory jobs and seen as inhuman machines by their employers.

Social reforms, including the arts and crafts movement and the labor movement, gained ground in government but also influenced architectural design. Many reformers (arts and crafts movement) saw industrialization as an undesirable replacement for craftsmanship as well as a social problem, and advocated craftsman style in architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Home interiors were not immune to the changes, as the sanitary or hygiene reform movement also impacted design, especially in the bathroom; wood and heavy fabrics were seen not only as outdated but also unsanitary. These architectural style changes became an expression of political, economic, and social values in addition to quality materials and workmanship. Architecturally, craftsman styles flourished through the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, modernism and colonial revival styles took hold, continuing to move away from Victorian style.

For all of the above reasons, Victorian homes fell out of favor, and people moved away from the old neighborhoods, leaving Victorian homes to be broken into apartments, turned into boarding houses, or derelict looming figures thanks to demolition by neglect, their once grand neighborhoods dilapidated and run-down. This likely furthered the view that these homes were “haunted” or “creepy.” This status was perfect creative fodder for authors and artists, who subsequently demonized these types of homes. As entertainment technology evolved, movies and TV shows followed suit (e.g., The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Psycho) further solidifying a negative view of these homes in the popular imagination.

The conglomeration of influences cemented Victorian homes as the style of haunted house for generations to come. The issue is that by doing this, in some cases, it has damaged the reputation of these houses leading to improper care for them, or even destruction of them. Luckily, enough of the population cares for these homes to have saved many of them, and we can see examples of Victorian architecture in nearly every town and city in the United States today. 

Letting Victorian homes wither away or even demolishing them due to misplaced fear is much scarier than actually saving and preserving these historic treasures. Anything that is dilapidated and not maintained will look creepy!

 

Examples of “haunted” Victorian architecture:

 

Gothic Revival architectural style seen in the caretaker’s home at Woodward Hill Cemetery (burial site of President James Buchanan) in Lancaster, PA. The gravestones seen in the foreground add to the foreboding ambience. Build date unknown. 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

Another Gothic Revival building at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, PA. Build date unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

View of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Primarily identified with Queen Anne architectural style, this now-infamous home that began as a simple farmhouse was renovated and added onto by Sarah Winchester (widow of William Winchester) from 1886 to 1922 in an effort to protect herself from vengeful spirits. Purported to actually be haunted, the architectural design elements as well as Sarah’s purposeful twists, turns, and “booby-traps” make for a creepy home inside and out, despite its obvious beauty.

The image above was taken by Liz Jandoli, for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), date unknown. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

The Biltmore Estate – home to the Vanderbilts and America’s largest home – in Asheville, North Carolina, is constructed in the Châteauesque architectural style, and was built between 1889-1895. This home is also rumored to be actually haunted, but anyone might feel intimidated by this imposing, gorgeous structure.

 

 

 

The image above was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston for the Library of Congress, in 1938. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Victorian Architecture Today

 

Where to see it. 

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in most towns and see how many Victorian houses you can find; despite the negative connotations over the years, we are lucky to have many fine examples of Victorian homes throughout the United States. 
  • (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now following CDC guidelines, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Biltmore Estate can be toured virtually at the bottom of this page. You can virtually visit the Winchester Mystery House here. You may also choose to visit a purportedly haunted house (assuming you feel safe during this time of COVID) and given the time of year, there are many options as we get closer to Halloween.
  • Photo gallery – View Victorian architecture images on flickr or explore sites like Library of Congress. 

Get (or protect) your own.

  • Real estate – There are many ways to find your own Victorian, and by doing so, you can help save these treasures and contribute to a more positive view of these historic structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has archives of real estate agents who specialize in historic properties, here. They also include listings of properties for sale, here. You can also peruse independent sites such as Circa Houses and Cheap Old Houses
  • Protecting, preserving, and maintaining – Not maintaining your historical home will guarantee that it looks creepy, so maintain your home so you don’t contribute to the negative mystique! Visit the many resources on our website (or contact us for help), and view our Fall Maintenance post, here. Visit The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as The National Park Service for more information on protecting and preserving your historic home. 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • You can read Sarah Burns’ thorough analysis of the “haunted” mystique of Victorian homes – and JSTOR is currently offering free access if you create a login – here.

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Butler’s Pantries.

 

SHARE WITH US!

DO YOU OWN A VICTORIAN HOME? DOES IT HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING CREEPY OR HAUNTED? OR, IS THERE A VICTORIAN HOME THAT YOU DON’T OWN BUT LOVE?

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

 

 

 

Bruce Bomberger, Ph.D., archivist and librarian at the Lebanon County Historical Society in Lebanon (Lebanon County), PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the Lebanon County Historical Society’s resources and services. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Bruce’s varied background in many areas of history, from archaeology to former curator of Landis Valley Museum
  • The history of LCHS and historical societies in general – including their roots as fraternal organizations – and their varied roles in preservation of artifacts and buildings
  • Unique aspects of the building itself and its relevance to Lebanon County history – from it’s origins as a private home, to holding some of the county’s earliest court cases, to functioning as the lodge for the local Loyal Order of Moose
  • Special associations, including the society-owned Union Canal Tunnel, the oldest existing transportation tunnel in the United States
  • Services and events open to the community, including Sunday lecture series (currently on-hold due to COVID), tours, and genealogical and archival research
  • Challenges for LCHS and historical societies in general, including finite financial resources to sustain them, and limited space, as well as the ways which these issues are addressed 

 

Contact/Follow:

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Contact Information – can be found at the bottom of this page

The society is open on a limited basis by appointment due to COVID (MASKS REQUIRED), for services such as genealogical and archival research, and tours – please email or call at the link listed above to schedule appointments in advance.

Consider supporting the society (or other historical societies) via donation, membership, ordering genealogical research services (which can be requested remotely), or taking a tour. 

If you cannot visit the society, consider visiting the Union Canal Tunnel via either the South or North Park, and view the exterior of the reconstructed Krall Barn, a rare Pennsylvania German log barn originally from Schaefferstown (Lebanon County), PA. You can also read more about Lebanon History via Bruce’s recent interview with Lebtown, here.

Chris Vera, president of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society in Columbia (Lancaster County), PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss Columbia history, legends, and lore. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Chris’s background as a child growing up in Columbia, whose passion for local history developed from working for elderly neighbors – people who preserved local heritage through storytelling 
  • The Columbia Historic Preservation Society’s role as a center for local Columbia history
  • The Society’s own preservation and adaptive reuse story: transforming and reinventing itself from a circa mid-19th Century Lutheran Church to a historical society, and its brush with destruction due to a case of severe mold contamination, and one former staff member’s desire to tear it down rather than save it 
  • Unique aspects of Columbia historyits nearly becoming the capital of the United States, rich African-American and underground railroad history, the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge Burning, and its historical role as a beacon of industry and railroads
  • Local legends and lore – from cryptids like the Albatwitch (or “apple snitch”), to ghosts said to haunt the buildings and local trails and hills, and the many events celebrating these folk tales
  • Trends and challenges in history and preservation – funding being the number one challenge, followed by garnering interest in and support for these areas

 

Contact/Follow:

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Contact Information – General contact info located at the bottom of this page

Chris encourages supporting local Columbia heritage by visiting the nearby natural and trail areas (start here), as well as learning more about the history of the region from the Columbia Historic Preservation Society and other interesting historical sites to visit. You can also discover more museums, activities, and yearly events, here

There are several opportunities to explore the legends, lore, and supernatural side of Columbia, including the 7th annual Albatwitch Festival on Saturday, October 17th, 2020 – including Albatwitch and Haunted trolley tours – as well as a “Fright Night at the Museum” Saturday, October 31st, 2020 

 

Bill Callahan, the Western, PA Community Preservation Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO is a bureau within the PA Historical and Museum Commission) in Pittsburgh, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the state organization’s myriad services. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Bill’s background, including how exposure to the negative impacts of the agricultural economy’s crash in the Midwest led to cooperative initiation of a main street program in his Illinois community – a position he credits with his interest in preservation, and the catalyst for his subsequent manifold experiences in historic preservation positions
  • His current position, which involves administration of several programs, including providing technical assistance regarding historic preservation to anyone who asks for it
  • The only way to protect historic resources, and the 2 methods by which a municipality can go about it
  • Grassroots tips, such as networking within local government and other community organizations, and the necessity of understanding one’s local planning processes     
  • A little known resource for private homeowners
  • The overlap of natural resource conservation and historic preservation
  • Positive trends such as increased awareness of the need for preservation

 

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Contact Information – General inquiry here, or Community preservation coordinators by region – including Bill – here

For community grassroots involvement, Bill also recommends interested citizens visit this general site in addition to consulting directly with him (or other regional community preservation coordinators). This site includes community preservation forms and guidelines as well. And Bill emphasizes the importance of citizen involvement with local planning and economic development offices.

Bill also encourages people to remember that sense of place is important to everyone – including saving buildings that make a place unique and hold memories – and this can be emphasized when working with others to prioritize local preservation. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dominique Hawkins, founder and managing principal of Preservation Design Partnership based in Philadelphia, PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss flood mitigation in historic areas. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Dominique’s background in design, architecture, and historic preservation, including her early career transition from architecture for housing developments to the world of historic preservation, and her appreciation for the technology involved in saving old places
  • Preservation Design Partnership’s purpose for acting as a voice for clients in figuring out the most sympathetic way to achieve clients’ goals, while also meeting regulatory requirements and historic preservation needs 
  • Dominique’s reasons for working in flood mitigation, including working on projects directly impacted by Hurricane Katrina
  • How translating preservation design guidelines for clients prepared her for flood mitigation planning, by bridging the gap and interpreting the language of all involved parties – from preservationists, to FEMA, to floodplain managers, to clients
  • The methodology of flood mitigation problem-solving: determining flood needs first and tailoring approaches to each individual situation
  • The myriad of challenges – namely, the collective minimalization and (in some cases) total disregard for the severe impact of increased flooding on historic places – and the hard choices that are being made reactively rather than proactively by communities to address these

 

Contact/Follow:

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General contact information

For individuals, agencies, or communities interested in working with Preservation Design Partnership, read more about their services and notable projects, here

Dominique also advocates for individuals and communities to become aware, engaged, and proactive regarding flood mitigation for historic properties and communities, especially via meaningful conversations. To see examples or get involved, view a previous talk hosted by the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center’s Climate Change Academy, here, and keep a look out for upcoming Fall workshops and talks, here

Communities and other organizations can also read a sample flood mitigation plan compiled in part by Preservation Design Partnership, here

Briana Grosicki, associate principal of PlaceEconomics based in Washington, D.C., joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the economic benefits of preservation. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Briana’s background, including growing up regularly visiting local battlefields in Virginia, volunteering with her main street district as a teen, to working with Donovan Rypkema 
  • Briana’s additional roles as chairwoman for Preservation Action and board of director for the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions
  • PlaceEconomics’ specialized consultation services at the intersection of economics and historic preservation, including research and city-wide studies, and educational talks and workshops
  • Specific economic benefits of preservation, including that for every 100 preservation/rehabilitation projects there are 186 jobs created elsewhere in the community, vs. 135 new jobs created per every 100 typical construction projects
  • Dispelling typical myths about preservation, including that historic preservation is a major cause of unaffordable housing, when in reality historic districts are more likely to include mixed-income housing than neighborhoods with speculative development (i.e., flipped houses and airbnbs)
  • Challenges in the field of preservation, such as increasing preservation’s advantages for and accessibility to all people 

 

Contact/Follow:

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General Contact

Educational Resources

For individuals interested in getting help with preservation in their community, Briana encourages they contact her or other staff at PlaceEconomics – they are always open to discussing if they are right for a client or community! You should also tell your local officials about PlaceEconomics’ services!

Briana also suggests that individuals who may be less likely to work with PlaceEconomics’ firm directly continue to work on preservation at a grassroots level – from government involvement with organizations such as Preservation Action, to simply maintaining their own historical buildings, investing in existing resources, and using local resources to fund the local economy.

Briana encourages everyone to consider involvement in Preservation Action’s virtual auction this year, scheduled for October 27th, at 7PM

Jack and Jessica Meyer – father-daughter owners of  White Chimneys in Gap (Lancaster County), PA – joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss their property’s history and their business. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • The Meyers’ realization of their historic preservation values through the purchase and renovation of White Chimneys over the past 15 years
  • The 300 years of history – including the estate’s direct connection to our founding fathers and famous historic figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette – of White Chimneys
  • Restoration and renovation experiences and tips from the homeowners’ perspective, including historic discoveries made along the way
  • Services utilized for restoration and ongoing maintenance, including details on the air purification system (particularly in light of COVID-19) 
  • How curious visitors planted the seed for their wedding venue and other business
  • Unique options and services offered to brides and grooms – including co-creating a signature cocktail with ingredients from the estate’s own gardens
  • Their business focus on sustainability, to support the history and future of the estate (which is on the National Register of Historic Places and under a historic preservation easement)
  • Challenges of owning a historic home and business, including that maintenance work is never done!

 

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General contact information

Listen to the end of the podcast to learn more about the HVAC businessShoemaker Heating and Cooling – responsible for the custom ductwork and air filtration system installed at White Chimneys. Mr. Shoemaker can be reached via the link above, at 610-314-7278, or at [email protected]

If considering a wedding or other service at White Chimneys during these uncertain times, listen to their description of adjustments in the podcast or visit their COVID discussion here.

COFFEE BREAK RECAPS – Periodically, we will be bringing you recapitulations of our live “coffee break” videos, where Danielle and Jonathan address questions related to preservation and provide answers or brainstorm solutions. These recap posts will include additional information and resources. This month’s recap focuses on rising sea levels’ impacts on historic buildings and possible solutions. Watch below. 

 

VIDEO SUMMARY:

  • Focus: The ever-increasing threat of flooding to historical buildings and properties caused by climate change (among other things) – after all, water is the enemy of historic structures 
  • Question: What can be done to protect historic buildings and districts – in a way that is also sensitive to preserving the historic-fabric – from rising sea levels?
  • Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed 3 possibilities:
    1. Make bottom levels of buildings “floodable” as is being attempted at the national level (see resources below for an example) – however, this still puts floors, doors, windows, trim, etc. at significant risk of damage and destruction.       
    2. Consider elevating the building to a level high enough that it is less likely to need to be raised again, and treating the elevation similarly to a “sympathetic addition” – one that is new but whose style and materials are in keeping with the historic fabric of the rest of the building.
    3. Although relocation of the entire structure is also an option, it may be less desirable than the other options, as it is extremely costly and has other risks.

When it comes to flood mitigation in coastal or water-front communities, historic structures should not be forgotten
DON’T THROW THE PROVERBIAL BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER

 

Further resources:

Adam Zurn, founder of Uncharted Lancaster, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss his website’s dual function as an educational and adventure tool. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • How his background as a child of the 1980s influenced his curious, adventurous side, and the inspiration for Uncharted Lancaster 
  • How Uncharted Lancaster includes “adventures” with directions to locations as well as ciphers and other clues to unlock hidden finds and other treasures in order to encourage interest in local natural and historical resources
  • Notable adventures, like “armchair” adventures – inaccessible to the public but available virtually and vicariously through Adam – including the Pequehanna Inn
  • Uncharted Lancaster’s broad-reach and universal appeal; activities are appropriate for anyone seeking an active way to learn more about local history, particularly families with children and young adolescents
  • Uncharted Lancaster’s recent partnership with Lancaster Conservancy on some new adventures, focusing on Water Week
  • Adam’s recommended adventures for families with younger children (Pequea Trolley Trail) and older children (Enola Low-Grade Adventure)
  • The challenge of exposing more people to these little-known places and histories, while some argue that it puts the peace, preservation, and cleanliness of these locations at risk

 

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All of Uncharted Lancaster’s adventures are available and free of charge. However, you can help support Adam’s efforts to continue creating new adventures by purchasing items through his store, or sponsoring his efforts, with the money going back into the project.

Jeffrey Marshall, the president of Heritage Conservancy in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the organization’s mission and work conserving and preserving a combination of natural and cultural heritage resources in Southeastern Pennsylvania. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Jeffrey’s background combining his lifelong loves of nature, history, and architecture with his graduate studies
  • Heritage Conservancy’s function as a non-profit organization in the Southeastern PA region, focused on dual aspects of community and cultural heritage: conservation of open spaces and natural resources and preservation of historic buildings
  • Educational outreach by Heritage Conservancy, including Jeffrey’s “Sherlock Homes” old house detective character, aiding homeowners in “investigations” of their old homes’ histories via consultation or research
  • The conservancy’s work assisting owners of old homes and buildings with applying for National Register status and obtaining conservation land easements or historic preservation easements
  • Challenges and trends in these fields, including decreased interest in conservation and preservation of local cultural heritage and greater numbers of new residents without local roots, resulting in an increased need to teach more community members why local cultural heritage is important to everyone

 

Contact/Follow:

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General contact information

Follow their News & Events webpage or follow them on Facebook to find out about events and new projects!

The conservancy and Jeffrey believe that we are all custodians and caretakers of our collective and local cultural heritage, and it’s important for individuals to do what they can – even if you’re not in the Southeastern PA region, contact them for suggestions on taking action in your own community.