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People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time.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!

 

 

 

 

Rabbit Goody, owner, designer, and master weaver of Thistle Hill Weavers, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss information about her background in weaving, and museum curation and consultation. We covered a multitude of topics including:

  • Rabbit’s interwoven skill-sets and background, starting with her intuitive skills as a teen-aged weaver, and her academic backgrounds in anthropology and museum curation and consultation
  • The inception of Thistle Hill Weavers, including saving discarded weaving machines from old mills
  • Products and services, ranging from interior fabrics for architectural firms to clothing fabric for sustainable clothing designers, as well as personal projects for private homeowners
  • The process involved in commissioning fabrics from Thistle Hill Weavers
  • Notable projects, from interior fabrics in the homes of deceased presidents to historically-accurate fabric in movies 
  • Tips for homeowners to follow their own style with interior design

 

Contact/Follow:

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From the online shop, Rabbit recommends: Window treatment book, on sale (here), or the fabric sample pack, which includes 3 samples of every type of fabric (here). 

 

A façade. What is it? Most of us know that its most basic definition is “face.” In the case of architecture, this refers to the exterior side of the building, usually the front. Façades on buildings are often the first defining features we see. As times change, so do architectural design styles, and this is reflected in façades on old and new buildings. Façades can provide varying amounts of information about the building’s past and current functioning, or they can simply be really nice to look at. Regardless, they are often the one aspect of architecture that almost anyone has access to simply by being in front of us. Read on to learn why historical façades are more than aesthetics.


Exterior shot of the Kosciuszko House, from our archives.

 

IMPORTANCE OF FACADES

You may be thinking to yourself: Why is a façade important? Isn’t it just for aesthetic-purposes? The answer is: Yes, it is partially focused on aesthetics. And one person’s visually-pleasing cup-of-tea is not someone else’s, so not every façade is attractive to every eye. However, a façade serves many more purposes and provides many other benefits than simply fulfilling an aesthetic goal.

  • Historical Streetscape and Cultural Landscape. The front façade of your home is an important focal point not only for curb appeal, but for the entire community. The rhythm of the entire streetscape is set by the street-facing façade. A well-preserved façade helps to maintain the historic fabric and cultural landscape of the building and the area around it, further contributing to the identity of its environment and community. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Mainstreet America provide further information on the impetus to save and preserve façades in keeping with these community and cultural concepts.

 

  • Visual Historical Records. Even things that were considered merely decorative at the time of their construction may currently serve a function as a visual replacement for a historic plaque, by virtue of their historically-defining characteristics. Essentially, period-appropriate façades that are preserved are visual clues to the time period of the building, enabling us to visually “read” some aspects of a building’s history.  We can discern the time period of the building based on the style, as well as time periods of later additions. Style also indicates the socioeconomic status of the builder/original owner.

 

  • Form and Function. A preserved or period-appropriate façade also may include functional aspects. Although the nature of design has clearly evolved, we know that form and function often go hand-in-hand in older buildings and this often rings true even on a façade. The ingenious marriage of form and function in their designs often lend to the “charm” that modern people associate with them, and that is typically missing from newer buildings. For instance, historical shutters most-definitely served a function as much as they added to the decoration of a home. Their functions included protecting occupants from prying eyes or intrusion,  weather protection, as well as UV protection of items inside the home, including wooden furniture. They might also provide a breeze to come through without having the window gaping open, and in some cases were substitutes for glass windows. Porches also served dual functions, providing a grand decorative entrance to the home, while also allowing for outdoor socialization (as well as alternative sleeping accommodations in the case of sleeping porches). Other façade design elements can also be functional in many ways. 

 

ISSUES AND CONTROVERSIES

Contractors, building owners, city planning committees, and the public do not always agree on how façades or their buildings should be built, preserved, or maintained, leading to a variety of outcomes and controversies.

  • Façade lost or destroyed. In some cases, an old home or building’s façade is modified, rendering it unrecognizable from its original configuration, and important historical elements are forgotten or lost. Some of the aspects most-threatened by these facelifts include original windows and doors, due to homeowners’ concerns about energy efficiency, cost, and maintenance, and the highly-advertised “maintenance-free” trap

 

  • Façade preserved but interior lost or destroyed. In other cases and as is more common, the façade is preserved while the interior is not. The Secretary of the Interiors’ guidelines for Historic Preservation focuses on the preservation of exterior features (the façade) by allowing historic commissions/HARB districts to regulate changes to buildings within the designated districts to what is visible from the public street (“streetscape” is the term that is used).  The interior is not regulated even in historic districts – leading to gutting of interiors while the exteriors are preserved.  I think this is because the historic preservation policy is based off of community preservation (“rhythms and patterns” is the term that is used) balanced with property owners’ rights – which is still a tension in regulated neighborhoods.  Easements are the only preservation tool that can preserve the interior (if stipulated in the agreement). We will discuss more of this in an upcoming blog post on interiors.

 

  • Façadism. This term refers to an even more extreme example than the one above. Simply put, façadism is when the façade is preserved but the building behind is completely lost or destroyed, and replaced by a completely new building. This is often seen in the case of adaptive reuse. This obviously is a controversial topic in the field of preservation, and some believe it should not be associated with true historic preservation. Locally here in Lancaster, the preservation victory of preserving the Watt and Shand Department Store façade in downtown Lancaster for the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center has been controversial, but I’d rather see the façade preserved than lost.

 

  • Façade and interior restored or preserved. In some cases, façades and interiors are beautifully restored and saved. See this post on an example of one of our complete exterior and interior restorations from several years ago. Another unique local example is also part of the Marriott complex. The Montgomery house’s exterior was preserved as the convention center was built around and incorporated the home into it, and the interior of the house was renovated to meet modern needs, making this a more thorough example of restoration incorporated into adaptive reuse. 

 

FAÇADE PRESERVATION TIPS

There are several things you can do to preserve or restore your historical façade, and we’ve included a breakdown of each of the most common elements of your home’s façade, as well as comprehensive information on overall maintenance and aesthetic/architectural style elements.

  • Entrances (porches and doors). The entrance to a home is one of the most attention-grabbing aspects of a façade. Visit our previous post on porches and doors for more information on restoring or updating your entrance. You can also visit our porch archives.

 

  • Windows and Shutters. Windows are another key component of a façade, and we’ve discussed many times the importance of maintenance or restoration of old windows vs. falling for the “maintenance-free” new window trap that is heavily touted by modern manufacturing companies and many contractors. Visit the National Park Service’s (NPS) site on windows, and NPS’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training’s website on windows, and our window archives for more information on approaching your historical windows.

 

  • Siding and Paint. Siding can be just as vulnerable as windows are to replacement with inappropriate modern materials. Paint poses its own challenges in terms of safety (lead in old paint) but also benefits of historically-accurate (minus the lead) paints and paint colors. Visit NPS’s briefs on exterior paint issues and substitute materials, as well as our articles on siding and painting your historical home

 

  • Roofs and Chimneys. Roofs and chimneys can be essential elements of a home’s design and are distinctively different across architectural styles. Visit the NPS’s preservation briefs on roofing and mortar, as well as The Trust for Architectural Easement’s piece on historic masonry chimneys. The Wisconsin Historical Society also has a piece on Preserving Original Roof Features of your Historic Building

 

  • Gutters. Although these utilitarian features are often overlooked when one thinks of more common aesthetic and functional features of a building’s façade, they are no less essential. The Trust for Architectural Easements discusses preservation of gutters and downspouts, and we’ve discussed gutters in our archives

 

  • Additions. Additions to homes, especially ones visible from the front of the home, are another important thing to consider when attempting to preserve most historical aspects of a façade. Visit NPS’s brief on exterior additions and Sheldon Richard Kostelecky’s article regarding sympathetic additions. 

 

  • Architectural character. Character is a major aspect of streetscapes and the cultural landscape, as well as period-appropriate architectural design style. Visit NPS’s brief on architectural character and our archives on architectural design.  

 

  • Overall maintenance. Visit our maintenance archives, including many recent and up-to-date articles on maintaining your home’s exterior. 

IN SUMMARY:

There’s more to a façade than meets the eye. If you would like help preserving or restoring your home’s  façade beyond the resources presented throughout this article, feel free to contact us to discuss your options.