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People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time.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

 

 

 

 

Sam McKelvey and Alice French – executive director and director of education – of the Menokin Foundation in Warsaw, VA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss their preservation project, and the Foundation’s many services. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Sam and Alice’s respective backgrounds in history, preservation, and related fields, and how working at Menokin marries all of their interests in one place
  • The history of the property and surrounding lands first populated by the local Rappahannock people, as well as the Algonquin origins of the word “Menokin”
  • The history of the house itself – including its distinction as home built for declaration signer Francis Lightfoot Lee in 1769, and function as the center of a large tobacco plantation – and its unique journey from neglected home, to an actual ruin, to a unique preservation project that will maintain its current condition in perpetuity
  • The history of the Menokin Foundation and how the Glass House Project will allow continued exploration of and education about colonial building practices, unlike any other extant colonial structure or house museum
  • The ongoing evolution of inclusive narratives and storytelling at the site – of the indigenous Rappahannocks and the enslaved laborers – and the narratives’ ongoing development by bringing actual descendants into the conversation
  • Multi-armed approaches to preservation at the site beyond the Glass House Project, such as preservation trades workshops, kayaking tours, educational webinars, and on-site immersive experiences
  • Challenges and trends in preservation, including staying relevant as priorities and cultural landscapes irrevocably change, by evoking emotional connections to history through “dynamic preservation”

 

Contact/Follow:

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Contact information – general inquiry or specific staff

Sam and Alice encourage visitor engagement in many ways. Most of the site is outdoors – 500 acres, in fact – and can be visited directly with safe social-distancing measures, and several options are listed here. You can also “visit” virtually here. In addition, they always welcome membership and donations

 

FALL MAINTENANCE FOR YOUR HISTORIC HOME Fall is here. This brings Halloween fun, Thanksgiving, fall abundance, and cooler weather. It also signals the transition to winter and harsh conditions for our homes. We have often repeated, maintenance is essential for a home, especially an old or historical one. Read on for your fall maintenance checklist. 

Autumn Leaves. Photo by Greg Shield on Unsplash.

 

Take a walk around your property and determine what needs to be addressed. Here’s a list of common fall maintenance tips to get you started:

  1. Make exterior repairs. 
    • Look for general damage to your roof, siding, and foundation – schedule repairs before winter
  2. Inspect your roof. If you have a steep roof or a multistory house, avoid injury by using binoculars to inspect your roof. Common signs of damage to your roof include:
    • Buckling, cracking, missing shingles – these should be replaced immediately
    • Rust spots on flashing – remove rust, and if metal is worn through, paint with metal primer and metal paint 
    • Large amounts of moss or lichen – this likely indicates your roof is decaying underneath, so call a pro roofer to evaluate ($100-$200). You can also prevent this decay by laying a wood shingle roof on lathe rather than sheathing (modern approach) as air can circulate and dry out the wood 
    • Cracked or loose boot(s) (rubber collars that fit around plumbing vent stacks) – call a pro roofer to evaluate (they will charge $150-$300 to replace a boot)
  3. Schedule chimney cleaning and fireplace/heating system maintenance. 
    • Blockages in the chimney – cleaning the chimney (and furnace and boiler) are important safety precautions before turning on your heat
    • Missing chimney cap – add one to prevent wildlife crawling down the chimney. You can find custom chimney caps at certain companies for non-standard sized chimneys
    • Damper not working – look up into fireplace flue if the damper is not opening and closing, to see if there is an obstruction (you should be able to see daylight at the top of your chimney)
    • Clean creosote buildup from your flue every other year – a professional chimney sweep will charge $300-$500
    • Missing or cracked bricks in firebox – request a professional fireplace and chimney inspection if you see any damage (professional inspections run between $160-$500)
  4. Clean your gutters and downspouts. If you are not comfortable using a ladder, be sure to hire someone who can help with this important task. 
    • Clogged gutters may allow water to pool which can damage your roof or siding – remove leaves and debris 
    • Flush gutters with water, inspect joints, and tighten brackets if necessary
  5. Direct water drainage away from your foundation. 
    • Soil that is too flat near the foundation of the home may soak and cause leaks or cracks – make sure soil slopes away from the house at least 6 vertical inches over 10 feet to prevent this
  6. Check the foundation and entire exterior for cracks and gaps. Both animals and natural weather forces can enter and destroy your home. Loss of heat can also increase your heating costs.
    • Cracks or unsealed areas – caulk around areas where masonry meets siding, pipes or wires enter the house, and around windows and doorframes. Do NOT use small cans of spray foam at wood contact areas – it will cause rot
  7. Conduct an energy audit. 
    • DIY – instructions can be found at energy.gov
    • Professional – trained auditors can assess your current energy efficiency and provide a list of recommended improvements like upgrading to Energy Start appliances, adding insulation to your attic or adding more weather-stripping ***The caveat is you should pay for their service – otherwise their “solution” will be what they are selling, including replacement doors and windows which we do not generally advocate for older homes. Also make sure they are familiar with historic buildings and their unique concerns
  8. Increase warmth in your house. 
    • After you’ve installed storm windows and doors (and removed all screens) adding weather-stripping around windows and doorframes can not only keep your house warmer during the winter months, but also cut energy costs
    • Drafty doors – place door sweeps at the base to keep the cold out and the heat in
  9. Shut off exterior faucets and store hoses inside. 
    • Shutting these off can protect pipes from freezing
    • Drain hoses before storing indoors
  10. Check walkways, railings, stairs, and driveways for winter safety. 
    1. Loose, slippery, or uneven surfaces – make sure to tighten loose railings, correct uneven walkways, and free drains of debris
  11. Check safety devices. 
    • Test smoke and carbon monoxide detectors – replace dead batteries
    • Check the home for radon (you can find radon monitors here) – with cooler weather, windows are shut more and radon can become trapped inside the home – hire a professional to address radon issues  
    • Check expiration dates on all fire extinguishers – replace if expired 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • Read our previous post – here – on the importance of maintaining a historical home
  • Read our previous post – here – on how maintenance IS preservation, and find a myriad of additional resources related to home maintenance in that post
  • Sign up for our free Maintenance IS Preservation Report 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:

Website

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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

COFFEE BREAK RECAP – This month’s “coffee break” video recap focuses on how to navigate the existing building code and uniform construction code within your historic building project in Pennsylvania. Watch below.

 

VIDEO SUMMARY:

  • Focus: Exemptions (Existing Building Code) and things liable to the Uniform Construction Code, depending on the parameters of a historic building project in Pennsylvania
  • Solutions: Danielle and Jonathan discussed tips: 
       

    1. Work with a contractor or design specialist who has preservation knowledge who can work flexibly with a code officer.
    2. Know EXEMPTIONS that fall under Existing Building Code:
      • Historic buildings listed on the state or national historic register
      • Historic building that is part of a historic district 
      • Replacement in kind (under the Secretary of Interiors Standards
      • Staircases (unaltered) 
      • Means of egress (doorways)
      • Energy conservation 
      • Floodplain-located buildings
      • Fire rating  
    3. Know what is LIABLE to the Uniform Construction Code:
      • Changing the usage of a building 
      • Substantial improvement/Alterations – if the percentage of alterations is more than 50% of the building’s value (even if usage remains the same)
      • Relocated structure 
      • Seismic (structural) retrofits
      • Means of egress 
    4. If you disagree with the code officer, know the process of appeals
      • Check with your local municipality  

Old buildings are not automatically exempt from the Uniform Building Code in Pennsylvania
– ARM YOURSELF WITH KNOWLEDGE TO NAVIGATE CODES ON YOUR NEXT PROJECT!

 

Further resources:

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!

 

Contact/Follow:

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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:

Lindsey Bennett of KIZ Resources, LLC, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss the company’s tax credit transfer services. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Origins of the company – originally named for the Keystone Innovation Zone Tax Credit (KIZ) – and their focus on state and federal tax credit transfers for businesses
  • Their specialized services assisting businesses located in historic buildings to enroll in and benefit from the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program, as well as federal preservation tax credits
  • Qualifications for the preservation tax credit programs, including that the applicants must have income-producing buildings, the building must be on the National Register of Historic Places, any renovations must follow the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic rehabilitation, as well as some other stipulations
  • Other services provided, including assisting clients with selling tax credits, the Keystone Innovation Zone Tax Credit, and Neighborhood Assistance Program, among others
  • Challenges with uncertainty of state budgets, particularly given COVID-19, and Lindsey’s recommendation to business-owning constituents in Pennsylvania to reach out to legislators and encourage them to continue to support funding for tax credits

 

Contact/Follow:

Website

Facebook

Twitter

Linkedin

General contact information

Follow them on Facebook (or contact them) to find out about seminars available to learn more!

 

Steve Larson, principal at Adelphi Paper Hangings, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss his work recreating historic block print wallpaper. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Steve’s background growing up with access to his father’s paint and wallpaper store, and his art school projects using wallpaper
  • How a project on block print wallpaper at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY eventually led to the founding of Adelphi Paper Hangings in 1999
  • The history of wallpaper in America
  • Adelphi Paper Hangings’ products, all of which are block print style and primarily from the “Golden Age” of block-printing (1740-1840)
  • The block printing process they use, including materials and procedures closely aligned with those of the past
  • Recommendations on how to purchase wallpaper, including measuring amounts needed, and the pricing process for commissioned pieces
  • Notable projects and commissions, including ones at the DAR museum, Mt. Vernon, and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, England

 

Contact/Follow:

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General contact information

If you’re unsure of the benefits of historic reproduction block-print wall paper, Steve indicates that with Adelphi’s block print process, the final resulting wall paper has a richer surface appearance that can’t be replicated with screen or digital printing, and is best for reproducing a historic pattern. 

For information about products and services visit here, and for information about ordering, go here.

You may also contact them about free samples the size of business envelopes, or larger $15 samples. 

 

Patricia Cove, of Architectural Interiors and Design, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss information about her background in interior design and her company’s specialization in renovation, restoration, and adaptive re-use. We covered a multitude of topics including:

  • How she evolved in her career, beginning as an English teacher, and moving on to follow her passion in historic preservation and interior design
  • The period-defining elements of historic interiors (and exteriors) that reveal a building’s history
  • How adaptive re-use of historic buildings can be completed to meet today’s living needs without sacrificing architectural elements integral to a building’s historic fabric
  • Challenges and trends in the industry, including developers’ or “flippers'” tendency to focus on gutting historical interiors assuming potential buyers don’t want historic character on the inside (often resulting in those buildings sitting longer on the market)
  • The activist/educational aspects of her work, as she encourages developers and owners to preserve interiors as well as exteriors, given limited protections for interiors of homes
  • The qualitative and geographic scope of her business, as well as contact information and offerings (listed below)

 

Contact/Follow:

Phone – (215) 248-3219

Email[email protected]

Website

Patricia’s twice-monthly columns on all aspects of interior design in Chestnut Hill Local (here)

Patricia also offers periodic zoom videos via her website, discussing interior design 

You can also read our previous interiors blog post (here) referencing one of Patricia’s columns (here)