The term Victorian architecture refers not to a particular style but to an era—the reign of Queen Victoria over the United Kingdom of Great Britain from 1837 to 1901. Victorian-era architecture spanned more than 60 years and it encompasses a jumble of overlapping styles that include early Gothic Revival, Folk Victorian, Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Stick, Romanesque Revival, Shingle, Colonial Revival, and the popular Queen Anne style at the tail end of the era.
Victorian architecture originated in England and still largely defines the architecture of its cities and towns. But several styles of Victorian-era architecture also spread internationally to places like North America, Australia, and New Zealand, where various countries and regions adapted it to fit local tastes, lifestyles, and building materials.
History of Victorian Architecture
Victorian-era architecture followed the Georgian (1714–1830) and late Georgian period (1830–1837), which was characterized by generously proportioned rooms in typically three-story residences where families lived on the first two floors and servants occupied the smaller third story.
The Victorian era was a period of increasing wealth, an expanding middle class, and a boom in mass production facilitated by the Industrial Revolution. Victorian-era housing was built to accommodate people from all walks of society and income levels. This meant everything from close rows of terraced houses built for factory workers on crowded narrow streets that didn’t include gardens or sanitation to semi-detached and detached houses that by the end of the Victorian era featured modern conveniences like running hot and cold water, sanitation, and gas.
Innovations in building techniques and mass-produced building materials that could be transported by rail—such as newly machine-made bricks, gray roofing slate from Wales, or the arrival of plate glass in the 1930s that increased window size from previous periods—saved builders time and helped lead to a housing boom during the 1850s and 1870s that saw millions of Victorians constructed.
Characteristics of Victorian Architecture
Victorian-era architecture is marked by its unapologetic devotion to ornament and flourish and its ornate maximalist interior design. While there are many different styles encompassed in Victorian-era architecture, some common features that will help you spot a Victorian from the outside include:
- Steeply pitched roofs
- Plain or colorfully painted brick
- Ornate gables
- Painted iron railings
- Churchlike rooftop finials
- Sliding sash and canted bay windows
- Octagonal or round towers and turrets to draw the eye upward
- Two to three stories
- Generous wraparound porches
- Small gardens
Interior design in the Victorian period was layered, cluttered, ornate, and eccentric. Interiors of Victorian-era houses often included:
- Grand staircases
- Complicated layouts with multiple rooms including formal dining rooms, libraries, and parlors
- High ceilings
- Ornately carved wood paneling
- Geometric tile hallways
- Decorative fireplaces
- Stained glass windows
- Dark wood furniture
- Heavy drapes
- Decorative wallpaper
- Hardwood floors covered with rugs
Interesting Facts About Victorian Architecture
In San Francisco, one of the city’s most iconic backdrops is a row of “painted ladies,” the nickname given in the U.S. to Victorian and Edwardian houses repainted in the 1960s in three or more colors to spruce up their ornate architectural details. Seen from Alamo Square Park, these San Francisco Victorian row houses are perhaps the country’s most famous. Poised against the backdrop of the modern city skyline, this stretch of 710–720 Steiner Street is aptly nicknamed “Postcard Row” and is a popular establishing shot used in countless film and television productions including the '90s sitcom "Full House."
Similar to Victorian architecture is the Edwardian style of architecture, which began upon the death of Queen Victoria and subsequent reign of King Edward VII (1901–1910), although everything up through 1914 is considered part of the period. Edwardian style was less ornate than Victorian, its interiors featuring simpler decor and less clutter. It coincides with the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in 1880 as artists and architects reacted against the technical advances and mass-production ushered in by the Victorian age and sought to produce goods that celebrated human craftsmanship.
During the 21st century, champions of 19th century Victorian architecture like the UK’s Victorian Society work to conserve and protect historic Victorian and Edwardian architecture, helping interested parties learn how to adapt Victorian buildings to fit modern living styles while preserving and respecting their unique characteristics and histories.