When you picture a Victorian house, you might envision a colorful dollhouse, or maybe an imposing haunted or abandoned house comes to mind (like the Creel House from Stranger Things). Both are quintessential Victorian-style homes, but Victorian architecture technically refers to the era and not a specific style. That era was, of course, the time when Queen Victoria reigned in Great Britain, from 1837 to 1901. As Grant Marani, a partner at New York’s Robert A.M. Stern Architects, explains it: “Victorian means different things to different people.” But generally, the styles that are most strongly associated with this time period “emphasize verticality, decoration, and a mix of materials and colors,” Grant says.

So what exactly falls under the Victorian category?

Many architectural styles came out of the Victorian era, but the two Grant notes to be the most famous of the Victorian period—Italianate and Queen Anne—are both technically revivals of earlier architecture styles, though both took on lives of their own and were “often exuberantly decorative without much concern for historical accuracy,” Grant says. Each has distinct characteristics (noted below), but what they have in common is an emphasis on vertical elements—homes often stood at two or three stories with tall windows and porches—and detailed ornamentation that almost bordered on over-the-top. After all, a running theme throughout the Victorian era was a prioritization of form over function. Here are the differences and some of the other most notable style variations:

  • Italianate: These homes were popularized first, beginning in the 1840s and lasting until after the Civil War, drawing inspiration from 16th-century Italian villas. The main structures were fairly simple, rectangular-shaped houses with low sloping or sometimes flat roofs that protrude quite far out from the exterior walls. The windows are tall and skinny, often rounded at the top, and there is trim, trim, and more trim. Some Italianate homes even feature a square tower or cupola that rises out of the center of the house, adding to the Tuscan villa feel.
  • Queen Anne: These homes, which were popular in the U.S. from the 1880s until around 1920, are theoretically a revival of the style du jour during the actual reign of Queen Anne (1702 to 1714), but there is very little resemblance in practice. Queen Anne homes are the quintessential Victorian home: They are asymmetrical, two or three (or more) stories tall, have steeply pitched roofs, and feature large wrap-around porches. They are often adorned with differing wall textures and ornate trim—which gives them the “gingerbread” effect commonly associated with Victorian homes—that is typically painted in a variety of accent colors. Some Queen Anne homes also have octagonal towers (topped with a round pointed roof) and ornate bay windows—in short, nothing about these homes is subtle.
  • Stick style: A precursor to Shingle style, Stick style includes steeply pitched roofs, half-timber framing, open stickwork verandas, and flat ornamentation.
  • Shingle style: With shingles covering the entire building, this style also features open porches and an irregular roofline.
  • Second Empire: Also called Napoleon III, this style features a mansard roof (with two slopes on all sides and the lower slope steeper than the upper one), dormer windows, molded cornices, and some pavilions.
  • Folk Victorian: This style is a more basic version of Victorian architecture that’s symmetrical and includes ornate trim, porches with spindlework, and a gable roof.
renovated historic house in fairbury

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Why did Victorian homes surge in popularity?

Queen Anne and Italianate homes surged in popularity in the United States in the mid-to late-19th century, spurred on by the 1876 Centennial International Exposition (the first official World’s Fair). The advancement of building techniques, the increased accessibility of diverse materials and ideas via new railroad systems, and more widespread house pattern books also further popularized these home styles as well.

Where can you find Victorian homes today?

Italianate homes are seen in the greatest number in the American cities that experienced exponential growth during the mid-19th century: Cincinnati, Ohio; New Orleans’ Garden District, and parts of San Francisco, and Brooklyn, New York.

Queen Anne homes, along with Italianate homes, are widely seen in San Francisco—a result of it being a “boom town” during this time period. The city’s most famous are undoubtedly the “Painted Ladies,” a block of Queen Anne-style townhouses painted three or more colors (you know them from the opening credits of Full House).

painted ladies at alamo square, san franciscopinterest

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They’ve had good—and bad—reputations over the years.

While the Victorian era officially ended in 1901, its accompanying architecture styles stuck around for another decade or so until the Colonial Revival movement surpassed them in popularity in the 1920s. But instead of just falling out of style, Victorian homes actually became disliked in the following decades. “There was a time when the Victorian house was considered an unwelcome presence in many neighborhoods,” Grant says. “Indeed, it became the stereotype for the ‘haunted house.’” But as Grant also notes, “Victorians’ quirky charm has endeared them to new generations more recently.”

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