A Complete Guide to Victorian Style Houses

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It seems that our love affair with Victorian homes remains as inexhaustible as our love for the Queen herself. And while she may no longer be sitting on the British throne, the houses erected during her reign remain popular monoliths of that bygone era.

“There’s something about Victorian houses that appeals to the little girl in all of us,” says Molly McClain, a University of San Diego history professor. “They are eclectic, they’re colorful, and they’re a romantic piece of an American past.”

Whether restored to their pure original state or reinterpreted into a more contemporary style for present-day requirements, these charming structures in their seemingly infinite variety all have one thing in common—there’s absolutely no lack of character. From the imposing stately mansions to the cozy romantic cottages, Victorian style homes give occupants something you can’t find in modern properties: a chance to own a piece of history.

So What’s the History of Victorian Houses?

The Victorian aesthetic boomed during the mid-to-late 1800s amid Queen Victoria’s reign in the U.K. The U.S. followed suit 50 years later, after the expansion of the railway, which created land availability for suburban development, and on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, which made manufacturing of house parts possible on a mass scale. For the first time, people could have houses wherever they wanted that would look like whatever they wanted.

a row of three colorful victorian houses known as the painted ladies on alamo square in san francisco

A row of Victorian homes in San Francisco.
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“That’s the glory of the Victorians—that mere function was no longer the sole purpose of this architecture,” says McClain. “People would look through publications like the American Home or Good Housekeeping, and they would choose these eclectic house designs, and it was their way of expressing their taste, their social aspirations, their individuality.”

What’s more, new chemical dyes made different house colors possible. “It was a revolution in color,” says McClain. “You simply couldn’t do that before the 1830s, so people experimented with bold, bright hues. It wasn’t until later in the century that they would go for more grays or natural, moss-colored houses.”

Where Can You Find Victorian Houses Today?

Victorian-era houses can be found in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. While these historic gems account for around one in every six homes in the U.K., according to Robin Guild, author of The Victorian House Book, thanks to early conservation efforts in the 1930s, many Victorian homes in the U.S. were demolished in the name of urban renewal beginning in the 1950s. Even still, millions of these houses remain, and their current residents are becoming well acquainted with their dated idiosyncrasies (charming or otherwise).

a victorian house with a porch and hanging plants on oak bluffs in marthas vineyard massachusetts

A charming Victorian cottage on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
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“In general, the materials used in building houses during the Victorian era were of higher quality than what is typically used in new construction today,” says Scott T. Hanson, author of Restoring Your Historic House: The Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners. “Even after long periods of neglect or abuse, these materials can often be restored to their original function and beauty.”

Nevertheless, any old house is high maintenance, so it’s important to know the history behind your home, Hanson says. “This can include updating mechanical systems for comfort and efficiency, dealing with hazardous materials, and working with local building codes and historic preservation regulations.”

Features of a Victorian House

While a number of styles have dominated in varying periods of history, there are some typical characteristics that tie this architectural style together. The houses usually have two to three stories with steep, gabled roofs and round towers. On the exterior, there are towers, turrets, and dormers, forming complex roof lines as architects sought to create designs that would pull the eye to the top of the house. And of course, one can’t miss the signature stained glass, decorative woodwork, and bright paint colors—all often framed with a wrap-around porch accented with gingerbread cutouts and spindle work. Basically, think dollhouse.

a diagram of a victorian style house and key features

Courtesy of Mad River Woodworks

Inside, it’s common to see high ceilings and walls with irregular shapes (sorry for those applying wallpaper), with closed-off rooms and added nooks. Intricate trim work was the hallmark of these homes, from decorative wooden staircases to ornate fireplace mantels to gilded wainscoting. The quintessential Victorian home had a glittering chandelier, as the Victorians are known for nothing if not their fondness for opulence.

As for the layout, open-concept was unthinkable during this period, says McClain. “There were particular rooms for particular activities,” she says. “There was a music room where you had the piano, a library for reading, and a parlor where you received visitors.” For that reason, detailed floor plans are common in these homes, with interiors that were often rambling in their complexity.

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