American Victorian Architecture, Homes From 1840 to 1900

Facts and Photos for America's Favorite Homes From the Industrial Age

Oh, those amazing builders of Victorian homes! Born during the Industrial Revolution, these designers embraced new materials and technologies to create houses like no one had ever seen before. Mass-production and mass-transit (think railroads) made ornamental parts affordable. Victorian architects and builders applied decoration liberally, combining features borrowed from many different eras with flourishes from their own imaginations.

When you look at a house built during the Victorian era, you might see pediments characteristics of Greek Revival or balustrades moved from a Beaux Arts style. You may see dormers and other Colonial Revival details. You may also see medieval ideas such as Gothic windows and exposed trusses. And, of course, you'll find lots of brackets, spindles, scrollwork and other machine-made building parts.

So it happens that there's not just one Victorian-era style, but many, each with its own unique array of features. The Victorian Era is a time period, marking the reign of England's Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. It is an era that became a style, and here are a few of the most popular—known collectively as Victorian architecture.

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Italianate Style

Italianate Lewis House in Upstate New York
Italianate Lewis House in Upstate New York. Photo of Italianate Style House © Jackie Craven

During the 1840s when the Victorian era was just gearing up, Italianate style houses became the hot new trend. The style spread quickly across the United States of America via widely-published pattern books. With low roofs, wide eaves, and ornamental brackets, Victorian Italianate houses suggest an Italian Renaissance villa. Some even sport a romantic cupola on the roof.

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Gothic Revival Style

The 1855 Gothic Revival W. S. Pendleton House, 22 Pendleton Place, Staten Island, New York
The 1855 Gothic Revival W. S. Pendleton House, 22 Pendleton Place, Staten Island, New York. Photo by Emilio Guerra / Moment / Getty Images

Medieval architecture and the great cathedrals of the Gothic age inspired all sorts of flourishes during the Victorian era. Builders gave houses arches, pointed windows, and other elements borrowed from the Middle Ages. Some Victorian Gothic Revival homes are grand stone buildings like miniature castles. Others are rendered in wood. Small wooden cottages with Gothic Revival features are called Carpenter Gothic and are very popular even today.

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Queen Anne Style

Albert H. Sears House, 1881, Plano, Illinois. Queen Anne, reigning style of the Victorian era, with characteristic round tower
Albert H. Sears House, 1881, Plano, Illinois. Photo ©Teemu008,, CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

Towers, turrets, and rounded porches give Queen Anne architecture regal airs. But the style has nothing to do with British royalty, and Queen Anne houses do not resemble buildings from the medieval times of the English Queen Anne. Instead, Queen Anne architecture expresses the exuberance and inventiveness of industrial-age builders. Study the style and you'll discover several different sub-types, proving that there's no end to the variety of the Queen Anne style.

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Folk Victorian Style

A blue-colored Folk Victorian style home in Middletown, Virginia
A Folk Victorian style home in Middletown, Virginia. Photo ©AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) (cropped)

Folk Victorian is a generic, vernacular Victorian style. Builders added spindles or Gothic windows to simple square and L-shaped buildings. A creative carpenter with a newly-invented jigsaw may have created complicated trim, but look beyond the fancy dressing and you'll see a no-nonsense farmhouse right there beyond architectural detail.

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Shingle Style

A 19th century shingle style home, multiple stories and windows, dark brown shingles with white trim
An informal Shingle Style home in upstate New York. Photo © Jackie Craven

Often built in coastal areas, Shingle Style homes are rambling and austere. But, the simplicity of the style is deceptive. These large, informal homes were adopted by the wealthy for lavish summer homes. Amazingly, a Shingle Style house isn't always sided with shingles!

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Stick Style Houses

1860-1890: Victorian Stick Architecture. Trusses and stickwork suggest medieval building techniques. The Physick House in Cape May, New Jersey is a hallmark example of the Stick Style.
The Emlen Physick Estate in Cape May, NJ illustrates the type of half-timbered decoration used on Victorian Stick architecture. Photo by Vandan Desai / Moment Mobile / Getty Images (cropped)

Stick style houses are, as the name implies, decorated with intricate stickwork and half-timbering. Vertical, horizontal, and diagonal boards create elaborate patterns on the facade. But if you look past these surface details, a stick style house is relatively plain. Stick Style houses don't have big bay windows or fancy ornaments.

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Second Empire Style (Mansard Style)

The Second-Empire-style Evans-Webber House in Salem, Virginia
The Second-Empire-style Evans-Webber House in Salem, Virginia. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

On first glance, you might mistake a Second Empire house for an Italianate. Both have a somewhat boxy shape. But a Second Empire house will always have a high mansard roof. Inspired by the architecture in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, Second Empire is also known as the Mansard Style.

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Richardsonian Romanesque Style

Grey rusticated stone Glessner House by Henry Hobson Richardson
The John J. Glessner House by Henry Hobson Richardson, built in 1885-1886, Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Architect Henry Hobson Richardson is often credited with popularizing these romantic buildings. Constructed of stone, they resemble small castles. Romanesque Revival styles were used more often for large public buildings, but some private homes were also built in the imposing Richardsonian Romanesque style. Because of Richardson's great influence on architecture in the U.S., his 1877 Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America.

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The Eastlake styled Frederick W. Neef House, 1886, Denver, CO
The Eastlake styled Frederick W. Neef House, 1886, Denver, CO. Photo ©Jeffrey Beall, Denverjeffrey via wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (cropped)

The ornate spindles and knobs found on so many Victorian-era houses, especially Queen Anne homes, were inspired by the decorative furniture of English designer Charles Eastlake (1836-1906). When we call a house Eastlake, we're usually describing the intricate, fancy detailing that can be found on any number of Victorian styles. Eastlake style is a light and airy aesthetic of furniture and architecture.

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Octagon Style

James Coolidge Octagon House, 1850, in Madison, New York
James Coolidge Octagon House, 1850, in Madison, New York is a Cobblestone House. Photo ©Lvklock via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

In the mid-1800s, innovative builders experimented with 8-sided houses which they believed would provide more light and ventilation. The cobblestone octagon house shown here dates from 1850. After the Erie Canal was finished in 1825, the stone mason builders never left upstate New York. Instead, they took their skills and Victorian-era cleverness to build a variety of stately, rural homes. Octagon houses are rare and are not always inlaid with local stones. The few that remain are wonderful reminders of Victorian ingenuity and architectural diversity.