Sunday, August 19, 2012

Victorian Living in the 21st Century

"I just wish it wasn't so. . .Victorian. There's something cold and. . .ungiving about Victorian houses.  Everything's bigger than it needs to be.  Too many passages."

     This is the complaint of Amber, a character in Phil Rickman's novel, The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, about her newly-acquired home on the Welsh Border.  My father complained about "dust, darkness, and depression" in the Victorian homes he remembered from his childhood. These are valid comments about many Victorian houses on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it is also a stereotype built on impressions of 19th-century house museums and the grand houses of the well-to-do that have survived the ravages of redevelopment. 
     Most Victorian houses were of modest size, like the workers' cottages described in Darkness Visible. My great-grandparents Busch and their eleven children lived in such a house, three-down, three-up.  They had to be packed like sardines in the bedrooms, and meals likely were served in shifts.  If I hadn't seen this photo of the two-story house myself, I would not believe that thirteen people could live there in conditions not approaching those described in Gorky's The Lower Depths.
My great-grandmother with family in front of her Pittsburgh house, c. 1910. By the time we revisited the house in 1970s, the house on the left had disappeared.  Too big to maintain and heat?

      I was struck by the comment by the character Amber, because it's a negative one.  Anyone who lives in a 19th century house (as I do) can testify to the high heating bills and constant repairs they require.  I laughed myself silly watching The Money Pit--exaggerated, yes, but not that much. Last month the working parts of the antique toilet in the upstairs bathroom had finally broken down for good.  To repair the toilet's innards would cost almost as much as a new one, so I chose the latter.  The plumber had a picnic (metaphorically) fitting the new toilet onto the old plumbing, a job that took twice as long as the estimated time.  To entertain him, I regaled him with plumbing stories from the Good Olde Days of the 1970s, when we first moved in.  (For example, the day the soil stack in the kitchen's west wall burst and froze solid from basement to bathroom, and the wall had to be opened to allow the melting of the frozen Niagara of sewage contained therein.) I don't know if he was comforted by these stories.  I do know he seemed anxious to get the hell out of this house.
      So why do we Victorian house owners put up with these drafty old barns?  Well, for one, the best ones are not just big houses, but Romantic interpretations of earlier architectural styles. Probably the style that most people think of as Victorian is the Queen Anne, so named for its evocation of the architectural style of the early 18th century in England.
Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, England (1717) built in the original Queen Anne style.

In the United States, the so-called Queen Anne style appeared in the 1870s.  Some of the earlier row houses show characteristics of the British versions, but by the time the style made it to the Midwest and West in freestanding houses, the balance and symmetricality had completely vanished. Instead, the American Queen Anne was asymmetrical (domes, towers, porches, balconies), with texture and ornament: turnings, fretwork, shingles, dentils.
1890's Queen Anne row houses in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., urban versions of the style.
The Melvin and Ida Forbes Residence, Duluth, MN. Built in 1886, this fanciful Queen Anne was cut up into apartments before it was wrecked in 1966. It is what represents "Victorian house" to many Americans.
     My house is a vernacular Queen Anne, albeit a quirky, restrained version of the style.  I was initially attracted to it because of its evocation of Victorian.  Lord knows it wasn't because of its appearance: two layers of siding, all ornament removed, all woodwork painted.  In short, a drafty, dusty mess with 30 years of deferred maintenance.  I liked what Amber called "passages", that is, the twisting staircase, narrow upper hallway and stairway to the third floor.  I don't think Amber would think it "big", even though it has four levels. Its 13 rooms are all rather small.  Placing furniture is a challenge because of the numerous doorways and windows. 
The dining room, one of two rooms today with painted woodwork.  The cabinet at right used to open into the kitchen, so that dishes could be washed, put away, and set out without having to be carried around.
The acquisition of the piano precipitated a crisis in furniture placement.  The solution is less than ideal, with the piano against the south wall, cramped against the sofa.  The other choice would be to place one or the other in the middle of the floor--also not so good.
           I must confess that I, like Amber, would not be comfortable living in a very large Victorian house.  During a visit to England, I stayed at a B&B that was a house built the same year as mine: 1885.  The house, near the Uffington White Horse, was three times the size of mine, made of brick and completely solid.  I was amazed that the doors all still hung on plumb, closing with a small, satisfying "thunk."  But the former dining room where I spent the night was unsettling:  a huge (20 X 24) room with paneling halfway up the walls, and massive built-in cabinets and buffet.  A single bed with a night stand was set against the wall opposite the main door.  The room had no other furnishings, and to turn out the light, I had to walk the width of the room.  Not cozy--in fact, downright spooky (even though no ghosts appeared).
     With all the expenses, inconveniences, irritations, and work involved in Victorian house ownership, it may seem crazy that anyone wants to live in these old, somewhat alien structures.  For me, the mystery and strangeness is a large part of the attraction.  These houses were embellished  with all manner of fancy ornament, the more, the better.  They did not stay in style very long, less than two decades.  In 1893 the Chicago World's Fair introduced a new style of architecture, inspired by Colonial and Neoclassical building styles.  By 1900 the first owners of the multicolored, weird Queen Annes had abandoned them for white (or brick) classically proportioned houses.  
       Sometimes when I come home at night and see my house with its steep roof, with two chimneys and seven gables in dark silhouette, I wonder if passersby think it intimidating.  Would they hesitate to go inside the house without turning on all the lights?  If I didn't know the house, I might feel that way, and that's why I love the sagging, scarred old wooden structure.  It embodies the romance, mystery, and strangeness of the late 19th century--yet at the same time it's a functional modern residence.  What could be better in a home for a student of history and aficionado of  the Nineteenth Century?
This photo, taken at dawn after a heavy April snowfall,suggests something of the weird inscrutability of Victorian houses.  It is the exact opposite of the contemporary house made of glass and steel, where everything is open to the street.