The Victorians

By Elizabeth Brown

If Bob Dylan had been alive in the 1870’s, he could have sung, “The times, they are a-changing,” to much the same effect as he did in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Times had actually already been changing before the Civil War, but as the building trades began to revive after Reconstruction, people suddenly gained access to changes in style and technology that had been scattered across the South before the war. Steam powered saw mills were everywhere, and you could now buy already-milled lumber, rather than hand-dressing your own timbers. The centuries-old braced-frame construction (which used a few large timbers) fell away as new framing systems (involving many small pieces of wood) became popular because of the availability of sawn wood.

Catalogs from manufacturing centers became available, showing doors, windows, mantles, brackets, and all kinds of trim, readily available through your local hardware store and delivered by train. For the first time, materials only in the northeast were now available everywhere. While the availability of materials led to standardization of building parts, the variety of forms allowed by mechanization meant that there was an almost infinite number of parts to combine in design. You might be able to buy the same parts in Columbus, Ohio, as in Montgomery, Alabama, but they were not likely combined in quite the same way.

Queen Anne

The Queen Anne style was all the rage by the 1880’s. The name isn’t really indicative of the real Queen Anne or the Renaissance architecture that was popular during her reign, nor did it have much to do with the style called Queen Anne in Great Britain.

House form took a decided turn toward the asymmetrical, with a large hip roof combining with an intersecting gable toward the front becoming a very popular style. The gable toward the street, often the whole house, became highly decorated with wood shingles, carving, half-timbering (sometimes all of them) combined to dazzling effect. If the Greek Revival was an exercise in restraint, Queen Anne was an exercise in excess. Two-story houses were popular, but one-story houses in the Queen Anne style abound in Montgomery. Brick was popular in the northeast, but except for a few notable examples, wood predominated around here.

Everything about this house speaks of prosperity and an economy booming again after the deprivations of war and Reconstruction .

A tower is often called out as a defining feature of Queen Anne in the guidebooks. One great example here is the very high-styled Kennedy-Sims house on South Perry Street. It is brick, and has a round tower overhanging an octagonal base, rising with a frieze of lozenge-shaped wood through the main roof to a dramatically curved tower roof and finial. This tower could have graced an important street in any city in the country with ease. The details on the porch are more restrained and classical, but who needs a ginger-breaded-up porch with that tower, the stone trim, and the leaded-glass windows? At one time, Perry Street could have held its own with the “millionaire’s row” of most any prosperous American city. Sadly, many fine houses were town down in the 1960’s and replaced with buildings with little character.

Unfortunately the environment of the Kennedy-Sims house is degraded by construction of unsympathetic buildings on both sides.

Another towered and brick example in the neighborhood is the Stay House at 631 South McDonough. The brick forms a backdrop against which the jigsaw-cut porch and gable trim is shown to advantage. The center, square tower is engaged in the main body of the roof. One charming feature of both the tower and gable are the horseshoe-shaped ventilators, leading to a local name as the “horseshoe house.” Probably not meant to be horseshoes, these “ogee” arches with the compound Moorish curve are found in many pattern books, and are said to be representative of the “Oriental” influence. The house was built by Dr. John Hazard Henry, one of Montgomery’s early physicians.

Although still replete with decoration, the Stay house presents a more restrained and dignified face to the street. The rusticated (rough) stonework is particularly nice. Although we're accustomed to the contrast between the wood trim and the house, period colors were often dark, with earth tones predominating.

Although I have always thought of this house as Second Empire, now I’m not so sure. Are the curves we’re seeing on this tower actually showing the Oriental influence?

We can note more high-style examples on Perry Street , but it is in Cottage Hill that Victorian and Queen Anne flourish. A profusion of wood, cut in the most intricate of designs, lines the streets of one of Montgomery’s post-war (the Civil War, that is) housing boom areas. A drive up Martha Street shows any number of examples of vernacular Victorian Queen Anne cottages, with their asymmetrical form and lacy gingerbread decorating the porches.

There may be numerous examples of the “L-shaped Victorian Cottage” in Montgomery, but their charm is only reinforced by their numbers.

Stick Style and Shingle Style

More popular in the northeast than in the South, we still see the influences of Stick and Shingle Style in Montgomery. Stick Style refers to larger wood members which outline areas of weatherboard or shingles, and give a sense of rectangularity to the design. These horizontal and vertical elements were often picked out in a darker color. This technique is applied to the very symmetrical house on the southwest corner of Martha and Hanrick to great effect, although the owner has chosen to paint the “sticks” white and the body of the house a rich cream.

This vernacular cottage shows influence of the Stick-Style in the gable decoration, with larger white members framing areas of decorative siding, some of it installed at a 45 degree angle.

The Shingle Style was popular for retreats and shore houses of the wealthy in the northeast, and I think particularly interesting because they seem to really convey a sense of the volume of space inside, rather than a composition of decorated walls. Church of the Good Shepherd on South Jackson Street in Centennial Hill is not fully Shingle Style, but the shingled gable and then recessed front with the Gothic arched window appear to be carved out of one volume, rather than being decorative elements arranged on the facade in the same way Shingle Style buildings do.

Good Shepherd’s front façade decorates in a very volumetric fashion, with the gable in very high relief to the wall of the church. The composition seems to have been carved from a block of wood.

The Romantics

Alabamians in this period continued their love of all things European, or their ideas of what they might be. Italianate continued to be fashionable, with decorative motifs like brackets, spindlework and arches moving onto the asymmetrical box that had become the current house form. One of the Dowe houses, 320 Washington Avenue, demonstrates the Victorian Italianate well. We also turned our eye to the French and adopted the curved Mansard roof of the Second Empire style, although if you judge by the number of examples we seem to have continued our romance more with the Italians than the French.

The Dowe House would have felt at home on a San Francisco street, although her color scheme might be a bit subdued for that California city.

Victorian styles continued well into the early decades of the 20th century. Next time we’ll talk about Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical, probably the most resilient architectural styles in our vocabulary.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.


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