Field Guide to Georgetown Homes: Early Victorian Period

This week, GM is rerunning his series on Georgetown architecture:

This week GM is exploring the variety of historical architectural styles around Georgetown. Today GM explores the early Victorian period.

The two styles that dominated early Victorian architecture were Second Empire and Stick. However, there are no examples of Stick architecture in Georgetown that GM could find (the Stick style is not surprisingly tailored to wooden homes, which was not a popular building material in bricky Georgetown). So for Georgetown early Victorian architecture means only Second Empire.

While Rome and Greece were the dominant influences on early 19th century American architecture, the Second Empire style is distinctly French-born. The name refers to the period of French history when Napoleon III resurrected his uncle’s empire (1850-1872). The Second Empire style was a distinctly modern design and represented a sharp break from the picturesque imagery of the Italianate and Gothic Revival styles.

It’s somewhat surprising to first learn that Second Empire is an early Victorian style. That’s because to the layman’s eye, it displays all the creepy over decoration of high Victorian design.

The easiest way to spot a Second Empire house is to look at the roof. Second Empire homes have mansard roofs. Those are roofs were the roofline is so steep that it forms the walls of the top floor. Here’s an example:

Mansard Roof

As to the rest of the house, Second Empire homes feature some similar flourishes as Italianate. They typically had brackets and thickly detailed window surrounds. One of the Cooke’s Row homes is Second Empire:

Cooke's Row Second Empire

Interesting tidbit: the Mansard roof style was designed by Francois Mansart in the 17th century and had the popular advantage that it helped to dodge tax laws. In France at the time homes were taxed per floor, but the attic was not counted. The Mansard roof allowed you to turn the attic into useful living space and not pay taxes on it.

The Second Empire was particularly popular during Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. It fell out of popularity quickly after the Panic of 1873, in part because it’s such an expensive style to build and maintain. Tomorrow GM will discuss the late Victorian Era and the two most relevant styles for Georgetown: Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque.

Credit for most of this information comes from Virginia and Lee McAlester’s “A Field Guide to American Houses

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