The Queen Anne: Victorian Architecture and Décor

The Queen Anne, a favorite of American house styles, features exterior ornament and complex color schemes.
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The Queen Anne, a favorite of American house styles, features exterior ornament and complex color schemes.

English-derived and very popular from 1880 through the 1890s, the quintessential Victorian house is a period favorite. Robust but lighthearted exteriors—with their asymmetrical facades, towers, verandas, and fancy-butt shingles—hint at the sweetly eclectic rooms inside.

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Despite roots in the English “Queen Anne Movement”—a return to early, vernacular architecture—it is here a peculiarly American style in its mass-produced ornamentation (including “gingerbread”) and lavish use of wood. The Northeast, already heavily populated in the 1880s, has comparatively fewer examples that you might expect. Go south and west, however, and the style becomes more popular and more fanciful. The West Coast and resurgent areas of the New South have the most dizzying examples.

The Queen Anne Movement began in England in mid-century, easily traced to the famous architect Richard Normal Shaw, a Gothicist. He and other Aesthetic reformers looked back to the reign of “good Queen Anne,” 1702–1714, as a simpler time, when workmanship was emphasized over superficial detail. In its original philosophy, the Queen Anne movement paralleled that of William Morris and Arts and Crafts reformers. (Shaw didn’t revive the motifs of Queen Anne’s short reign, however; rather, his buildings looked back to the late Tudor–Gothic, Elizabethan, and Jacobean periods.)

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When it flourished in America, of course, the idea was transformed. Ye olde simple brick house of the 17th century became, in its 1880s revival, the most complex and surface-ornamented of Victorian house styles.

The first American Queen Anne house is probably the half-timbered Watts–Sherman House in Newport, Rhode Island, built in 1874 by Boston architect H.H. Richardson. By 1880 the style appeared in pattern books—Americanized and adapted for city lot and simple cottage. The explosion of turned ornament led to the spindlework interpretation, called Eastlake after the English tastemaker and furniture designer (who, by the way, repudiated such gauche American use of his name).

By the 1890s, the all-American Free Classic adaptation was widespread. Now porches had classical columns instead of turned posts. The houses also had Palladian windows and pedimented entries—it was the beginning of the Colonial Revival.

Phases of American Queen Anne

(Illustrations: Rob Leanna)

(Illustrations: Rob Leanna)

Early examples are unmistakably English, borrowing such details as half-timbering and carving from 17th-century architecture. Bold examples by such American architects as H.H. Richardson are in the tradition of Richard Norman Shaw, the former Gothicist and English architect who interpreted vernacular houses during the mid-19th century. Many of these early examples incorporate masonry or stucco and feature prominent chimneys. Expansive porches—piazzas or verandahs—are a distinctly American innovation.

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The beloved tower house is perhaps the pinnacle of American Queen Anne. A tower or turret marks the style for even novice old-house buffs. Upright or sprawling, outrageous or subdued, the tower house offers us the endearing, light side of Victorian architecture, delighting the eye with small-paned windows (often with colored lights: the Queen Anne window), fancy-butt shingles, gingerbread, and wood turning. Eastlake-inspired trim (turned, chamfered, incised, Aesthetic, abstract) gave way after 1885 to more “free classic” or Colonial Revival elements: pedimented entries, Palladian windows, plaster swags.

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Queen Anne cottage. Almost from the beginning, the style was interpreted, through the use of ornament and windows, for simpler and smaller cottages. Examples in the 1870s wore turned spindlework. Transom windows and the Victorian porch are hallmarks. By the late 1890s and beyond, a fancy gable ornament, a single window of colored glass lights around a clear center, or a pediment over the entry might be the only clue to lingering Queen Anne style on an otherwise plain, gable-front box.

Hallmarks of Queen Anne Style

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Asymmetry. Towers, turrets, bays, porches, and roofline break the box. Roofs and massing are often complex.

Texture. Surfaces are broken by a switch from stone or clapboard to shingles, often with fancy-cut butts. Belt courses, gable ornament, turnings, brackets, balustrades, and sawn-wood “gingerbread” keep it interesting. (Polychrome painting plays up surface texture even more.)

Wood trim. Sawn, chamfered, carved, lathe-turned, and applied ornament is used on porches, gables, cornices, and story breaks.

See Victorian Exterior Paint Colors for more about Queen Anne exteriors.

Inside the Queen Anne House

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The Queen Anne style itself hastened the end of High Victorian decorating—which had become heavy, lavish, undiscriminating. It was a time of architectural reform, mass production and increasing choices, and the first stirrings of the Colonial Revival.

Interiors drew from many styles, including the avant-garde Aesthetic and Anglo–Japanese. These mingled nostalgically with various antiques and symbols of “the old days.” Rooms were decidedly not overstuffed. In fact, proper 1860s parlors were ridiculed by the new tastemakers, who hated floral carpets, florid mirror frames, and carved rosewood furniture with white marble tops. Instead, they recommended:
• that the frieze/fill/dado wall division would allow creative opportunities (wood wainscot, paper, cloth, paint, and stencils) while keeping the middle space, the fill, relatively neutral
• that ornament and decoration be “flat” or abstract, not shaded and literal
• that the dining room be treated in dark colors as a backdrop for the table
• that plants be used as inexpensive decoration.

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The dominant entry hall deserves special attention with its wainscot or paneling, fireplace, and built-ins. Embossed Lincrusta-Walton wallcovering was popular, as were damask and velour. Patterns were exotic, Japanese or Moorish by way of English interpretation. Dining rooms lightened considerably during the period, but this public room was usually treated in mahogany, cherry, or ebony. (Walnut was by now old-fashioned.)

The basic decoration of the Queen Anne house was art—as in paintings and prints, pottery, embroidery, hand-made tiles, and art furniture—on top of the free use of art wallpapers and painted decoration.

Besides the accessories of the East, American “Revolutionary” furniture was again prized. Rush and cane chairs mingled with wicker and rattan and bamboo. Very popular was the so-called Eastlake style (usually in oak) with incised, stylized ornament.

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The first wave of the Colonial Revival accepted any neoclassical style: Louis XVI, Hepplewhite or Sheraton, Windsor. Also consider plain country Empire, which was made regionally from the 1830s through the 1930s (by which time it was called Early American).

Queen Anne rooms are easy enough to approximate. Common Aesthetic Movement-inspired furniture is still around. Oriental carpets are available in every price range, as are bamboo (and faux bamboo) and rattan furniture and Japanese fans and porcelains. Colonial Revival furniture is still reasonably priced, as are Windsor chairs.

Recommended Reading

The Queen Anne House: America’s Victorian Vernacular
By Janet Foster (Abrams, 2006)
Queen Anne, Shingle, and early Tudor Revival houses in this country all owe a debt to the English Queen Anne movement that brought back vernacular forms. With some houses, it’s hard to tell where Queen Anne ends and Shingle begins. This book showing 21 residences paints a clearer picture of the relationships among styles, and offers plenty of architectural and decorating details.

Sweetness and Light: The Queen Anne Movement 1860–1900
By Mark Girouard (Yale University Press, 1984)
The original, still highly recommended book on the Queen Anne in England and the U.S.

Creating the Artful Home: The Aesthetic Movement
By Karen Zukowski (Gibbs Smith, 2006)
In America, the Aesthetic Movement was popular in the same decades as the Queen Anne Style (1875-1900), and they share traits as transitional styles between Victorian excess and an Arts & Crafts sensibility. This book is more than a history of the movement; it provides insight into the rationale and is helpful for finding a creative approach to home-making now.

The Aesthetic Movement
By Lionel Lambourne (Phaidon, 1996)
The English art movement of the 1880s and 1890s that had such great impact even in America. The book is monumental but very readable, starting with the Japonisme fad and moving on to Whistler, Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, Godwin, even Mackintosh. Lavish.

William Morris: Décor and Design
By Elizabeth Wilhide (Pavilion Books, 1997)
A focused, intelligent resource that doesn’t lose its appeal. Morris's wallpapers and furnishings are the theme, accompanied by photos of rooms decorated by Morris & Co., and contemporary interpretations, with illustrated pattern glossaries.

Painted Ladies Revisited...Inside and Out
By Elizabeth Pomada (Studio, 1989)
Exterior and interior restorations on Stick, Eastlake, and Queen Anne houses.

Hints on Household Taste
By Charles L. Eastlake (Dover, 1986)
Reprint of the 1868–1872 book by the Aesthetic Movement tastemaker and critic.