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Index by Medium

Queen Anne Style

If you live in a community that manifested significant growth in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, you no doubt have street after street of examples of Queen Anne architecture. Originally they were called Queen Anne Cottages. Frankly, of all the architectural styles ever propagated by man, this one has to be the most flagrant misnomer ever known. They had absolutely nothing to do with Queen Anne or the period of her reign, and very rarely are the small enough to resemble anyone's definition of a cottage (except perhaps by Newport-Vanderbilt standards). Instead, the style was first devised by a group of English architects led by Richard Norman Shaw and in their original manifestation were half-timbered with patterned masonry reminiscent of the Medieval, Elizabethan, and Jacobean eras. A few, such as the Watts-Sherman house in Newport (built in the 1870s), are true to this original pattern. But for the most part, what we now call Queen Anne looks nothing like Shaw's designs.

Actually, it's quite possible most people have never heard of Shaw or the Queen Anne style. Although they've seen dozens, maybe hundreds of them, most people refer to them quite generically as "Victorian." But as I've mentioned before, this is much too broad an era to have any architectural significance. Given the fact that Queen Victoria's reign was something like 68 years long, Gothic Revival, Italianate, even some late Classic Revival styles also could be termed Victorian. The Queen Anne style of the 1880s and 90s really owes much more to the broad publication of plan books and the first architectural magazine, The American Architect and Building News than to any one architect (or group of them). It proliferated so wildly largely because of two factors. It was first of all the perfect domestic incarnation of the American lifestyle of the era (extravagant looking but relatively inexpensive to construct); and secondly, it was the first instance of prefabricated, factory-made architectural elements (all of wood), such as posts, doors, woodwork, windows, window decorations, railings, eaves, and the trademark jigsaw "gingerbread" that made the style so distinctive. All of these found their way via railroad to cities all over the country giving us our first nation-wide architectural style with only minor variations as to various geographic areas.

Describing the Queen Anne house beyond the well-known jim-cracks and goo-gaws we're all so familiar with in decorations is nearly impossible. Many of them must have been carpentry nightmares with roof angles, for instance, that run in every direction, round, hexagonal, and octagonal turrets, with cone-shaped, domed, even onion domed and bell-shaped caps, porches of every conceivable design... In fact, if there is one design element that clearly marks the Queen Ann style (other than the "gingerbread" and a penchant for turrets), it is the sprawling, wrap-around porches, in some cases nearly encircling the whole house. People of this pre-air-conditioned era loved them and their gentle summer breezes and open invitations for socialisation. Many practically lived on them during long, hot, summer days and nights.

In terms of sheer numbers, of all the architectural styles of the nineteenth century, the Queen Anne is far and away the most popular. And given this popularity, its little wonder so many have survived the century or more since their building. Beyond that though, is the fact that in almost every case they were extremely well built, both in terms of materials and construction techniques. However they were also very high-maintenance. Being predominantly wood, they had to be painted often and because of their size and complex designs/decorations, often at great expense. Their complex roof designs and numerous chimneys demanded careful upkeep; and with their sometimes incredible number of windows, high ceilings, and poor insulation, just heating one of any size could bankrupt a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. But bankers and lawyers loved them.

Yet despite these modern inconveniences, Queen Anne homes still remain extremely popular with buyers. Of course many of their built-in problems can, with enough money, be remodelled away. Insulation, storm windows, and modern heating systems can be added, ceilings lowered, plumbing updated, even high maintenance exterior details can be converted to metal, plastics, or fibreglass. And of course, all too often, these distinctive details can be and are simply stripped away leaving a naked blandness that seems somehow sad. Perhaps because they were this nation's first broadly popular style, perhaps because of the Victorian era's romantic, glowing warmth, perhaps because of the enormous variations we see, Queen Anne is one of the most beloved styles ever, with modern copies being built by the thousands even today. Like all styles, whether contemporary constructions, or original period pieces, ghastly examples can be cited that are incredibly ugly. But even though they're not a personal favourite, nor would I ever want to live in one, it's not hard to appreciate their delicate beauty, style, and grace. Maybe "Queen Anne" is not such a misnomer after all.

contributed by Lane, Jim


3 September 2000

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