Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Lost World of the Victorians

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Lost World of the Victorians

Article excerpt

EVERY spring I take a group of students on an architecture field trip to St. Louis. One of my favorite moments comes when we are touring Tower Grove Park, a landscape developed by Henry Shaw, an Englishman who built a very successful hardware and real estate business in America. Shaw gave this park to the city of St. Louis along with a number of gazebos and statues that he placed along drives.

On our field trip we turn into a circle that includes a Moorish bandstand, complete with an onion-shaped dome. This remarkable building is surrounded by a circle of pedestals topped with busts of the composers favored by Shaw. Each time I find myself saying to the class, "Somehow we have lost something over the years. Can you imagine a philanthropist constructing something remotely like that today?" Is this comment based on envy, sorrow, or just plain nostalgia?

There is no question that post-Civil War America was a nation that was motivated by a desire to gain and display wealth. Technology made it possible to purchase at reasonable prices furniture and carved details for houses that would have been prohibitive in the era of handwork. But the 1870s produced catalogs that offered buyers a richness that had never been available to the middle class. From all indications, our ancestors reacted with a sense of abandon. No color was too rich, no carving was too lavish, no combination of styles was too improbable for them. And it appears it was all done with the confidence that they were displaying good taste.

In California, there are several places where we still have substantial evidence of the optimism of Victorian builders: Eureka, Ferndale, and San Francisco, to name a few.

A number of years ago I had breakfast in the dining room of the exuberant Carson mansion in Eureka. This massive essay in woodcarving typifies the determination of a lumber baron of the middle 1880s. Again I was somewhat envious of the freedom expressed in the richness of the wood used throughout the house. But I also noticed that the many carved details on the exterior have given house painters the chance to create their own color essays in our own time.

And probably that is the appeal of the San Francisco wooden houses that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. They offer us a chance to "dress" ourselves in the clothes of the past, a way to express individuality in a time that seems to insist on conformity. The boldness of the dark interiors and the variety of the stained-glass windows all point to a confidence we all would like to express. Somehow it makes more sense to restore and nurture one of these houses than it does to find a modern expression of richness. We love the beauty and utility of the wooden houses, and we find ourselves fitting in well with the high ceilings and heavy chandeliers of a bygone age. …

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