Houses for Victorians
The Row House
The row house (called "terraced house" in Britain) was rarely designed for an individual occupier. Most of these were built, often streets at a time, by speculative builders using the cheapest convenient wall materials and details purchased from a catalog.
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Row houses were only rarely over three stories tall, and inherited their basic characteristics from their Georgian predecessors, including stylistic patterns that continued to be built right up to the 1850s. Row houses were constructed with load-bearing masonry external walls and an internal masonry cross-wall. Remaining internal walls were non-load-bearing partitions made of wooden studs covered by wooden lath and plaster.
Basements and semi-basements provided a service area at the bottom of the house, giving way as the century progressed to back extensions.
Save in the very late Victorian period — and then often only for the most modest examples — row houses in the north and west of England were built of stone. In the Midlands and the southeast, the long tradition of brick building dominated, while most American examples also had walls of brick.
Row house blocks were frequently designed to be read as a whole from a distance, with prominent buildings at either end and often in the center.
External details — such as whether a bay carried up to the first floor or was, more economically, restricted to the ground floor — gave a precise indication of status. Stone lintels, brick voussoirs, pillars, capitals, and terra-cotta details all played their part in announcing the social standing of the occupants.
Many of the rows that still make up much of the inner-city housing stock in Britain and in the larger cities of the northeastern U.S. were originally built for those of very modest means.
The Balloon-Frame House
The balloon frame is a method of building unique to the United States and perfectly suited to the expanding Midwestern states where it originated. Drawing on the nation's all-but-unlimited supplies of timber, it was a cheap, easy-to-erect system using a wooden wall frame of simplified design.
Unlike earlier wooden-framed houses, in which a few heavy timbers were the load-bearing units, the balloon frame — perhaps so called because the houses went up like balloons — consists entirely of a great many small-dimension wooden "sticks" nailed together with machine-made wire nails.
No one part of the structure supports any greater load than any other. There are no corner posts of heavy load-bearing timbers to cut by hand.
Instead principal members are made of two or more standard timbers, usually two inches (five centimeters) thick by only four or six inches (ten or fifteen centimeters) wide, nailed together. The walls are then clad in timber or a decorative masonry veneer and the house is finished off with a roof usually of varying design.
This streamlined system greatly lowered the cost of house construction by using less expensive wall materials assembled by a foolproof methodology that did not require highly skilled labor.
First used in Chicago in the 1830s, it became the dominant building method in the Middle West by the time of the Civil War, and by early in the 20th century was used for all but the grandest masonry dwellings.
With slight modifications, it is still the most common method of house construction in America today.
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Robin Guild established an international reputation as an interior designer, with a client list that included celebrities and royalty. He designed Ralph Lauren's groundbreaking London stores, cofounded Designer's Guild in London, restored a wide variety of Victorian homes, and wrote several popular design books, including The Finishing Touch and Homeworks.
This article is excerpted from The Victorian House Book by Robin Guild, copyright © 2008, with permission from Sheldrake Press. Published in North America by Firefly Books.