Victorian decoration – gingerbread ornamentation and fretwork are features that make people stop and admire a house.
It is these features that give a house that extra charm and character.
The more ornamentation the better sometimes making the Victorian building look like it was on steroids.
Victorian decoration is admired so that today many homeowners attempt to add Victorian decoration to their own home. This presents a problem, for most homeowners do not really understand architecture and what is right for the style of the house or age of the house.
Many homeowners actually attempt to add Victorian decoration to non-Victorian architecture such as a Ranch house or Bungalow. This is wrong – do not try to make your house into something it was never meant to be or the result will be a Clown House. Buy a Victorian if that’s what you like.
Many people have plain Victorians and attempt to add Victorian decoration. One must understand the architecture to know what can go where and if the ornament can even be used at all. One such example of this problem is the addition of brackets under the roof eaves. If you have open eaves then you cannot add brackets. If the eaves are boxed in then you can add them but you must also add a cove molding connecting them otherwise the brackets will be floating. This is a common mistake that’s made.
It is best to consult someone before attempting to do it wrong.
Use CAUTION when getting help from a manufacturer that sells Victorian decoration.
They will sell you anything to put everywhere possible.
The big problem with many online manufacturers is that many of their products are not reproductions but watered down interpretations of original designs.
They may look fancy but their scale and proportion is way off being too thin for a strong Victorian house. The result is a feature that looks added on instead of looking like it was always there.
Is Adding Victorian Decoration to a Plain House Wrong?
The following excerpt is from the Old House Journal – July 1980
To The Editor:
I WOULD LIKE TO OBJECT to the article “home-Made Gingerbread” which appeared in the April issue of OHJ. In a publication with a masthead “ Restoration & Maintenance Techniques for the Antique House,” this article is about neither restoration nor maintenance. Rather, its publication seems to encourage a form of architectural costuming that is no different from the “Colonial” supermarket, the “Wild west” steakhouse, or the “Victorian” hamburger stand.
AT A MINIMUM, I would suggest editorial guidelines comparable to those rehabilitation guidelines used by the national Register of Historic Places staff in reviewing rehabilitation proposals, especially:
“. . . Repair or replacement of missing architectural features should be based on accurate duplications of original features, substantiated by physical or pictorial evidence rather than on conjectural designs or the availability of different architectural features from other buildings.”
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG with appropriate frosting on an architectural cake. But when the base is an honest bread-loaf of a building, the result is a bit more tacky than tasty.
Bruce K. AICP
Old House Journal Response
No PUBLICATION has campaigned harder against the “remuddling” of old houses than has the OHJ. But we feel that this particular case does not constitute “remuddling” – and that what the owner did was quite within the bounds of responsible old-house ownership.
LET US SUMMARIZE what is right about this project . . . because there are many occasions when we would be opposed to architectural embellishment of this type.
OUR BASIE BELIEF is that when working on old houses, you should not destroy the good work of past generations. That rule was observed in this case: No wood work was destroyed; no trim discarded. Rather, this was a case of adding architectural ornament to an existing house. And here, we believe, what’s “right” is less clear cut. For this discussion, let’s divide old houses into three groups:
- Historically Significant Houses. These may be houses designed by a famous architect, or someone famous may have lived there, or something significant may have happened there.
- Architecturally Distinctive Houses. These are houses that have a clear architectural style or detailing that fives them character.
- “Plain” Houses. These are essentially unornamented, functional boxes with minimal architectural detail. This type of house is especially common in rural areas where they were built as farmhouses.
HOUSES IN GROUPS #1 and #2 deserve to be preserved or restored along the lines of their original appearance. But houses in Group #3 present a more complex question. Because architectural indifference or a lack of money prevented the original owner from building a more distinctive house, does that mean the every subsequent owner should feel duty-bound to preserve the plainness?
WE FEEL that houses in Group #3 can be architecturally enhanced . . . as long as the work is done in good taste and in keeping with the spirit and style of the house.
IN THE MID-19th CENTURY, many plain farmhouses such as the house in question were enriched with vergeboards, brackets, gable ornaments and porch scrollwork. Today’s preservationists would argue that this embellishment should be preserved as part of the architectural history of the house. Should we argue that plain farmhouses can no longer be ornamented because this is 1980 rather than 1880? We think not.
THE HOUSE in the April case history obviously falls into Group #3. Thus from our standpoint the only argument is whether the architectural enrichment was in good taste and appropriate to the house. And we believe it was.
THIS SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN as free license to add fripperies to every old house. But when thoughtfully and carefully done, the architectural enhancement of Group #3 houses can add to the enjoyment of old-house ownership and add something to our cultural heritage that future generations will be happy to preserve.
Clem Labine – Editor OHJ
My professional opinion is that both parties make very good points. There is nothing I hate to see more that poorly added Victorian decoration. If you are not a professional I suggest you speak to one so you can do it right. If you can’t do it right then don’t do it at all. Don’t make your house a Clown House!
If you like Victorian decoration, check out this link to photos of Victorian homes in Alameda California.