Queen Anne homes: an American original

Iris Price

Mention Victorian architecture, and many Americans picture some variation of Queen Anne homes, especially those that are popularly known as "Gingerbread." American Queen Anne architecture has been known for its eclectic -- sometimes almost whimsical -- mix of design characteristics:

  • asymmetry
  • large, partial or wrap-around porches
  • turrets or towers, some with onion-shaped domes
  • high-pitched, multiple-gabled, mansard or hip roof
  • oriels -- bay windows projecting from upper stories
  • exterior ornamentation such as "stick" or spindle embellishments
  • a mix of different siding materials -- fish-tale shingles in the gables, clapboard, stone and stucco
  • as many as six exterior colors of paint at one time for siding, trim, windows, doors, porches, and ornamentation

American Queen Anne home: history and popularity

The American Queen Anne style evolved from the British version of the same name, which originated with architect Richard Norman Shaw in 1868. Shaw's early Queen Anne homes had only a few classic details in common with the style of the period in which Queen Anne reigned, 1702-1714. His original designs actually borrowed heavily from Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture. He and his British contemporaries also re-introduced the medieval-style great hall into their early Queen Anne designs.

American architect Henry Hobson Richardson is credited with building the first Queen Anne home in the U.S. in 1874. His Watts Sherman House in Newport, R.I., used much of Shaw's earlier design elements. Of necessity, however, Richardson substituted shingles on the exterior because of the difficulty of manufacturing tiles, such as were used in England. This clever adaptation later caught on and developed into the popular Shingle Style Queen Anne homes.

At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, architects Thomas Harris and Hugh Holborn designed two Queen Anne residences to house visiting British dignitaries and staff. The public, as well as professional architects, responded with enthusiasm. Patriotic sentiment surrounding the Centennial also launched American Colonial Revival, which, like Queen Anne, was a derivative of British 17th and 18th century architectural style, and for a while the two styles were inseparably part of the same nostalgic movement.

In 1877 several Queen Anne homes were built using spindle or stick ornamentation, which came to be known as the Stick Queen Anne style. Its more extreme version, the Eastlake style, was sometimes referred to as "gingerbread" because of its elaborate ornamentation.

Queen Anne house
Carson Mansion in Eureka, Calif.
Creative Commons photo by Cory Maylett

Early champions of the Queen Anne hailed it for its adaptability. It was a home that could be built in either town or country. It had a practical layout with kitchens and dining rooms adjoining, large halls and lots of light, but its basic design could be easily modified to accommodate the needs of the individual having it built. Queen Anne was ripe for ornamentation and creativity, which appealed to well-to-do industrialists and the up-and-coming middle class alike. In short, a Queen Anne home became a status symbol, a way to set oneself apart from the rest with its individuality.

From 1880 to 1910, Queen Anne homes took the country by storm. The Industrial Revolution made mass production of wood spindle ornamentation possible. Railroads that now stretched across country could speedily and affordably transport materials virtually coast-to-coast. One of the best known surviving examples of the style is the former Carson Mansion on the northern California coast in Eureka. But by the 1890s, individuality and creativity often resulted in designs that could be extremely fanciful -- and some, downright bizarre -- with each home outdoing the next, such as the William A. Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City, commissioned in 1897 and finally completed around the time the Queen Anne frenzy was ending.

Queen Anne mansion
William A. Clark Mansion, New York, ca. 1910. Photo credit to Creative Commons, photographer unknown

The Queen Anne's popularity as a large family home for those of means finally lost ground to Colonial Revival. By then smaller, more practical and less costly homes for the average family -- such as the Bungalow and Prairie style -- were become well established. Many of the aging Victorian painted ladies were turned into multifamily homes and rooming houses when they became too expensive for single families to maintain. They remained so until their restoration became popular after the 1976 Bicentennial revived interest in the style. Today, however, restored to her former glory, the Queen Anne is recognized and appreciated as the first truly American architectural home style.

About the Author
Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.

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