Victorian Shingle Style Houses, 1880-1900

Deborah Holmes
Hunting for shingle style homes recalls Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote about pornography. Noting that it was impossible to "define what may be indefinable" he quipped: "But I know it when I see it."

hallowell house
The Wil C. Johnson home (c. 1899) was designed by John Calvin Stevens. This classic shingle style home sits high above the Kennebec River town of Hallowell, Maine. Note the turret and open, rounded porch which are drawn into the skin of the house by the unifying shingles. Both elements evolved from Queen Anne style. This design has a combination of hip and gable roofs.
Photo: The Old House Web

Like the exuberant Queen Anne Victorians of the same period, shingle style homes are defined as a sum of their parts more than by any single architectural feature. On the outside, they exhibit a lack of symmetry, rich and varied siding textures, windows of varying sizes and style, and elaborate wood trim. Even the name "shingle style" needs a little clarification: The first floors of many of these grand cottages were brick or stone.

But it's sort of impossible to see one without recognizing the style.

First of all there's the shingles covering the entire house. Towers and wide porches borrowed from the Queen Anne style are covered by this unified skin, a hallmark of the style. Lines between inside and outside blur. Roofs often were covered with the same shingles as the exterior walls, although many roofs have long since been replaced with modern asphalt shingles.

stevens house

Cape Elizabeth house
The richly textured siding on the Brown-Donahue House in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, shows up well in this photo. This was another house designed by John Calvin Stevens.
Photos: Gerda Peterrich, Historic American Buildings Survey, 1962

cape elizabeth house
Inside the Brown-Donahue House, a massive brick fireplace and soaring open spaces.

Stevens delighted in the freedom of design in shingle style. Stevens described "playful" shadows off stone foundations. Shingle style homes typically have a foundation or first story of stone or brick.

Elaborate color schemes of Queen Anne homes made the rich trims and millwork stand out. Shingle style homes also featured millwork, but strove for a subtle, seamless continuity between the inside and the outside. Shingle style homes were nearly always a single color. The intent was for these homes to blend into the countryside. Often, the shingles were left to weather naturally as on colonial homes from a century before. Gambrel roofs and profiles that hug the landscape, Palladian windows and classical columns were also borrowed elements from earlier styles. This nod to the past was part of a growing interest in American history as the country marked its centennial with the 1876 Exhibition in Philadelphia.

This uniquely American style is sometimes described as a maturation of the Queen Anne style. Prominent architects of the day felt at liberty to exercise their creativity. H.H. Richardson and William Ralph Emerson of Boston; John Calvin Stevens of Portland, Maine; McKim, Mead & White of New York were among the architects who helps define the style. Frank Lloyd Wright was influenced by the designs of McKim, Mead and White in designing his Oak Park, Illinois home in 1889.

John Calvin Stevens described the shingle style home he built from himself along a prominent point in Portland, Maine overlooking the Atlantic ocean:

"(The house) sits on high land...the first story is of brick, protruding here and there at random, giving dots of shadow playful in their effect. Creeping vines and stately hollyhocks help make the summer aspect of the house enticing, even to the disinterested spectator."

Soaring Open Spaces

Soaring, open inside spaces are a clear departure from the small, closed rooms of earlier homes. Before the turn of the century, even large homes had small rooms that could be easily closed off for heating. The wide availability of central heating and the use of the homes as summer retreats made this convention unnecessary in shingle style homes. Large fireplaces of natural stone or brick were prominent, public features in shingle style homes. These open fireplaces were meant to be gathering points in great rooms rather than functional heat sources.

Shingle style homes were as varied on the inside as the outside. Public first floors often featured exotic woods and carved mouldings. Upstairs trim was often made from less expensive wood and painted. John Calvin Stevens' home in Portland had a den whose walls were "swept haphazard with burnt sienna." Stevens describes ceilings of blue and light olive brown, ivory white and deep mahogany woodwork and modest shellacked pine upstairs.

Although shingle style homes were referred to as "cottages," they were hardly humble abodes. Many of these grand homes were built by wealthy industrialists as summer retreats from the noise and pollution of late 19th century cities. The pristine New England coastline, including seaside resorts in Newport, Cape Cod and Maine were choice destinations, most examples of these homes are found in this area. The deliberately informal style of architecture suggested carefree days spent reading, relaxing and sailing. Great rooms hosted cocktail parties.

Consider this description from a local newspaper detailing the Charles Baldwin House to be built in Newport, Rhode Island.

"...a very tasty appearing villa...built of brick and wood...but appearing smaller than its actual size ( 95' long by 65' wide) because of the way it's broken up. Nothing obstructs the view from the hall to the apex of the roof, 49 feet. The outside is shingled, clapboarded, sheathed and carved, not two (of the 150 patterns) of moulding alike. Above the larger windows are smaller ones in diamond pattern showing the ancient as well as modern style."

baldwin house
Hardly a humble summer cottage, the Baldwin House in Newport is made of brick, wood half-timbering, boards, clapboards and shingles. To create the uniform outside skin typical of shingle style houses, all wood was painted red and red brick was laid in red mortar.
Photo: Cervin Robinson, Historic American Building Survey, 1970.

Rich detail and textures typical of shingle houses on this Newport house designed by McKim, Mead & White.
Photo: Jack Boucher, Historic American Building Survey, 1969.

While isolated examples of shingle style homes can be found in other areas of the country, the style never gained widespread popularity of the Queen Anne homes of the same period. Most of the homes were built in the twenty year period from 1880 to 1900.

About the Author
By Deborah Holmes, The Old House Web

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