Victorian Architecture



The lure of Newport’s historic buildings is irresistible. Each year, architects, historians, visitors and students come from all over the world to view the great architectural heritage of Newport and the finest extant works of architects Richard Munday, McKim, Mead & White, Dudley Newton, William Morris Hunt, Ogden Codman, and other luminaries of the grand eras of design.


A living laboratory, Newport is second only to London in the sheer number of surviving buildings from the Victorian era.


And a long era it was, as Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901. Victorian architecture, actually an umbrella term for anything designed and erected during that period, is far more than the elaborately ginger breaded, overly ornate, turreted and furbelowed houses of excessive ornamentation and dark interior woodwork. The term also embraces Shingle style, Stick style, Queen Anne Revival, Colonial Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Beaux Arts, and the Gilded Age palaces. All styles coexist in Newport.


With such a treasure trove of period architecture, Newport was a siren call to the Victorian Society of America, which developed an intensive course given here each summer. For the last twenty-seven years under the direction of Richard Guy Wilson, the distinguished architectural historian and author who chairs the Architecture Department at the University of Virginia, the VSA Summer School is a mix of scholarly information, social history, graduate-level lectures, energetic touring, and social events. This year, it begins on May 30. Dr. Wilson receives an award on the 11th of June.


Historically, Newport was in its second “Golden Age” during the Victorian period, according to Wilson, which lasted from 1830 to October of l929. “Roughly, the era is divided into three stages of architectural influence. First came the Southerners from 1830 to the l850’s. From the l850’s to the l870’s, the genteel, intellectual set built houses, and from 1870 to l929, Newport entered the age of excess.”


A perennial favorite on the VSA private tour is the Charles H. Baldwin House on Bellevue Avenue, an example of the burgeoning trend of reinterpreting and incorporating previous styles and movements. The Baldwin house’s design includes elements of Queen Anne, Shingle style, and American Colonial, with a little English Arts and Crafts movement thrown it. Queen Anne style is usually identified by steeply pitched slate roofs, irregular shape front facing gables, patterned shingles, cut-away bay windows with large panes one over one, partial or full width porches, patterned masonry, towers, and prominent chimneys. The style, which predominates in the Baldwin house, had little to do with Queen Anne, but a lot to do with satisfying the need of the newly rich of the 19th century industrial era for symbols of wealth and success. More than any other, Queen Anne became the style for the "Gilded Age".


The Baldwin House, designed by the architectural firm of William Appleton Potter and Robert Anderson Robertson, is an American recast of English styles, and is considered to be a tribute to Philip Webb’s l859 “Red House,” built in England for William Morris and dubbed ”The Tower of Topsy“ for its innovative roof lines. Erected 1877–1878, Newport’s C.H. Baldwin house fulfills the exterior measures of Queen Anne style, and is an example of the opening out of the interior from a wide entrance hall to flowing living spaces, extended by piazzas.


The Victorian Society course couldn’t do without a distinguished panel of local experts and members, as well as the hospitality of current owners of fine old houses including Richard Nelson and Mrs. John Slocum, a doyenne who left us last year. A guiding light is social historian and author Pauline Metcalf, abetted by the Preservation Society’s Paul Miller and John Tschirch, l9th-century painting specialist William Vareika, former director of The Newport Historical Society Dan Snydacker, and local historian Francis Girr.


According to Pauline Metcalf, “Newport is a place with so many layers, as described by Thornton Wilder in Theophilus North. In order to understand the 19th and 20th century strains and tastes in architecture, it s necessary to go back to the l7th and l8th centuries. Such architects as McKim, Mead, and White were reinterpreting the classical world, and it’s all here for us to study and reverently preserve.”











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