JLC and Symbi Homes recently launched the “Queen of Zero” case study following the progress of a new custom single-family home in a Maryland suburb just outside Washington, DC. This article discusses the aesthetic style of the home inspired by the site’s original 1901 Queen Anne Victorian property that burned down in 2020.
When I first drove by the burned-out carcass of a recent Victorian house fire, I imagined the lot would soon be occupied by a contemporary craftsman home, the design favored by most single-family developers in this historic commuter neighborhood just six miles from the U.S. Capitol. Compared to the architecture of the original Queen Anne Victorian, building in a modern-day craftsman style would be more familiar to local contractors, less expensive, easier to source materials, and no doubt completed in less time.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the homeowner had already engaged a local architect, Michael Romero, to resurrect the essence of his original Queen Anne. Aside from finding the Victorian aesthetically pleasing, the owner felt committed to helping preserve the past, hearkening back to an era when a booming economy and growing middle class fueled a frenzy of grand and fanciful Victorian homebuilding across the US.
Victorian architecture connotes the design period during Queen Victoria’s reign of the British monarchy (1837-1901). Common characteristics of Victorian homes include tall ceilings, large windows, resplendently welcoming front porches, and a plethora of design details from neoclassical and Gothic revival traditions adorning interior and exterior finishes. The Queen Anne was one of many distinct Victorian styles that became popular in the U.S. at the turn of the century distinguished by its steep gabled roofs, rounded turret towers, and wrap around porches.
The Victorian era in architecture was made feasible, in part, by technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution. Victorian interiors were often chock-full of hardwood details— ornate fireplace mantels, wainscotting, elaborate staircases. Legendary builder and preservation expert Brent Hull explains, “Hardwoods like walnut, mahogany, oak, cherry were impossible to work with hand tools.” The advent of power tools greatly expanded the repertoires of carpenters and made these embellishments affordable for middle-class families.
Adornments aside, Victorian architecture also incorporated important functional design elements. Many of the patterns and traditions of the Victorian, explains Romero, were developed not out of vanity, but in response to the climate and the locally available materials. Taller double-hung windows maximized interior air flow, the porches and extended eaves reduced solar heat gain, and steep roof pitches helped manage snow loads.
Over the years, many Victorians have succumbed to fires, and others have suffered the fate of irreverent renovations with many a façade obscured with stucco or vinyl siding. One particularly disastrous trend of Post-War “improvements” included the addition of asbestos shingled siding sold as a low-maintenance fire retardant which “sheared the Victorians of all detail and character and wasn’t even fireproof” (Baer et al, 1978, p. 9).
However, in the 1970s, appreciation of the Victorian home experienced a revival in the hippy enclaves of downtown San Francisco (Baer et al, 1978). Restoring the exteriors with several vibrant paint colors (anywhere from 4-11 distinct colors accentuating the architectural details), this rebirth has become known as the "Painted Ladies" style, a Victorian embellishment that has since spread across the country.
How Do You Recreate a Victorian?
Reproducing Victorian details, either as a renovation or new build, can be extraordinarily difficult in modern times. The requisite materials and labor-intensive designs make many projects cost prohibitive. “One of the reasons why Victorians look cheap when they’re built new,” explains Hull, “is because we’ve forgotten how expensive a lot of that material is now, which used to be so readily available, and the cost to get it right.”
Getting it right is about paying attention to the details, according to Hull. “House ornamentation is a really strong part” of replicating the look and feel of a Victorian. Over the years, JLC contributors have grappled with the complexities of Victorian authenticity – documenting efforts to match original door casings (https://www.jlconline.com/how-to/interiors/victorian-style-door-casing_o , mimicking the correct proportions and combination of profiles for Victorian moldings (https://www.jlconline.com/how-to/interiors/detail-two-classic-trim-styles_o), selecting the most appropriate wood species for exterior finishes (https://www.jlconline.com/projects/design-build/a-victorian-cupola_o ) , or restoring the look and feel of a Victorian front porch (https://www.jlconline.com/deck-builder/front-porch-revival_o). Hull’s series of social media reels also showcases the craft of replicating or restoring architectural details in a period homes (https://www.instagram.com/hullmillwork_hullhomes/).
In their 1992 book America’s Painted Ladies: The Ultimate Celebration of Our Victorians, which catalogues distinguished Victorians across America, Pomada and Larsen labeled renditions from the late-20th Century as “Neos.” Rather than criticizing the pervasive mashup of traditional and contemporary architecture among the Neo-Victorian homes featured in their book, the authors seem to relish the enduring affinity for Victorian design, citing successful companies such as W.F. Norman Corp. (https://wfnorman.com/) that have sold building ornamentations in the Victorian style for over 100 years.
Queen of Zero
To be sure, our Queen of Zero team of designers and contractors have our work cut out for us. Architect Michael Romero explains that while the goal is not an exact replica of the original Victorian, Queen of Zero’s design uses “elements of the language and traditions that we call Victorian… which gives you the tools, gives you the guardrails, gives you context in which to take a design forward so immediately things can be seen as appropriate and not appropriate.” Most importantly, according to Romero, is for the finished product to reflect “thoughtful consideration for neighbors, for context, and for history.”
Thus, with the weight of history on our shoulders, the Queen of Zero team moves forward, striving to stay within the high-bar of Victorian guardrails despite the constraints of time, budget, labor skills, material availability, and our modern home performance specifications. Questions abound. When compromises need to be made, which of the Victorian elements are non-negotiable? While selecting fixtures and finishes, can we keep the design from veering too far from traditional into some sort of multi-period eclecticism? And how do we properly insulate a vaulted turret to meet net zero standards?
Understanding well the negotiations that will ensue, Romero says, “we have to pick our moments of craft.” In other words, find those aspects of the project that can align authentically with the past and celebrate our achievements one-by-one. Romero lives just two blocks from the job site and plans to be actively involved in monitoring the execution of the work.
After all, this project is very timely. According to Hull, our country is due for a revival of craft. Recent decades of homebuilding have been dominated by monochromatic cookie-cutter mass productions devoid of the human spirit, but the pendulum may be swinging. “Just like 1950s Tang and TV dinners,” says Hull, we see that the younger generations prefer “craft beer and slow cooking.”