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ABCs of American Architecture (Victorian Period)

Click on the MEDIA ITEMS below for more information



Preeminently, Cumberland is a Victorian city, and the surrounding towns of Allegany County are Victorian towns. The architecture of Cape May, New Jersey, San Francisco, California, and Charleston, South Carolina, attracts thousands of visitors yearly, yet we tend to overlook this unique and historical asset in our own backyard.

Victorian architecture was a glorious romp. The new country, the United States of America, had recovered from its growing pains and was flourishing. The Industrial Revolution had brought a new way of life - one made easier by the use of machines. A wealth of natural resources and a huge demand for goods was spawning a generation of wealthy merchants, manufacturers, professionals. And the tiny elemental homes of the eighteenth century gave way to the demands of richer men with larger families. Style books made many fashions in home-building available, and ideas were freely borrowed and combined.

The architecture of the Victorian Age is frequently called "picturesque eclectic", for disparate elements were combined without any apparent restrictions, and original forms were added as they were deemed appropriate. The end result was visual effect. Inanimate objects were said to have "character, truth, beauty". It was a century of robust spirits, rollicking good fun, picnics and ice cream socials, big families and a feeling that if a little was good, a lot was better. When good Queen Victoria ascended to the throne of England in 1837, she could scarcely anticipate the astounding change that the western world would undergo during her lifetime. According to Foley, in The American House, "Americans entered this arbitrary segment of time riding in a horse-drawn carriage. They left it behind them driving a Model T Ford. During these same years, the fireplace, the wood-burning stove, the pump, and the privy were replaced as major household aids by the furnace, the kitchen range, the water closet, and hot and cold running water. Electric lighting was not far in the future. Victorians were responsible for them all."

The Gothic Revival begins what we think of as characteristically Victorian architecture. Gothic was never as popular in the United States as in England, probably because it carried with it overtones of an aristocracy and the established (Anglican) church. By the 1830’s, however, stimulated by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Americans had become captivated by the idea of the medieval period, by knights and ladies, castles and the picturesque look of Gothic arches.

Romantic as it seemed, the Gothic mode was most frequently used for church and civic architecture. A practically universal feature is the pointed arch. Roofs are steeply pitched with wall dormers, towers, plain lancet windows or leaded and stained glass windows embellished with traceries of stone or wood. Outstanding examples are two of the churches in the historic district. Emmanuel Episcopal Church was built about 1850 on the site of Fort Cumberland. It was designed by John Notman, a leading proponent of the style. The parish hall was designed by a local architect, Bruce Price.

The First Presbyterian Church was built in 1875 of native stone from the Narrows. A comparison of the window tracery and the colors of the two churches provides an insight into the gradual refinement of the style during the course of the century.


Page #:

Cumberland Historic Preservation Commission

City of Cumberland

Illustration: Gothic window arch with tracery


Collection Location:

Original Size:
22 x 29 cm.

Helene L. Baldwin, Joy W. Douglas, Gary Bartik and John Eiser

Historic buildings, Maryland, Allegany County; Historic buildings, Maryland, Cumberland.

Cumberland (Md,); 1742-1980

Western Maryland Regional Library
100 South Potomac Street
Hagerstown, Maryland 21740

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