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ABCs of American Architecture (Victorian Period)

Click on the MEDIA ITEMS below for more information


It is important at this point in the study of our local architecture to become familiar and comfortable with the word "eclectic". An adjective defined as "selecting or made up of elements from different sources," it applies to the frequent combination of elements or motifs from a variety of historical periods. We shall quickly summarize these periods and then look at the wealth of examples of eclectic Victoriana.

The only rather formal style to be developed during this post-war period was the Renaissance Revival. The buildings tend to be cubic, with corner quoins and entablatures or pediments over the doorways. One or more belt courses of brick define the stories, and frequently different types of opening or windows are used for each story. A popular style for city dwellings, it was generally much more adaptable for public buildings, and some of the commercial buildings in downtown Cumberland provide examples of the elements of this period.

The most easily identifiable period of design is taken from the French--the Second Empire, or Mansard style. During the reign of Napoleon III, the "second" emperor of France (1852-1870), the New Louvre was built and became a prototype of a "modern" movement influenced by France rather than the classicism of Greece and Italy. Its distinguishing feature is the mansard roof, a double-pitched roof with a steep lower slope. Because the roof form provides good head room to make attic space more usable, dormers are generally present to provide light and ventilation. Second Empire styling was a return to elegance and ornamentation, and quickly became integrated into the Victorian culture. It did not long remain a pure style and was soon combined with the Italianate and the Revival styles to become what is known as High Victorian.

The High Victorian ranged from the elegant, beautiful, delicate, tasteful to the grossly overdone, exaggerated, ornate and overpowering. The haunted house popularized in Charles Addams cartoons typifies the worst; some of the best can be seen in the historic district and throughout the communities of Allegany County. The Board of Education is housed in the Second Empire Walsh mansion at 108 Washington Street. The Josiah Gordon home at 218, which is maintained as History House, is also Second Empire. Several more excellent examples are at 403, 408, 508 and 535. In several of these, you will notice the happy marriage of Second Empire and Italianate elements ~ a mansard roof, ornamented brackets, square towers and patterned chimneys and roofs.

Number 514 Washington Street has added the motifs of another popular post-Civil War style—the Stick Style. Diagonal "stickwork" is characteristic, plus the use of exterior braces and brackets, suggestive of the unseen structure. Sometimes reminiscent of Alpine chalets or Tudor half-timbers, sometimes of the Gothic Revival cottages, a Stick Style house may also borrow a mansard roof from the Second Empire or a bracketed roof and veranda from an Italianate. Little wonder that the era became known for its "picturesque eclectic" architecture! Defining the architectural antecedents of a particular structure can evolve into an interesting archeological puzzle and mind-boggler.

Just as clothing fashion changes from broad to narrow, long to short, nineteenth century architecture sought new or different styles. The emphasis turned to surfaces, and the Queen


Page #:

Cumberland Historic Preservation Commission

City of Cumberland

Illustration of quoins, the cornerstones of brick or stone walls. Quoins may be either structural or decorative.


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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