“They Don’t Make Homes Like They Used To”: Quest To Save Victorians Before They Are Gone

*This will be a part of a three part series on American victorian architecture and an economic and political history of what is shaping housing. This will be part 1 that focuses on history and community activism. View Part 2.

There is a great phenomenon happening today, and that is a giant change of landscape around American roads and cities. It is the disappearance of turrets and towers, mortgage buttons, guilloche, corbels, cupolas, widow’s walks, courtyards, carriage houses, jerkinheads, newels, or in better terms victorian architecture. However in this article I’m not really going to talk about the history of architecture which has already been greatly discussed and covered in many books and websites. I’m going to cover over the politics of modern development, and why we are facing a great tragedy. The greater reality today in America is that most historic homes are really not protected from being demolished. We are losing many every day to a cruel and changing industry that is sweeping the nation by firestorm.

We are losing historical architecture every day across the shores of America, and in particular many victorian era homes which are not eligible for historic designation for one reason or another. In an era of gentrification where we are seeing entire communities being wiped out and priced out of the homes they once lived in for more lucrative development, is it any wonder that we are currently witnessing a crisis of change which can only be described as a generational or transformational erasing of American culture? Is it time to put on the brakes before we witness a permanent loss?

It was once a common sight to see Second Empires, Italianates, Queen Annes, Tudors, Gothics, Eastlakes and the list goes on across small towns and suburbs of America. Some were known as “America’s painted ladies”. The styling cues were taken from European influence during Queen Victoria’s reign in England during the early 19th century. As wealth grew during the industrial revolution, so did the ability for a larger working and middle class to own larger homes. These homes were once common sight to see on every block and road in small town America. It truly is so astonishing the number of abandoned older homes in the United States. Something you don’t quite see in any other part of the world where older architecture is better preserved and respect amongst the likes of Europe and Far Eastern cultures. Despite the huge financial obstacles and stress that endures from permits, hidden damage, and outdated electrical and plumbing. Despite these hurdles there are a group of Americans out there who look past these caveats of owning an older home, and consider it a rewarding challenge.

1863 Stick-Style victorian home purchased by the Wood family in Virginia in the summer of 2019.

“It takes a certain type of person to appreciate and love these homes. Unfortunately I was unable to get a loan that would let me do it myself. It all comes back to the banks return on investment in case the loan gets defaulted unfortunately.” — Michael Wood (Jonesville, VA)

Take Michael Wood, a new resident of Jonesville, VA who moved his family all the way from Arizona out of his newly built home in 2019, so he could live in and restore this Stick Style victorian built in 1863. He noted that he could not wait to start restorations on it, and that it is a serious labor of love for his family. However in the year 2021 the Wood family were forced to sell the home again, after they could not find a bank that would secure a construction loan after he wanted to do the work himself. It still sits abandoned waiting for a new owner that is willing and ready to give it love.

An 1860 Italianate known as “Pink Lady” sits abandoned in New Berlin, NY in severe disrepair in 2018.

This home above is known as the “Pink Lady”. It’s an Italianate built in 1860 by master cabinet maker David H. White for Captain Charles Harris. It’s located in a small upstate New York town in New Berlin. It was once featured in many magazines and newspapers for its supposed involvement in the Underground Railroad, but has now sat abandoned for more than two decades, with floors that are caving in and zero buyers or local governments who are interested in a restoration. The frame itself is in severe disrepair and has extensive water damage. When all it would have needed is a fresh paint job and a new roof, it’s condition now continues to grow worse from neglect to the point of disrepair. It was recently for sale on Craigslist for under $20,000. No takers

“My husband and I are so excited. We have closed today on our forever home. Finally the waiting is over and the renovations can begin. Phase 1 is getting it livable. Plumbing, heating, slate roof leak repair, plaster fix/replace, exterior paint, add bathrooms and kitchen!!” — Jocelyn Smith (Milton Mills, NH)

A Queen Anne built in 1884 bought by the Tondereau family in 2020, located outside of Pittsburgh, PA.

“I love the remarkable craftsmanship of older homes. They will never build a house like this and there is no other house like this. It’s such a privilege to be a part of its history.” — Dr. Gwen Bodkin (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Tondereau family recently became the brand new owners of a Queen Anne built in 1894 outside of the city of Pittsburgh. Their greatest concern was whether they should remove the knob and tube wiring that is still present on the second floor, and whether or not to refurnish the original hardwood floors. However they are ready to take on the work.

Craig St. Pier smiling the day he finished a new paint job on his 1886 Italianate in Manchester, NH.

“I just hit 130 gallons on the exterior, with each brush stroke from my own hand, and am now ready to start tackling the interior. I love the attention to detail that went into Victorian homes. Hats off to the nineteenth century painters… even with the lift I could barely get the cupola top!” — Craig St. Pier (Manchester, NH)

In the year 2020 resident outside Manchester, New Hampshire Craig St. Pier found a completely dilapidated Italianate built in 1886, and saw a vision for a project as his “dream home” to save a part of history before a greedy developer could snatch up the land. Up until 1960 the New England home had been heated by coal fired steam. For the past year he has been busy participating in a grounds up restoration of both the exterior and interior, going so far as to rent a cherry picker to paint the corbels himself. Being an independent contractor for decades, some of the tasks he has undertaken include locating period correct light fixtures from old hotels in the surrounding community, finding a museum paint conservator to restore its aesthetic ceilings, reaching out to Kokomo Opalescent Glass in Indiana to match his broken stained glass window panes, refinishing gold-leaf trim around his home, and climbing to the top of his cupola tower to recreate a working lightning rod system that was originally found on the home.

1898 Queen Anne found on 167 Varnum Avenue in Downtown Lowell, modified into a multi-family.

The home directly above is an example of a modified Queen Anne which I found on my walk in the middle of the city of Lowell Massachusetts along the Merrimack River boulevard. It has in recent times been turned into multi-family apartments. I ended up finding in city records it was originally built as a single family home for the treasurer of the Lowell Paper Tube Company and also owner of two hardware stores on Merrimack Street in 1898 with his wife and two children. Can you imagine a grand home like that was built for someone that ran a local hardware store? If you walk up to the home today there is no historic designation. Some time in the mid 20th century new aluminum siding was placed around the building. The original wrap-around deck was torn down, and replaced with the two side decks to make it a two and sometimes three family home in the 1960’s. The interior was torn apart and now holds multiple apartment complexes. All that remains of its original concept is the exterior balcony that is just holding on for someone to save it.

A Barber Home built in 1897 in complete disarray in Fleischmanns, NY, with no buyers interested.

This is just a sample of the few neglected homes in America. There is a great or rather unknown movement around the United States to save homes from this time period. Just this year hundreds rallied in front of the Chandler Mansion built in 1850 in Manchester, NH to block and protest its planned demolition. This phenomenon across American culture however has only taken place in recent history, after a series of decision by the courts designated that historical societies may be Unconstitutional.

“I can definitely say owning an old house is not for the faint of heart! Lots of tears, lots of money, but what a joy when its all done.” — Jane Rasmussen (Davenport, Iowa)

The United States once had a history of preserving its older buildings. The first documented historical society in America came onto the scene in 1791, and the passion to preserve and save American culture and heritage quickly spread to all 50 states by the end of the 19th century. In 1884 the American Historical Association was founded providing new funding to public preservation projects, including the continued preservation of George Washington’s home on Mount Vernon. In the mid 20th century President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 which created the first national registry of all of the historic societies and the homes they protected, and brought funding to all of these organizations across the country to preserve American heritage.

However heading towards the 1980’s developers and companies began to challenge these laws in federal courts. During the Jimmy Carter administration a series of railroad companies sued New York City because they wanted to demolish railroad stations for new development. It was eventually held up in Supreme Court in Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York (1977) that historic districts must be protected from demolition. This was a short handed victory as a loophole was soon found.

A greater tragedy was even more than the outside of a home, but what was on the inside that counted. When the Supreme Court made that ruling, from the year 1977 to 1992 it assumed the interior of a property as well. Many homeowner mistakenly believe that if a property gets an historic designation, that the interior will be protected as well from demolition and exempt from modern building code. This is not the case anymore and it all started back in the year 1988. In that year United Artists Communications purchased the Boyd theater in Philadelphia that was built in 1928, which at the time was an historic performing arts theatre that a Colorado firm wanted to renovate. Let me tell you the story. The city tried to stop the company from turning the theatre into a modern movie theatre and sued the city. It was brought to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where it was finally ruled in Sameric Corp. v. City of Philadelphia (1993) that a historic designation does not necessarily include references of interior. This ruled that laws which protect interiors could be challenged as Unconstitutional. What followed over the course of the last two decades was the gutting of Episcopal Cathedral in West Philadelphia in 2002, which green-lighted projects around the nation that okayed the demolishing of church interiors and removing the original stained glass windows that were once so prevalent in American culture. The Supreme Court of the United States refused to take on the case.

Chain stores gutting grandeur of city interiors

“As affluent new residents move into the condos and townhouses of downtown, the nation’s upscale chain restaurants and stores are following right behind them. Unfortunately, chains being chains, they have no meaningful associations with these evocative interior. For them, the stores are just rentable space to be fitted out according to the dictates of the brand the the fashions of the moment.” — Philadelphia Inquirer (7/26/2006)

Front Page headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer dated July 26, 2006. (Inquirer Archive)

Prior to this ruling, 88% of cities across the United States already had language in their local ordinances that specifically allowed for protection of interiors. When this was challenged in court enforcement became harder.

Of the 65,000 National Register properties, less than half are residential buildings. There are many historic houses that are not included in historic districts but could be. There are currently more than 100 million houses in the United States, with nearly half of which are more than 50 years old. These are all homes that are at risk of being severely altered or demolished.

“The best of these are protected by city historic preservation laws, but only as far as their exteriors. Ever since the law’s basic constitutionality was challenged in court in the 1980’s, cities have been too skittish to extend the protections to cover interior spaces.” — Philadelphia Inquirer (7/26/2006)

This had led to the phenomena where developers buy up historic property they want because of the location, and gut the entire interiors and in doing so essentially building new development by using the skeleton. This is why we have lost so much architecture in cities and even rural areas in America.

The United States currently has the lowest amount of historic or ancient architecture which has been preserved and saved out of any country in the world. In Italy you have the Colosseum which is now nearing 2000 years old. You have the Leaning Tower Of Pisa an 847 year old structure. In England and Germany and Austria there are castles still standing from the dark ages. You go to India and China and you can see the Sun Temple and Taj Mahal, Hall of Supreme Harmony. Russia has the Holy Sophia Cathedral. United States settlements go back as far as the 16th century, yet few would understand this or know it today. You have to understand that every neighborhood in the United States once housed victorians which are no longer standing. Notice the landscape today and you can drive down any neighborhood. Take a Sunday drive. I look at architecture styling quite frequently during my free time. Very rarely do you see the front porch anymore. This is a landscape of America that has really disappeared, and there is a very good reason why this is happening.

“Where we’re doing this is on land like this. It’s this vacant land in the neighborhood that once had houses on it. The houses were abandoned or something happened to them and they were eventually torn down, and basically filled in on the land. This is a great example of what you call disinvestment, which means the owners is just holding onto them until you do improvements across the street, so they can put them on the market for big bucks which is a shame.” — Robert McCarthur (City Project Manager)

Gone are the single family dwellings that used to line Riverside Park, Roxbury, Buena Park, Mt. Vernon, Portchester, Bronxwood Park, Evantson, Montclair, Plainfield, Pelham Manor, and many more of America’s cities and outlying suburbs that witnessed an urban renewal in the 1980’s.

Owner’s Neglect Demolishing Historic House

Connecticut Project Stalled, Renowned Decorator Falls Out of Favor

So what exactly is causing these homes to disappear? Is it simply laziness, greed, a lack of education, or a little of all three? I picked this month’s theme to write about the modern modifications we are making to victorian architecture, and how that is changing the landscape of America. This is the craftsmanship we take for granted today and no longer see, as we entered a period of colonial revival and minimalism going into mid century America that continues today. These are many of the misconceptions about owning an older home, and explanation as to what made these homes so unique in the first place. Changes are going on around us every day, and it is important that we recognize these changes to understand history.

Sometimes you may feel isolated in a world of the ranches and splits, and begin to ask yourself if you are the only one who notices or cares? Rest assured you are not going crazy if you have these feelings. We have locked the doors to our castle where Frank Lloyd Wright is not allowed to enter. Let us dive into another world of excess luxury and no apologies.

Brief History Of Victorian Architecture

So it begs the question that if victorian structures and homes were built with solid woods and honest craftsmanship, then why have they not stood the test of time? This moves onto structural theory in asking the question, can a house made of wood be built to last a thousand years? It all depends on how much of the structure is exposed to moisture. A wooden building for example always has an outer covering which is supposed to prevent the elements from rotting and it’s called painted siding, and it has a top covering appropriately called a roof. It also has gutters which are supposed to direct moisture away from these areas. When these barriers are not maintained they break down, and that’s when you get rotted siding which will begin to eat away at the structure, and roof which will begin to leak into your wooden structure. When the utilities get shut off the inside of your home which is not designed for freezing temperatures it leads to pipe leaks, plaster cracks, and warped flooring.

What would usually end up happening was the original home owners would pass away, and then the family would leave it abandoned for decades until it was no longer worth saving to most people when considering finances. After all isn’t the entire idea of a home for security? It became more profitable to rather sell the land to a developer than keep the original home. When a wooden home is abandoned the painted wood begins to chip and no one is there to re-stain or paint it. Even a slate roof will eventually fail, and overtime if no one is there to replace the roof it will eventually leak into the frame and rot out your home from the inside out. Gutters will eventually clog and stop redirecting rain. When utilities get shut off, the interior and pipes can freeze causing leakage of plumbing and premature failure of plaster. I have witnessed and been apart of many restorations on victorian homes in my area, and it’s very expensive because it usually involved fixing neglect. However the frame is usually completely undamaged, just the outer barrier.

However there is something I want to point out about what made these homes so different, and that is the floor plans. Compared to Frank Lloyd Wright’s open concept, in contrast during the victorian era there were the “public areas” of the house (usually the foyer, living room, dining room), where you’d entertain guests. A homeowner would usually furnish these areas with better quality wood like walnut, with nice, decorative woodgrain and quality hardware like brass and copper. The “non-public” areas, (the kitchen and upper-level bedrooms), would have more affordable wood doors like pine, where the woodgrain wasn’t as decorative so they’d be stained darker. These American homes were often very decorative, as it was common to dress up each room in it’s own theme or purpose. It was often the staple of small town middle class neighborhoods when good craftsmanship was not hard to come by. It was once what we expected out of our homes. Below are some photographs highlighting styles I am referencing.

Late 1800’s Brownstone Brooklyn New York town house with original interior. (New York Times/Tondro)
Front staircase of 1903 Queen Anne victorian in historic Forest Park district of Springfield, MA.
Grand Foyer of 1902 shingle-style victorian in historic Forest Park district of Springfield, MA.

The molding in the photo above used to be my neighbor. Wood is brown, and brown represented shellac stained trim made of old growth Walnut, Mahogany, Oak, or Cherry. The woods used in those times simply highlighted earth tones. They were commonplace in every working class and middle class home during this time. Theses resources started becoming more expensive, and as a way to cut costs in the industry the turned to cheaper methods as a larger profit could be made by removing the effort.

“Exposed stained hardwoods require that you build with expensive old-growth lumber that was only getting more and more difficult to obtain and, by the ’80s was nearly unobtainable on the scale to build a home in, instead relegated to cabinets and furniture. Staining a cheap soft-pine just isn’t going to look all that classy.” -Mark Mills (45+ contractor)

It was all based on whatever the original owner wanted and was willing to pay. You could expect moldings around the doors and windows, a mantel in the parlor, dining room, and maybe best bedroom, and plaster medallions if they had gas chandeliers which could be selected from what were called “Millwork catalogs”. Walnut was the preferred wood from that period but sometimes you would find cheaper wood that had been faux grained to look like walnut. It was a very skilled art form. There were woodworkers who’s job it was to just design crown molding. It was once a common sight in American homes to witness dark interiors and earth tones along the walls. These homes were not just a rare occurrence either. This architecture was mass produced across the United States at one point. With the advent of the railroad we created the Mail-Order Catalog. Palliser, Roberts, Barber, Hopkins, Bradbeer & Ferris, Garnsey and Radford. This was once the common thing to do in America for hundreds of years. You didn’t buy a home for your family, you built one. The consumer was in complete control with an endless array of possibilities, styles, and decorations to choose from on both the exterior and interior. Individual parts would come delivered on trains and pieced together from a blueprint. In many cases they were even built by the owner.

Modern Dwellings Fifth Edition, George F. Barber which would have been published in 1905.
Houses & Cottages Seventh Edition, David S. Hopkins. published around Michigan in 1893.

Before there were cars and planes that made travel instantaneous to any part of the world, the area where you grew up in was more less the area that you would stay in for the rest of your life. The home that was built for you would be the home you settle down until you passed away, very well passing it down to future generations of your family so the mindset was completely different from the beginning. We viewed the place of the home as a permanent fixture of your family tree if that makes any sense. It’s a concept called cradle to grave that is a lot more rare today. In this housing market the average home owner stays in one place for around eight years before moving onto the next home as careers are not as stable. You can see why families during this time were not as concerned about resale value as they were personal style. After the Industrial Revolution mass production made possible the advent of complete customization. From molding, hand drawn wallpaper, tin ceilings and imitation plaster, leaded glass, archways, pocket doors, customized furniture, hand sewed drapery and oriental rugs. This individual character was made possible by the mind’s of America’s women who during this time period for the first time were given complete control over the design of home selected and the way it would look for the first time in history.

“With professionalization, the growth of factories, the home was away from the place of work. So the home became this ideal place of perfection and taste, this enclosed bubble of purity. — Dr. Kate Williams (Historian)

“As the home became an ideal, it needed to be protected and natured and therefore buying things for the home, creating things for the home, came to be seen as the women’s occupation.” — Judith Flanders (Author, The Victorian House)

As we shifted away from the working farm, the victorian fantasy was that the lady of the house should be as Charles Dickens describes it in the Mystery Of Edwin Drew, the ministering angel of domestic bliss. Victorian women were encouraged to make their home a reassuring sanitary for their husbands, away from the jealousies, cares, and dangers of working life.

A “Colonial Dwelling” featured in Scientific American Architects and Builders Edition in 1888.

Bear in mind the home above adjusted for inflation would go for around 150 grand today which would have been considered a modest upper middle class home at the time period. These extravagant homes were everywhere across the American scenery at one point in time, in middle class cities and suburbs. This is what you could expect to order in the price point of housing catalogs. The history is mostly forgotten about because these homes were not protected when they could have been. That is very much a sad tragedy.

Why exactly has architecture changed?

In the 1940’s we started changing the way we build homes as city boards started demanding more uniform design in codes. One of Pittsburgh’s great architectural historians Walter Kidney said, the word “victorian” was automatically followed by the word monstrosity. By the mid 20th century these architects were put out of business as their floor plans were banned in response to fire, electrical, and safety codes. More or less there is a very good reason why we can no longer build hundreds of unique variations, and this can be compared with how car design became uniformed. It became much more costly coming into mid century America to replicate these designs, and the advent of the catalog home was dwindling away, and no this had nothing to do with the cost of lumber or labor involved. In the next article we will go more in depth on going over the history of interiors and discussion of laws around that, but on a broader scale this is leading to hungry developers.

If that were all construction code had done for residential homes then it would not be as large of a problem, but it is leading to an epidemic of disinvestment and abandonment. With construction code came the construction permit, and although safety was its intention, its overall result has been a consequence of uniformity and one size fits all for every project. In every sense of the word, this has surprisingly made it illegal to own a home with original features that was built before the 1930’s depending on your city’s bi-laws. What do I mean by this? For example when a new home owner takes on a project and uncovers hidden damage, you now have to tear apart your home. Let’s say decaying plaster, shifted foundation, rotted wood, and the rest of life’s blunders. When this happens you have to obtain a permit, and the inspector will force you to bring your “new” home up to code if you want to modify or repair anything, even if you perform the actions yourself. Construction code and the permit system may enforce safety, but it has also allowed government to keep track of all improvements made to a home for taxation purposes. Every time you apply for a construction permit with your city or town, a tax reassessment is performed. A city or town can make money increasing your property taxes based on the improvements. If you perform a small repair without reporting it to the town and get caught, you can get in serious trouble especially if you rent out part of your home or keep a bed and breakfast. For this reason many homes from this time period end up not getting repaired when they should, until it becomes more economical to demolish them. Residential permits are a little more lenient than business permits. It is often recommended that if you buy a property that is registered as a residence, then do all of the work before you register as a business. If the property is zoned business to begin with or mixed use you are at their mercy.

This can mean ripping down plaster walls and molding even if they are in good condition and updating the electric code, plumbing code, fire code, safety code. Bringing a victorian home up to code can literally destroy it’s history, which is why it is recommended you never take on an historic property without consulting with an historic commission and architectural engineer that is knowledgable about protecting the integrity of original interiors. By the time it’s complete, home owners don’t want to go through the trouble of putting up new plaster walls and molding back. It’s more economically sensible to push open floor plans especially for contractors looking to flip. That’s why victorian homes that are restored are so expensive, and fixer uppers are dirt cheap. If you buy a home that’s never been worked on and is over 150 years old, the city will probably force you to gut everything. That is not a joke and that is why we are losing so much history. Interiors were never all that that well documented at all. Even most historical societies only protect the original integrity of exteriors, and they tell house flippers they can remodel or do whatever they like on the inside.

“They have tried standing in my way over and over again. I swear they do everything they can to make money and are so dumb they don’t even see how them getting on you for every tiny thing weighs you down so much emotionally and financially that you don’t even wanna do it anymore.” — Ashley Meir (Bay City, MI)

I interviewed Amy Frank who is a technologist with a design build background based out of Winnipeg, who specializes in historic architecture. She spoke with me about why contractors are so reluctant to take risks.

“Locally, I offer in home consulting by the hour where I just inform homeowners of what is and isn’t permitted work, what they can and can’t do themselves, what does and doesn’t require engineering, etc. Then I let them know they can take my advice for what it’s worth and call me if they want plans drawn up or further consulting. I’m more free to do this kind of work because I’m not a registered professional with a governing body, insurance rates and requirements, etc and I can’t be taken to court for the information I provide at a consult.” — Amy Frank

She went onto explain how easy it is for new home owners to have their home taken away from them because they don’t have a good lawyer on their side. It’s becoming a huge problem for unsuspecting buyers.

“Some things do allow for exemptions to code with grandfather arrangements or when only a single component is getting changed or replaced exactly the same. A simple one would be stairs. They used to be steeper and have smaller openings with less headroom. If you have a servants stair and a main stair, only 1 needs to meet code. If you have a tight stair and a tread breaks so you need to buy a new tread you can do that. If you’re replacing the whole stair set you’d have to prove that you’re not doing other structural alterations and then also prove that it would be unnecessarily difficult or impossible to bring them up to current requirements.” — Amy Frank

Is anyone a fan of the original Sabrina The Teenage Witch television series that premiered on ABC in the 90's? From my early childhood the home used in the exterior shots was engrained into my memory and began my love for Victorian architecture. The fantasy of owning a home like that one day. Well it turns out that a real home was used for the television series beyond the Hollywood show, and it’s actually located in Freehold, New Jersey.

The original “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” home in Freehold, NJ before it began renovations in 2004.

“This is one of the best examples of substantial late 19th century residences along the stretch of East Main Street,” the survey report says. It’s style, according to the survey, is called Italianate.” — N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s Historic Preservation Office.

What made the home so unique was the minute amount of detail and decorations we commonly refer to as “victorian” features. In the last decade when this home needed a renovation and was put up on the market, it was sold to a business in a financial district which forced the home to now be brought up to code, when before it had been grandfathered in. The working shutters which are deemed a hurricane hazard were removed and original windows siding covered in lead replaced. The railings along the front porch were gutted, along with the balcony looking over the third floor. Corbels were ripped off because their were deemed sharp and pointed objects that could fall to the ground like daggers when rot settles in, and the metal fencing around roof line disappeared because new code mandates that any railings must be at least three feet tall. The original trees were cut down to make way for new power lines and parking lot access. Beyond a few historic regions across America that have rules against removing trees on historic properties, there is little that can be done to stop progress. This is not the fault of the owners but often the consequence of making any amount of repairs, and many don’t question contractors and developers when they show up to do their job. It has now been turned into a perfectly safe and streamlined design. Modernized to building standards as we enter the monotone architecture theme that won’t attract a lawsuit.

Spellman Manor in Freehold, NJ after it had been renovated and updated for office space in 2010.

It is for this reason we are losing not just homes, but the homes that still remain are losing their original design that made them so unique. As you can see it is a lot more involved than simply buying an old home and throwing around a hammer and saw. You will be penalized from the very beginning and the burden of proof will be on you, and the laws that govern those rules are different in every city, town, and state. You will be required to educate yourself on the rules in your local area. That is why your neighbor may not be fixing that dilapidated victorian down the road. It’s not that home owners are lazy, but so many live out of fear of the financial unknown. That is great to ensure proper repair and safety on new builds, but it is so incredibly easy of unsuspecting new buyers of historic homes that want to get their hands dirty. Before you know it you hear the knock from an inspector to let you know that they will need to demolish half of your walls, and by the way your property taxes have just tripled in one week going forward. Many simply don’t dare or bother touching the unknown to avoid changing their taxes, in a rule system which discourages the preservation of American history and culture.

The survey is in though when it comes to a city like Detroit we can use as an example. Detroit has a program where they are actually providing tax elimination and payments for renovators to move into the city to save older homes. It’s considered a revitalization of the community. Often times when someone purchases an older “fixer upper” property it can take upwards of three or four years before they can move into the home they just purchased. The television shows you watch where homes are flipped in three months are unrealistic. During this time period of spending money between construction permits and the mortgage, you also are getting taxed on the property you just bought as well even if you are not physically living there. This turns off a lot of buyers from saving dilapidated properties. It becomes much easier just to demolish and build a new home, and when the price drops below land value it only makes sense why these homes get swallowed up by greedy developers. As the price of lumber continues to rise it puts these homes at even greater risk of demolition as companies seek for reclaimed lumber. The system is promoting this gentrification. Some are calling to government for federal action. After all there is no tax write-off for restoring the corbels on your Second Empire.

“Thirty-six percent of Detroit’s respondents think a building’s history makes it iconic and thirty percent think “great architecture” makes a building important. Fifty-four percent want their city to invest in renovating existing historic buildings to retain character while making them more useable. Thirty percent want their city to invest in more flexible uses that support pop ups and community events. Fifty-seven per cent stop to admire historic buildings.” — Period Homes Magazine

An 1895 McKennedy Queen Anne in Chelmsford, Massachusetts days before it was torn down in 2015.

“When Cheryl Needle (now deceased) sold this home she was told her family farm house would be restored to its former grandeur. Over the years Massachusetts has lost so many of its older homes to condos, and once they’re gone that piece of history is gone forever.” — Bernard Ready

At the same time we introduced low incoming housing grants to construct apartment complexes and condominiums across small towns and suburbs of America, which is creating an economic incentive to change architecture away from the single family home to luxury housing condos as opposed to the Queen Annes and Italianates you once saw lining city streets and suburb roads. The state of Massachusetts for example has what are called 40B housing goals. 40B housing allows developers a loophole to bypass zoning restrictions in historic districts through what is called alternative compliance or special permits, and these cannot be challenged as it is viewed many times as discriminatory even though they are only affordable in name. Many builders apply for new state grants for 40B housing to bypass zoning restrictions, even if the amount of low income units on any particular property only amounts to 20%, and that’s if they don’t “expire” as affordable units. If 100 “affordable” units become market-priced, then six 100-unit developments need to be built to reclaim lost units. The loophole was that this inadvertently created the incentive for larger developments to move into what were previously the historic districts of many towns, and this was labeled as “urban” renewal” even when the majority of the housing being built were luxury priced studios. Since it was implemented in Massachusetts in 1969 housing has only grown more expensive. Many believe the ultimate goal of reducing the price of homes did not work, but in the process historic districts have lost much of the power they used to have to protect their community.

“I’ve turned down countless offers from “rehabbers” that would LOVE to “renovate” my ladies with all the discount bargain basement junk from Lowe’s. Frankly I’d rather go bankrupt than let my ladies fall into the hands of one of these disrespectful condo hacks. I wish people that don’t love and respect historic homes would just leave them alone.” — Erin Nicole (Kentucky Resident)

In the past year large controversy happened again in the state of Massachusetts when developers eyed the site for new condo development that was earmarked for low income housing, even though 80% of the space was planned for luxury priced studio apartments. Residents of the town of Brookline sent in over 300 letters and emails to voice their concern over what they felt was a whitewashing of culture and community. Brookline officials temporarily spared from demolition historic homes once linked to H. H. Richardson and John Charles Olmsted, two men whose work shaped the American landscape. Apart of the the recognized trinity of American architecture along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of three Brookline homes that were set to be demolished recalled by town after series of protests.

“This is ridiculous that we’re thinking of tearing these houses down. It makes no sense whatsoever. It sort of amuses me, or scares me or disappoints me that it takes a developer getting their hands on that property before all of us sort of get up in arms and say it’s time to do something about it.” — Bruce Shaw (Brookline Resident)

The Green Hill neighborhood, where the three properties in question are located, “is a cultural microcosm, not just because of Olmsted and Richardson, but throw in Isabella Stewart Gardner as well. All of them took the Victorian gilded age into an expansive and innovative national … direction,” said Marilee Meyer, an architectural historian with the Victorian Society’s New England chapter. — Brookline Tab (1/21/2021)

Over in the state of Indiana, Gregory Sekula is the Director for the southern regional office of non-profit Indiana Landmarks. Their group is working overtime to save an original George Barber home nicknamed the Wilkinson house that is being threatened to be torn down by the town of Campbellsburg to make room for new development and a park. It’s reported to have no significant structural damage that would necessitate it being demolished.

One of four George Barber homes located in Campbellsburg built in 1879 at risk of being demolished.

“This is one of 4 houses in town designed by patternbook architect George Barber. I learned this week the town is working to buy the house and demolish it for a park. Quick action and funds will be neded to save this Indiana treasure. The outcome is still uncertain.” — Gregory Sekula

You often hear stories like this from towns and cities across the country that seem to have no regard for preserving this piece of American heritage. If you want to see and tour the most victorians that are left in the country, you can still find them but you have to look hard. Sadly believe it or not most of the older buildings you can find are not in affluent neighborhoods, but in the ghettos of the urban city and the rural countryside. In the parts of a state which has the least amount of resources for “urban renewal”. San Francisco is the exception. The undeveloped parts of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia are slowly starting to disappear. A lot of times it’s when the local economy dries up and a home will sit with no buyers. An interesting state is New York, because during the gilded age that is where most tycoons and upper middle class settled during the Industrial Revolution. You can find a ton of victorian architecture still standing in the North East. I encourage anyone who is looking to buy an older home, to maintain the original architecture if you can. You will be rewarded in the long run. You could be that person who saves a piece of American history. If you want to read literature out there about these homes, incredibly you have to find books written from the last century, simply because so many homes just recently are now gone and documents were not well kept especially on interiors.

Check out “Bicknell’s Victorian Buildings” from Dover. Read the sample contracts. It’ll give you an idea of what a similar or slightly more elaborate house would have had, and how you can work to preserve your home if you own a victorian. Some books you can check out are America’s Painted Ladies written by Michael Larsen and published in 1992. Victorian Architecture published by Roger Dixon in 1985. You can also see Robert’s Illustrated Millwork Catalog published in 1988 by Roberts & Company. If you are interested in doing a proper restoration of your historic building and history of carpentry, I have found newly published in 2019 Restoring Your Historic House by Scott T. Hansen to be an essential edition to you bookshelf.

Also deeply study American architects and interior designers such as George Franklin Barber, Richard Norman Shaw, Gilbert Croff, David S. Hopkins, George Palliser, James Bradbeer, Henry Hobson Richardson, Mario Buatta, George O. Garnsey and Gervase Wheeler just to name a few. These artists and engineers were absolute masters of their craft and we don’t really see their influence anymore in our landscape, nor in our institutions of education.

These iconic parts of American culture deserve to be saved, and it’s interesting to research both the political and economic factors which are contributing to their demise. Too many victorian homes around the country are getting torn down every day, or are ending up on television shows where they are “flipped”. Every time I walk into a home that is older than a century it’s bittersweet. It blows me away because it’s like stepping into a time machine to an era that no longer exists. You realize what you are looking at is special because nothing like it could ever be built today. I hate seeing them abandoned like this. It really is an individual effort because no one else is going to save this architecture. Perhaps the greater irony of these homes is that usually the contractors and banking institutions with the funding and loans to save them have no interest in getting their hands dirty and buying one unless it’s for the land value, and the group of people who would absolutely love to tackle these dirty projects of carpentry, electrical, and plumbing in many cases don’t have the funds to save a victorian from the demolition line. You will have to put way more into restoring them than you will ever get back, and for that reason alone they truly are a labor of love that very few Americans venture into. The next time you drive by a victorian period home that is still standing and being lived in, know that it’s being loved by the owners who are making a true sacrifice to keep history alive by volunteering as the caretakers into the next century. We need more exposure and education in this field of history and architecture if we want to preserve this American culture before it disappears for good. Do you believe we will ever see a victorian revival?

*This will be a part of a three part series on American victorian architecture and an economic and political history of what is shaping housing. This will be part 1 that focuses on history and community activism. View Part 2.

Independent writer outside of Boston.