By JAMES DEAN
Spring is in the air and it’s the House & Garden Tour season. From Capitol Hill to Brookland, Georgetown to designer showcases, houses and gardens are being primped and proudly displayed — it’s all about style.
But what style is it? Colonial Revival, Queen Anne or Italianate? Architecture expresses specific styles and periods of time.
First, let’s dispel a myth. There is no such thing as a “Victorian” house. Why you ask? They’re all over Washington. The term “Victorian” represents a period of time coinciding roughly with the reign of Queen Victoria but is not a defined style. Within that period, tastes changed and numerous architectural styles developed. So let’s take a look at some of the most common building styles in Washington. And don’t forget to impress your house tour mates with your architectural knowledge.
In 1792, George Washington signed the “party wall proclamation” allowing common walls to straddle property lines thus shaping Washington neighborhoods as row house communities. As you tour these neighborhoods you see that the “Washington Row” townhouse with projecting bay is our dominant building stock. Many have no distinctive design and some are transitional with elements of several styles. Others are full blown examples of a specific architectural movement.
The earliest buildings in the District reflect Georgian roots. These feature symmetrical fenestration, a hipped roof and often a central entry. The White House is a classic example of this. Federal design, with a refined semblance to Georgian, closely followed as the Republic grew. A prime example, Decatur House, faces Lafayette Square. It’s also expressed, though, in simpler wood frame houses with their gable roofs and modest cornices.
As the 19th century progressed, many styles developed quickly. Gothic Revival, a reaction to the preceding classical examples, can be seen with Christ Church on Capitol Hill. Attributed to Benjamin Latrobe, its stylistic definition comes primarily from the prominent bell tower, added in 1849, rather than the original construction. Carpenter Gothic, Egyptian and Moorish Revival also came into vogue. Short lived and not widely constructed, they weren’t dominant after the Civil War.
Washington’s major building boom was post Civil War roughly from 1865 through the early 1900s. As the century progressed there was an explosion of competing styles. This is truly the Victorian era when the architecture we see daily was popular. A battle of styles, as we see with haircuts and skirt lengths, had begun.
Italian villas in rural settings were translated to townhouse facades. Deep bracket cornices, segmental arched window hoods and elaborate door surrounds of pressed metal fully express the Italianate townhouse style. Both flat front and projecting bay examples were widely built. The Industrial Age provided the technology to mass produce ornamentation and the style was incredibly popular until the 1880s. Landmark examples include some Embassy Row mansions and the Georgetown Post Office.
The next dominant style was Queen Anne, having no relationship with Anne’s reign. With rambling open floor plans and lack of symmetry, it was a true break from its classical predecessors. Multiple materials were employed — wood siding, fish scale shingles, rusticated stone foundations and upper window sashes bordered with stained glass. Fine examples are found in parts of Cleveland Park and Takoma Park. Townhouse examples appear around popular Logan Circle, stylistically modified with water and belt courses, oriel bays and robust molded brick detail.
Simultaneously, architect Henry Hobson Richardson popularized a style now known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Featuring massive rough stone construction, deep-set windows and recessed entries, rows of these townhouses line the 1600 block of P Street, N.W., in Dupont Circle. A more delicate version based on Gothic styles appeared earlier. The Smithsonian Castle, designed by James Renwick in 1847 is a prime example.
Finally we see the Beaux Arts. American architects studying in Paris in the 1870s brought this style home. It is mostly represented in large public buildings. Grand staircases, stone construction, carved stone swags, medallions and figures abound. Among the most notable incorporating every element of the style is the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Stop in, be awed by the rich interiors and while there visit another Victorian treasure on display — Charles Dana Gibson’s beautiful Gibson Girl.