May 30, 2005

Victorians mean more than wealth

Though built as a sign of opulence, today a Victorian house stands for something far more significant. Indeed, true Victorians were raised more than a century ago, and that they still stand at all says much.

Most of us associate such homes with San Francisco, but they were built all across Iowa and the Midwest as well. Our cities along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers - Keokuk and Council Bluffs most notably come to mind - are dotted with these grand old dames. But they're even here in Iowa City and out in land-locked Fairfield.

These days, lovers of Victorians spend years re-storing them, convert them into beds and breakfasts so the rest of us may indulge ourselves for a night, and seek national historic registry to prevent them from ever being demolished. These efforts arise from a love for those ornate homes with their elaborate floor designs, so different from the simple farmhouses and ranches in which many of us grew up. The whimsical coloring of a Victorian's exterior balances its interior elegance.

Why, calling a Victorian home is like living in a full-scale dollhouse.


What is most remarkable about a Victorian home is its bulwark quality. Oftentimes the mansard tower rises like a castle turret. The walls, often made of redwood, mahogany or the finest oak, remain sturdy.

For frontier Iowa's pioneers, who would patch together a quick shelter out of sod and rough-hewn wood, then a year or two later, once they'd earned a little from their first harvest, would buy lumber and build a slightly more permanent structure, a Victorian must have meant more than wealth, however.

It was a statement against the very forces of nature that caused their log homes to lean, their unshingled cabins to leak, the boards placed across dirt floors to buckle.

Just as a family's plow would split open the earth and force it to bear fruits so they might survive in the continental wilderness, so a Victorian with its foundation permanently planted in the soil signified a mighty great of the elements.


Not too far from the farm where I grew up, a couple of sections away and out near the railroad tracks stood a Victorian house, built back in the 1870s by the son of Mathias Sutherland, our township's first white settler.

For all those years, the stalwart Victorian remained horridly vulnerable amid the unending sky and summer corn. Whenever seeing it, my hair bristled at the thought that it had endured for all those years without a twister's banshee roar toppling it. Sometimes as the school bus paused at the tracks, I'd ponder if perhaps its time was near.

In the late afternoon glow, cold, purple shadows fell across the side of the house askance from the sunlight as the other remained bathed in warmth. It ironically had outlasted even the name of the man who built it. Then the bus would bump over the tracks, passing the old dame, its glass windows steely with shadow and light.

The house still stands to this day.


Victorians came in a variety of styles - Federal, Greek, Gothic and Italianate houses were common in the 1850s. Second Empire, Eastlake, Queen Anne and Neo-Classical styles were popular from the end of the Civil War until the early 1900s.

Often, as is typical of us country bumpkin Americans, we mixed styles, preferring to assert our individualism through preferences and tastes to some pre-ordained sense of aesthetics established by the elites.

Like those pioneers who broke new ground despite the scourge of grasshopper, blizzard and dust storm, that stubborn refusal to yield manifested itself in the very structures that some chose to live.

It is ironic that such homes today are associated with being priggish, prim and even prissy.

(originallypublished May 30, 2004)

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