Walkabout: Architecture – Good Queen Anne


(Herkimer St. between Nostrand and New York Avenues, Bedford Stuyvesant.)

When trying to determine what architectural style a building is, there is a tendency to call anything Victorian, that you can’t otherwise identify, as “Queen Anne.” It’s almost a joke when you are walking around with fellow architecture geeks. “What would you call that? I can’t quite put a name to it…must be Queen Anne.” “Yeah, Queen Anne.” Well, poor Queen Anne! Her name is synonymous with the catch pile of architectural nomenclature and style. How in the world did a little-known (to Americans, anyway) queen of England become the name of an entire period of architecture that took place almost 200 years after her death? What is Queen Anne architecture, anyway? I have to share a hilarious typo from antiquehome.org as to the definition of QA: “Popular from about 1860 to 1890 in England and somewhat later in the US, the Queen Anne style lent itself to the excesses of the Victorian age with its turrets, oriel windows, and medieval influences. Beloved by lumber barons and railroad maggots alike, many of the largest and most spectacular homes of the early 20th century were built in this style.” Ha!

The real Queen Anne was born in 1665 to James, Duke of York, who became James II, king of England. Her life, although interesting, is not really relevant to architecture, but in a quickie history lesson, she was sister to Mary, of “William and Mary”, the first rulers of Britain to be under a constitutional monarchy, with limited powers. First Mary died, and then William, in 1702, and Anne became queen. She was rather sickly and bedridden through much of her reign, due to 12 miscarriages and 5 children who did not live to adulthood, and ruled only twelve years, until her death in 1714.

Why is this even important? England has long been the most powerful of the European influences on our culture, especially in the 19th century. We call most of the century “Victorian” because of that influence. Victoria was not our queen, yet is there another word in use to describe the period in America between 1850 and 1900? When English architect Richard Norman Shaw, one of the most important British architects of the 19th century, wanted to revolutionize British architectural style, he and his Aesthetic Movement reformers went back to the time of “Good Queen Anne” as an example of a time period where simple craftsmanship was more important that superficial details.

He took his themes from the half-timbered Tudor style houses, the sturdy common brick buildings and quintessential “English” style elements of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Gothic styles. None of them have anything to do with Queen Anne either, actually, they all are well before her time, too. I think they just really liked the name, and it stuck.

This movement mirrored similar philosophies of William Morris, and his Arts and Crafts brethren, taking place at the same time, and ushered in architectural and decorative principals and motifs that are still popular today. Shaw built half-timbered country houses, his most famous, called Cragside (which really was on the side of a crag, an amazing place), city mansions, churches, and government buildings. Most were brick, or brick and stucco, with tall chimneys, quirky windows and exterior massing, and seemed organic in nature, having evolved over time.

Over on this side of the pond, Shaw’s ideas were enthusiastically taken up by American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, arguably also one of the most important American architects of the 19th century. From his name we get the phrase “Richardsonian Romanesque”, which is over-used to describe any rough-cut brownstone/stone and brick building from the mid 1880’s on, with a mixture of materials, prominent towers, massing of shapes, varied rooflines and most importantly, arched windows, doorways and porticos. His most famous building may be Trinity Church, Boston. He also designed the New York State Capitol in Albany.

His buildings influenced thousands of architects and started a movement, one that was eagerly embraced by Brooklyn’s architects and the general population. Brownstone Brooklyn is covered in Romanesque Revival architecture. One of Brooklyn’s most powerful Richardson Romanesque style buildings is Boys High School, on Marcy Avenue, in Bedford Stuyvesant, designed by James Naughton, in 1891. Romanesque Revival architecture is a style all unto itself, but elements of it are a vital part of what we call Queen Anne.

We actually have two Queen Anne movements here. One, in a more urban milieu, has been more influenced by British Queen Anne/Arts and Crafts architecture. Here we have row houses, city mansions and apartment building, churches, schools, and commercial buildings. The other, in a much more suburban and small city/town landscape, is about as far from “simple” as you can get. As in many things American, we took an idea; an architectural look back at a simpler time in England, and got it addicted to steroids. These are the Queen Anne’s most people associate with the name: the huge turreted, giant wrap around porched, and shingled mansions found everywhere from Ditmas Park to Oregon, Cape May to Indiana, as well as their more subdued vernacular versions.

In 1876, America was celebrating its centennial at the Philadelphia Exhibition. As in the later 1893 Chicago Exhibition, these world’s fairs were experimental cauldrons and showrooms for trends, inventions and ideas that would then resonate in the society for years, sometimes forever. Because it was the 100 year anniversary of the nation’s birth, a lot of attention was paid to the past, and in architecture, it was a return to some of the Colonial and Federal architectural elements and forms of the past. It was from here that one of Queen Anne’s subsets would be born: the Shingle Style. More on that, and the wood framed mansions and their related cousins, in my next chapter, next time.

Here in brownstone Brooklyn, there were rumblings amongst the critics of everything cultural, including architecture. The endless rows of Italianate and Neo-Grec brownstones had a tidy uniformity and implacable sameness. That very thing that made those rows so beautiful once: the vista of an unbroken line of houses was now BORING. The introduction of Shaw’s Queen Anne elements, in conjunction with Richardsonian Romanesque massing and mixture of materials, inspired architects to create an entire new kind of row house. Groups of homes were no longer the same; some rows were designed with different houses all down the row, with not a single one exactly alike. The architectural and cultural critics applauded, and the buyers did too. This was something new and different, and actually FUN.

What did we have here? The basic elements of Queen Anne architecture are thus:

1. Asymmetry. Even on a 20’ brownstone façade you could have a massing of shapes: towers, turrets, bays, oriels, porches, gables, dormers, loggias, and more. Windows could have different shapes, on the same floor, as well as on each level. Dogleg steps instead of straight stoop stairways, or even a combination of both in the same group. There could be arches and straight lines, round and square, any combination possible, limited by only imagination and budget. Massing, the combination of shapes, is key to the style.

2. Texture. The surface of the building was a collage of materials. Ashlar (rough cut) stone, usually brownstone, most often at the base of the building. Smooth cut stone above, or brick, often separated by bands of terra-cotta, giving not only ornamentation, but more texture. Sometimes a mixture of stone: ashlar brownstone with limestone trim, for example. Other elements could be added, such as wooden shingles. Roofs of slate or Mediterranean tile. Metal clad or wooden cornices, more brick or terra-cotta on prominent chimney stacks. The possibilities were endless.

3. Ornamentation. Queen Anne corresponds with the timeframe of the Aesthetic Movement, a time of great emphasis on beauty and ornamentation. Stained glass windows in myriad patterns and colors, terra-cotta ornamentation of every type, from floral and geometric running bands of pattern, to fantastical faces, animals and mythical creatures. Stone carving, often mistaken for terra-cotta and vice versa. Encaustic and fired tile work. Wooden trim in cornices, doors and window framing, gingerbread and bargeboards. Artistry in wrought and cast iron, creating beauty in security, on windows and gates. Color, wherever possible.

The results of these elements were buildings of great imagination and beauty. This was the Golden Age of Brooklyn’s architects and their works. Architects such as Frank Freeman, Montrose Morris, the Parfitt Brothers, William Tubby, George Chappell, Magnus Dahlander, Rudolph Daus, Frederick Langston, George Morse, C.P.H. Gilbert, and many, many more did their best work in this period. They built mansions and row houses, apartment and office buildings. All of them came into their own during this style’s heyday, from the mid 1880’s through the early 1890’s.

I had a hard time editing photos for my Flickr page illustrating Queen Anne urban architecture. Please check the link and take a look at some of the best, and some of my favorite examples of Queen Anne architecture in Brooklyn. In my next Walkabout, I’ll show you the other side of Queen Anne, the side most of the country knows: the suburban/town free-standing house.

Cragside, Northumberland, England. Sir Norman Shaw, architect. Photo: Joan Robinson for Journal Live

Trinity Church, Boston. Henry Hobson Richardson, architect. Photo: Bluffton.edu

Decatur St. between Saratoga and Howard, Bedford Stuyvesant

Dean St. rooflines, between Nostrand and New York, Crown Hts North

176-178 St. Johns Place. Park Slope

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