Architecture tells us about ourselves. Whether it is academic architecture guided by refined aesthetic traditions or vernacular architecture designed and constructed by the layperson, it can reveal aspects of our history, our culture, or a particular place and time.
In 1608, Henry Hudson, an English sea explorer sailing for the Dutch East India Company in search of a shorter sailing route to the Far East, discovered the great North American river that still bears his name. Though the prospect of a western route to the Asian subcontinent soon faded, the enterprising Dutch saw an opportunity to develop a lucrative fur trade in the New World. From 1613–14, Captain Adriaen Block was the first to map the area between Virginia and Massachusetts, which he named New Netherland. In the 1620s, thirty-some families were settled on the island of Manhattan, Long Island, and Connecticut. Though few examples of their earliest homes exist, their architectural legacy has survived.
From the middle to the end of the nineteenth century, the landscape of American domestic architecture was a kaleidoscope of revivals of European historic styles. Gothic Revival, Italianate, Tuscan Villa, Second Empire, Queen Anne, and even Egyptian Revival houses were being built around the country. Out of this cacophony a new, uniquely American style emerged: the Shingle Style.
If any architectural style defines the Victorian era it is the Queen Anne style, so much so that we often refer to Queen Anne style houses as Victorian. However, the term Victorian refers not to a particular style but to the era of the reign (1837-1901) of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria.
The term Second Empire refers to the period in France from 1852-1870 when Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, reestablished imperial rule by a coup d’etat, thereby ending the Second Republic of 1848-1852. In an ambitious building campaign, Napoleon III appointed Baron Haussmann to oversee a vast program of work including modernization, improvements to living conditions in the revolution-breeding slums through demolition and rebuilding, and turning Paris into an imperial capital replete with magnificent buildings housing new institutions.
Mid-nineteenth Century America was a time of great energy and change. Cities grew, immigration soared, railroads expanded, and new building technologies emerged. To meet the housing needs and tastes of our growing and increasingly diverse populace, architects designed houses in a multitude of styles. Though widely varied, the Romantic Revival styles of this period all reflect Romantic and Picturesque sensibilities in their yearning for the security of the past to ameliorate the complexities of modern life and in their idealization of nature as an antidote to the city.
The Gothic Revival style, popular in America from the 1830s through the 1860s, could be seen as a mere revival of medieval motifs, but peer beneath the scrolls and trefoils that animate this style and one finds more profound meaning.