Victorian-era Homes: An Anatomy Lesson

Part One

Dennis Evanosky

When we stop to admire a Victorian-era home, we often speak of the home's dressing — its style; we think little about the substance that holds it all together — its structure.

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Cyclopedia of Architecture, Carpentry and Building

Right: Thicker posts and braces set the braced frame, left, apart from a later innovation, the balloon frame.

Style includes the shape and detailing that make up a home's features, both interior and exterior. The features of an Italianate-style home are sharply different than those of a Colonial Revival-style home. All homes, however, regardless of their styles, have two basic structural elements in common, walls and a roof. These require a frame. During the Victorian era (from 1837 to 1901) this element evolved from the post-and-girt frame to the braced frame and finally to the balloon frame.

Early settlers brought the cumbersome post-and-girt (or timber) frame with them from Europe. Carpenters fashioned mortise-and-tenon joints to connect heavy vertical posts to equally cumbersome horizontal girts, which they held fast with wooden pins called dowels rather than nails or screws.

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Hutton Archive

Solon Robinson, a well-respected author, agricultural journalist and reformer, credited the balloon frame with the rise of such cities as Chicago and San Francisco.

"To deal with the variable sizes and shapes of hewn and sawn timbers the two main historical layout methods used were scribe carpentry and square-rule carpentry," says the Wikipedia article about timber framing.

Scribing dates from the 12th century. European carpenters brought this method to North America where it was common into the early 19th century.

"In a scribe frame, every timber will only fit in one place so that every timber has to be numbered," Wikipedia says. "Square-rule carpentry developed in New England in the 18th century. This system allowed for interchangeable braces and girts."

The frame that the braces and girts created were visible both inside and outside the home. Wattle-and-daub, brick or rubble with plastered facing filled the spaces between the timbers, creating what was later called the half-timbered style "Post-and-girt houses dominated the English and French colonies and persisted until well after the American Revolution," write Virginia and Lee McAlester in A Field Guide to American Houses. The McAlesters say that once lumber and wire nails became more readily available, the simpler braced frame became the top choice of American homebuilders.

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Photo by Joe Mariscal

Tudor Revival: The half-timbering on Dr. William Lum’s Gold Coast home leaves no mistake that the architects looked to 16th-century England for inspiration. Although not structural, three girts run across the front of the house.

Like its predecessor, the braced frame employed heavy posts and girts, but placed lighter 2 x 4s in between to help support the home's floors and roof. Carpenters added extra stability to this new framing system with corner braces, which gave the frame its name. Braces were a disadvantage for the builder, however, as they interfered with architectural requirements for open spaces for doors, windows and rooms.

Both post-and-girt and braced-frame homes were costly and time-consuming to build and kept home ownership in the realm of the wealthy.

"Houses were expensive and took months to build," writes Kevin Spencer Brown. "Cities packed their poor into tenement housing. In rural areas, people put up with rustic cabins or sod dwellings like those of American Indians."

Then something happened in Chicago that changed all that. Just exactly who thought of the idea and just what building was the first to utilize it is a matter of some conjecture. One thing remains indisputable, however, the balloon frame revolutionized homebuilding and opened home ownership to more than just the wealthy.

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Dennis Evanosky

Tudor Revival: The half-timbering on Dr. William Lum’s Gold Coast home leaves no mistake that the architects looked to 16th-century England for inspiration. Although not structural, three girts run across the front of the house.

Brown credits builder Augustine Taylor with the idea and most scholars agree with his assessment. Taylor's concept was a straightforward one that simplified the building industry. He used "off-the-shelf materials and standard-size boards to construct a lightweight frame," Brown writes.

Lumber mills were already creating lightweight, standard-size boards called "2x4s" and 2x6s" after their dimensions. "Home buyers didn't need to pay highly trained craftsmen," Brown writes. "Just about anyone with a hammer could put together a balloon-frame structure."

Chicago's Old St. Mary's Church members could not afford an elaborate house of worship. The parishioners hired Taylor who "came up with a low-cost design that was solid and safe." Brown writes. "He dumped the old (and very expensive) mortised beams and fittings, replacing them with lighter 2x4s and 2x6s set (nailed) close together. He also used studs and cross members to brace the structure.

The new church cost a mere $400 (about $8,000 in today's money.)

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Posts and girts are clearly visible on the Palmer House. Once believed to be the birthplace of William Shakespeare, the house was built about 1570 and serves as a fine example of a Tudor-style country house.

Brown points out that, thanks in part to the cheaper, easier-to-build housing Taylor's design inspired, Chicago's population mushroomed from 150 people in 1833 to nearly 30,000 by 1850.

Besides the cost savings, Taylor's methods let builders break away from the boxy shapes of timber-frame construction. They got far more creative.

Soon, even the wealthy embraced balloon framing. This allowed Victorian-era architecture to flower. "The technique swept America," writes John Leinhard IV in Inventing Modern. "A great gallery of possibility opened up, and people took advantage of it. They built bay windows, watchtowers and gables. They created homes with steeples, cupolas and porches."

Not everyone was impressed, however. Some carpenters dismissed the idea. According to some accounts, the term "balloon frame" was meant as a mocking nickname because the frames looked as flighty as a balloon. Some said the structures would blow away at the first strong wind, a statement that took on special meaning in the Windy City.

Despite the criticism and derision, Taylor's concept caught on. "Its simple, effective and economical manner of construction has materially aided the rapid settlement of the West," wrote George E. Woodward in his highly respected and much-used tome Woodward's Country Houses.

Woodward quickly dispelled the critics and pointed out the many advantages that the balloon frame offered. He pointed out that the exclusive use of nails to fasten timber eliminated the need for time-consuming and costly mortice-and-tenon joints. All the elements are interchangeable, he told readers. And he said that the balloon frame readily adapts to every style of building; its flexibility allows irregular forms.

Solon Robinson, a well-respected author and agricultural journalist, went even further. "If it had not been for the knowledge of the balloon frame, Chicago and San Francisco would never have arisen as they did from little villages to great cities," he wrote.

Much the same can be said of Alameda.

Contact Dennis Evanosky at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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