SAVORING – VICTORIAN HOMES

We all think we would want to live in a house like any of these Victorian mansions. I know several people who “took one on.” They bought them planning to restore them. They savored delicious images of refinished wooden paneling. Ceiling beams with miniature gargoyles and carved balustrades in the hall.

Gleaming wood floors and a kitchen big enough to run a restaurant … and probably a dining room that matches. All of them eventually gave up the dream. They tried. They labored. But is was too much house and they moved on.

One couple finished it. It was magnificent. THEN they went bankrupt.

The third … I’m not sure what happened. I believe she got about half way through the process … and gave up.

These are wonderful homes. Big rooms with light from huge windows. Airy, high ceilings, hand carvings and stunning wood interiors. With that come roofs which are a nightmare to repair. Wiring gone to rot or so primitive, you couldn’t run a modern kitchen without setting the house on fire.

Huge rooms and high ceiling make the homes impossible to heat. Everything that makes the house beautiful also makes a problem for any modern homeowner. Most particularly,  the sheer size and lack of insulation in these houses … and the lack of modern infrastructure makes them a constant challenge.

These are huge houses, designed to house large families with lots of children and probably two or three generations of earlier generations, from babies to great granddad. And maybe the odd cousin, too. Did I mention that they don’t have closets, either?

Classic Victorian “Painted Lady”

In the real world, we get to a point in which we recognize we don’t need a 3-story house with 8 bedrooms (and often, just one bathroom). We’d be fine with a single story house, two bedrooms with one and a half baths. And hefty closets. Luxury? How about a small fireplace and a fenced yard for the dogs?

In my middle years, I yearned for large and open. With tall windows. Oh, those windows!

For a brief time, I owned a one-fifth of a Victorian. It was a one-bedroom flat on the first floor of the big house. By the time I bought my piece, it was five apartments — four in the main house and a bigger one on what would have been the attic level. My piece was not huge by square footage, but it was felt bigger than it was … and it was elegant. Twelve-foot ceilings and the floors were elm. It cost me almost a thousand dollars just to have simple cotton curtains made for all the windows. Not fancy drapes, mind you. Just enough to cover those 7-foot tall windows.

My apartment was on the first floor and it was not out in the country. You really needed window coverings. I lived there less than a year and then, Garry and I got married. The apartment only had one small bathroom — no room for a second. Garry and I can share many things, but NOT a single bathroom. NO closets. I mean zero. Apparently people didn’t own stuff, or more to the point, everything the owned was on display.

Victorian houses were incredibly cluttered. You had to be a ballet dancer to not knock over the pottery.

We tried to buy the other (empty) apartment across the hall, but the condo association got flustered by the unconventionality of the concept. We gave up and moved elsewhere. I rented it out for a couple of years, then I too went bankrupt.

No one wanted the apartment, so the bank canceled the mortgage and but I kept the place. I gave it to my son who lived in it with his wife and kid and finally, he gave it to an ailing friend who has completely redone it. It’s gorgeous, just the way I’d have done it if I’d had the money.

Many of these glorious painted ladies have been broken into pieces for condos. At least that keeps them in one piece because otherwise, they wind up knocked down to make room for sensible housing.

These are houses to dream about and for which we yearn. If you are wealthy, you can fix them up and live there, but you need some pretty big money to make them livable and it takes years to bring them up to reasonably modern living standards. At this point, I can’t imagine dealing with so much room. For the rest of us, Victorian homes are places to admire, and photograph. Otherwise, they are the highest maintenance houses ever built with far too many stairways and an awful lot of glass.

When the moments of yearning come to me, I watch “Meet Me In St. Louis.” That makes me feel much better and I can sing along, too.

28 thoughts on “SAVORING – VICTORIAN HOMES

  1. They look good, but I question the substance of the building. Were they just quickly built or were they solidly built, which is more important. Do they have strong foundaitions, a cellar? They look very imposing but I doubt if good quality. When we bought our appartment I knew what I wanted and it was not tons of windows. I wanted stone or wooden floors because I am not a carpet freak and it has now paid off.

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    • Stone houses are relatively rare in the U.S. except in some parts of New England (and Canada) where stones are plentiful. Brick is much more common, but even brick needs significant maintenance. The problem with these behemoths was not poor construction but more to the point … wood. Wood rots. It just does and no matter how careful you are, it eventually begins to disintegrate. Even if you do manage to fully restore one of the mammoth homes, you need a platoon of maintenance people to take care of them.The people who owned them had servants.

      I love the light in those houses and often, the views are wonderful. But they are ridiculous houses for the world we live in today. And you are right insofar as they ARE fire hazards. The old ones need sprinkler systems to keep them from burning down — and they burn down anyway.

      They are the house you dream of when you are young and don’t understand heating bills and think you will be young forever. Now, just imagining CLEANING something that big is overwhelming. But they had servants. They didn’t clean. The servants cleaned. And they didn’t cook. They had cooks. They had gardeners and people to fix rotting wood and broken roof tiles. In short, they had real money. Some people still have real money. Just — not me and you 🙂

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  2. My parents bought an old farm house many years ago. It did have closets and the detailing was nice. The basement was such that you couldn’t stand up straight, so they dug it out. That was a major undertaking. The main bearing wall buckled from it. They fixed that wall and it was quite nice when they finished it. That was a lot of work.
    Leslie

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    • All these old places are a study in strength of character. And money. They suck fortunes into them. That’s the ultimate issue. You can do anything if you have the funds, but many people simply run out of money before they get the job done.

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      • My parents sold it and left the country for sunny climes many years ago. It was just recently resold and it has been declared a heritage site. So they are going to move the building to some other site and build three other homes on the land.
        Leslie

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    • Whatever they stored was in an attic (often one of several attics) or basements if they were dry. There had small extra “dressing” rooms that held their clothing and which was moved into storage when seasons changed. But all the other stuff? Their houses were stuffed with stuff. Those big rooms were packed with doodads and terrible art and plants and furniture. You could barely move inside one of these houses. It’s hard to believe because they are so big, but they filled them up. Completely.

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  3. when I was about 9 we lived in Brookline Mass; my best friend in those days lived next door with her incredibly Irish Grandmother and an aunt and uncle. Her grandmother, recently widowed, had a talent for fixing up old houses, renovating them almost single handedly, and then selling them at a decent profit. This one was one of those amazing Victorian houses, three stories, turrets, a wrap around porch, all of it. and a little black Scotty named Cookie.
    She was an amazing woman, and we were all terrifed of her, lol, including the dog. But she was a survivor. I loved the leaded glass inserts in the front door, purple and yellow and green and blue…

    The week before we moved in next door Paula and her grandmother had arrived to fix up the mansion. The week after we moved away the house was sold and they moved on to the next house. Some years later I was looking in Google Earth for where we used to live, and the house was gone. It had been torn down to make way for a parking lot for the Northeast Football Stadium across the street. I mourned.

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    • I did know a couple who did that too. They never got to really live in any of those grand houses, but they did magical work renovating them. Brookline was a great choice. SUPER expensive area.

      These days, the universities and hospitals own more of Boston than people do. I can never remember which university owns which section of town, but there are something like 24 colleges and universities now … and more in Cambridge. When we lived in Roxbury, Northeastern was absorbing the neighborhood. The problem with that is that the colleges don’t pay normal taxes, so the rest of the neighborhood pays for them. No problem in Brookline. BIG problem in Roxbury.

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  4. These are wonderful homes- I used to stay in a B & B in Cape May that had all the beauty and charm but was all up to date- perfect combination. One has to be extremely wealthy to bring them up to date

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  5. I love Victorian house lived in one for several years. It had all the room I needed for 3 children, two large dogs, a cat, terrapin, lizard and a bird.That one bathroom tested my parenting skills daily especially when it came time to get ready for school and work. I still ohh and ahh over them though.

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  6. Life was certainly very different a hundred or more years ago and what was the epitome of residential luxury now pales by comparison with what we think are ‘necessities’ today. How will our current luxury homes seem to the people of the 23rd century i wonder? (Would they even manage to survive for that long? Bricks and mortar crumble and concrete rots also). I’m guessing pretty much as you have assessed those of the 19th C. i.e.Nice to look at and dream of a simpler, romanticised time, but totally impractical for modern living standards.

    love.

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    • These houses are magnificent. I don’t think anyone has built a home that is better designed for comfort. Assuming that you could bring the infrastructure up to par, all you’d need is WiFi and voila, the world is yours. But they are really big and most families are not that big. Nor do our homes house our family, our parents, grandparents and other miscellaneous relatives. And … we don’t have servants and these houses NEED servants. They are much too big for an ordinary woman to manage. They were designed for a time when homeowners had money and servants were a standard part of middle class life. I love the architecture. I admire it. It’s just totally inappropriate for my life now. I couldn’t even get up the stairs to the bedrooms.

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  7. These are such beautiful houses! I lived in a smaller one growing up. It was mostly refinished when we moved in. The woodwork was beautiful and there was so much personality in each room. We did actually have closets. But, the bedrooms were very small.

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