VICTORIAN HOUSES – Marilyn Armstrong

We all think we’d like to live in one of those mansions. I know several people who bought one and tried to restore it. They acquired them with the best of intentions. They saw in their minds glorious images of perfectly finished wood paneling and ceiling beams with miniature gargoyles and carved balustrades in the hallways.

Gleaming wood floors and a kitchen big enough to run a restaurant with a dining room to match.

Despite those dreams, everyone ultimately gave up. The reality was too expensive. Every piece of every part that needed repair was too expensive and many parts had to be bought from places that collect parts of fallen down buildings and sell them to would-be restorers. It was just too much house and in due time, they moved on.

One couple actually finished the job. The house was magnificent. Then, they went bankrupt.

These are wonderful homes. Big rooms with plenty of light from windows much taller than me. High, airy ceilings, hand carvings, and stunning hand-carved wood interior decorations. But with those beautiful parts came rooves that were incredibly expensive to repair and early 1900s wiring never designed for modern appliances. Plus primitive plumbing that needed to be completely redone.

Those gigantic rooms and 12-foot ceilings made the homes much more expensive to heat than a “normal” house. Everything that made the house beautiful also made it a problem for a modern homeowner. Most particularly,  the sheer size and lack of insulation in these houses as well as the lack of modern infrastructure.

Beacon Hill mansion

These homes were designed to house large families with lots of children and probably two or three generations from babies to great granddad. And maybe the odd aunt or cousin, too.

Did I mention that they don’t have closets? What they considered a closet, we would call a “tie rack.” Because most people had a set of fancy clothing, an outfit for Sunday church-going, and work clothing. They didn’t need the amount of storage we’re used to.

Classic Victorian “Painted Lady”

In the real world, as we get older we realize we don’t need a 3-story house with 8 bedrooms and only 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 a much bigger house. By the time I bought it, the house had been broken up into five apartments — four in the main house and an even bigger one on what would have been the attic level. My piece was not huge by square footage, but it felt bigger than it was

It was elegant with twelve-foot ceilings and polished elm flooring. It cost me almost a thousand dollars to have simple cotton curtains made for the windows. Not fancy drapes, mind you. Just enough to cover those 7-foot windows.

My apartment was on the first floor and was not in the country. You had to have window coverings. I lived there for less than a year and then Garry and I got married. The apartment only had one small bathroom with no room for another. Garry and I can share many things, but NOT one bathroom.

NO closets. Well, in theory, the bedroom had a shallow closet good for hanging a bathrobe, a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.  Real Victorian houses in their time never stored much. Whatever they own was on display. The rooms were huge, but there was no room to move in them. They were unbelievably cluttered with lamps, vases, statuary, knick-knacks, pottery wildlife and often, many dogs. You had to be a ballet dancer to not knock over the breakables — and it was ALL breakable.

Pre-plastic, everything was fragile although often surprisingly ugly.

Victorian, but a farmhouse along the river

We tried to buy the other (empty) apartment across the hall, but the condo association got confused by the concept. I don’t know why because combining two condos is not such an unusual thing and wasn’t even 30 years ago, but they got all fluttery about it. We gave up and moved elsewhere. I rented it out for a couple of years, then I went bankrupt.

No one wanted the apartment. At that particular time, this area was unsaleable and had gone far downhill. The GE plant had left with its jobs and the drug dealers had moved in. 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 my granddaughter until finally, he passed it along to an ailing friend who completely remodeled it. It’s gorgeous and looks 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. It’s probably the only way to maintain them. At least that keeps them as one building because otherwise, they end up falling down to make room for more 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. Not only hundreds of thousands of dollars but a lot of patience. It helps if you don’t have to live in them while they’re being remodeled — if you want to come out of your reconstruction sane.

Not a Victorian, a big farmhouse

At this point, I can’t imagine dealing with so much room. I can barely take care of this house which is less than half the size of one of those Victorians — not counting their basement and attic sections. For most of us, Victorian homes exist to admire. Otherwise, they are the highest maintenance houses ever built with far too many stairways and an awful lot of glass.

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

Categories: #Photography, Architecture, Home, Marilyn Armstrong

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18 replies

  1. A hefty bank balance is certainly needed to update a historic house or barn. I wish I had one. 🙂 It is always interesting to drive down a street at home, gaze longingly at one of those beauties and then notice the 4-8 mailboxes. The times they are a changing.


  2. Lovely pictures, I’ve always liked those houses when I’ve seen them on films. Are they really completely built of wood? Our daughter and son-in-law bought an 1868 villa in a cheap area, we couldn’t believe how big it was when we first saw it – or how cold sometimes ha ha! They found some old pictures,,it was originally a dairy. I always wanted to,live in a windmill or a lighthouse!


    • Yes, all wood and many of the old ones, completely UNinsulated. They are heated, but those high ceiling mean all the heat gathers at the top of the room. A ceiling fan helps, but between the glass and the high ceiling, these are hard buildings to heat.

      A lighthouse always looked like fun. Once, I could climb it but not today, I fear.


  3. The old Victorian homes were beautiful, and many still are, but as you say it takes a lot of money. time and patience to restore them. Most of the “Painted Ladies” here in Buffalo have been turned into either apartment buildings or offices (my office is, in fact, in the servants’ quarters of an old Victorian mansion – the servants’ call buzzers are on a board right outside my office door.) As for restoring one, I wouldn’t attempt it – my 1939 never-been-updated-since home is enough of a hassle (plumbing, electric, mechanics, windows, oh my!), even though I do love it. Even though in 1939, closets were still not popular. Our bedroom closets don’t hold much, and we don’t have a linen closet – we keep our towels in a blanket chest outside the downstairs bath.

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  4. I love those old victorian homes. There are many that have been renovated, but I can’t imagine the cost of doing that…the electrical, the wiring, the updating to cost-efficient lighting and plumbing just to start, then re-arranging the layout, just wow! But if you could manage it, and you had the money to live there,e how fantastic would that be. Even for a time! What a delight to have enjoyed, Marilyn.


    • So many “ifs.” I agree. IF I had that kind of money, I might sink it into fixing up one of those houses though at this age, probably not. maybe 30 years ago when a lot of space mattered. Now, it doesn’t matter at all. We need closets and a better kitchen and a boiler. That’s plenty!.


  5. I love Victorian houses, Marilyn. When I am abroad I spend lots of time visiting historical sites. Our home was built in 1929 and is the original farm house for our area. It has a metal roof and a borehole, which we restored. We have installed a generator [because of on-going power outages] and we love our house.

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    • I think the Victorians are magnificent, but there are just two of us. What do we need with 4,000 square feet of space? Maybe if we were building a commune? But there was a time when that’s absolutely what I wanted.

      The farmhouses tend to be less elaborate and more practical — and don’t require a master technician to paint it, either. There are a few of them along the Blackstone — a few are in good shape. More even from the outside need significant restoration. Many are gigantic and I think were built then added onto so later generations of the family could live there. if I collected ALL the people I know, we still wouldn’t take up more than half the rooms! But I can see where for the right family who can afford it, it would be just grand.

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    • I lived in Hempstead in the original farmhouse for the area, was also built in 1929. It was beautiful and by now, via the next owner has almost fully renovated it. And in Jerusalem, the house I lived in most years was closer to 200 years old, but it was stone which made maintenance a bit easier. At this point, I need simplicity more than huge windows and high ceiling. I love those old houses, but I don’t have real use for them these days.

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  6. Thank you for reminding me WHY it was (and is) unreasonable for me to own a ‘painted lady’. I’ve admired them as long as I can remember…but. In my youth (when I had the energy and drive to possibly do repairs) I hadn’t any decent money, and now as an oldish fart, I have the money (kinda) but my energy and drive are so far in the rear view it’s laughable. My cousin always wanted to live/own one too, and she still sighs (as do I) when we spot one that’s gone on the market. These days even the unrestored ones are going for six figures – high six figures ’round these parts. The realities of central heating (and air), gleaming, pristine wood work (including floors), modern plumbing and wiring and the rest? Well as I said initially, thanks for reminding me why it’s a fantasy, a nice one. Never reality.


    • I look at them and realize I can barely manage this house and one of them? Unless you have a cleaning staff, much less a permanent repair team (live-in!) — it’s for the much younger and/or much richer. But they are so beautiful!


  7. Trouble is our needs change and although those old gorgeous houses seem ideal, it would only be for a certain period in your life time.


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