Monday, November 26, 2018

BROWN SHINGLE: The Anti-Victorian

Victorian houses eventually became the
aesthetic equivalent of three banana splits
piled on top of each other.
Suppose you ate a huge banana split, and you loved it so much that you ordered another one and ate that as well. And then another.  You’d probably be eating dry bread for a few days thereafter.

That, in so many words, is what happened to people’s tastes after fifty years of ornate Victorian architecture. When builders and architects first started putting gingerbread on new homes in the 1850s, people loved it. So naturally, they added more. People loved that even better, so what was there to do but add yet more gingerbread? This cycle went on for three decades until, sometime during the late 1890s, people realized they were thoroughly sick of multicolored, gewgaw-covered houses. 

It was this overdose of ornament that brought on a great counter-reaction to the Victorian era, and ushered in the residential style known simply as Brown Shingle.
The William Berryman Scott House in Princeton, New Jersey,
by architect A Page Brown (1888) was an early harbinger
of dissatisfaction with Victorian gewgaws.
(Photo courtesy djkeddie CC BY-SA)

The Brown Shingle was everything the Victorian wasn’t. Whereas Victorian architects delighted in using artifice—imitating marble with wood, leather with linoleum, and gemstone with glass—the Brown Shingle used natural materials honestly employed. Its namesake exterior finish was pointedly plain—cedar shingles left to weather in the sun or, at most, sealed with a light stain. Window trim was broad, plain, and stained rather than painted. Chimneys were built of rustic stone, or of “clinkers”—purplish, mishapen bricks that had been rejected due to overfiring.  

Nature figured prominently in Brown Shingle designs. Porches were often roofed with heavily beamed pergolas that were meant to carry vines. Pairs of French doors often led outdoors to give occupants direct access to the garden, which was ideally laid out in a rambling, informal manner. 
On the opposite coast, architect Bernard Maybeck used
redwood pergolas to bring nature into the design.
Guy Hyde Chick House, Oakland, 1914.
(Photo courtesy Daniella Thompson)

Fundamentally, however, the Brown Shingle was still similar to its Victorian predecessors—only the philosophy and the finishes had changed. In its verticality and bulk, it’s really just a late Victorian house with most of the gingerbread scraped off and a shingle siding put in its place. It would remain for the Craftsman Bungalow style of the Teens to make the final break from Victorian proportions.

Brown Shingles win kudos for their understatement and resistance to the vagaries of fashion. They’re not susceptible to color fads, for example, because they don’t really have a color—just a natural patina. For the same reason, maintenance is less of a headache than it is for houses with fussy, complex color schemes.  

Interiors are big and airy, just like those of their Victorian predecessors, but without the encrustations of moldings and their associated maintenance. Despite this basic simplicity, there’s still generous use of stained wood in floors, doors, trim, and staircases, as well as in built-in furniture such as sideboards, bookcases, and linen cabinets.
Brown Shingle interiors were still air like those of Victorians,
but used much simplified detailing of flat lumber in place of
elaborate moldings.
(Photo courtesy Sinnott and Co.)

The style's shortcomings are largely technical, not functional. These are big, bulky houses, so seismically, they’re just as susceptible to earthquake damage as their Victorian kin.  Foundations are generally on the iffy side by modern standards, so retrofitting of foundation bolts and crawlspace shearwalls is a must. And of course, those aging heating and plumbing systems often beg for modernization.

While the shingled exterior is remarkably durable—fifty years is not an uncommon lifespan for good quality shingles—when the time comes it’s a much more costly proposition than repainting. So it’s to your advantage to find a house that’s already been re-Brown Shingled.  

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