Getting To Know Vancouver’s “Victorian” House Style

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Vancouver’s architecture is often difficult to distinguish as many of its homes are adaptations or amalgamations of more recognized styles. By cataloguing them, we gain an understanding of our homes and neighbourhoods, which gives us all a sense of pride in our city. With this is mind, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation provides Scout with an exclusive series that we call The Roof Over Your Head.

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THE VICTORIAN

Rapid industrialization and growth of the railroad system in the late 1800s allowed for a swift evolution from heavy-timber to lighter framing methods, dramatically changing the character of housing design and construction. Previously most of Vancouver’s homes were simple cottages built for efficiency, but the Victorian offered a new complexity in style. Victorian styles reflect the changes in material availability and design plans, exhibiting a more elaborate display of shapes and detailing.

In Vancouver the style ranges from simple cottages with distinct details, to sturdy family homes, to high-style landmark structures. Common elements to any Victorian are a mix of materials and colours, asymmetrical facades and steeply pitched roofs. They can include bay windows, off-centre staircases, and covered verandahs with lathe-turned columns. Sometimes referred to as ‘Gingerbread’ ornamentation, these houses included showy details such as intricate scrollcut brackets and ‘fish scale’ shingles. Facilitated by the new technology of steam-driven band saws, this hand-cut detailing is one of the most important and charming features of the style. We also see other embellishments, such as stained glass windows and solid brass hardware, indicating the pride of the original owners in their new homes.

The original Victorian paint schemes also added to the handsome exterior of this style, with a paint palette of three or four carefully balanced colours. As all paint at the time was oil-based, each surface would have had a high gloss appearance. The main body would usually be a mid-range colour, with a darker, contrasting trim. Window sash were almost always black or deep red, to highlight the depth of the window. The cedar shingle roofs were usually stained red or green and provided a lively appearance to both the house and the streetscape.

The front door, often included elaborate sidelights and were a showpiece of carved wood and stained or beveled glass. Most Victorians have double-hung windows, constructed from first growth Vancouver wood. Amazingly, when properly restored and repaired these 100-year-old windows can be just as efficient as modern windows. Ingenious in their design, when the upper sash are made operable, they provide a natural source of air-conditioning.

If you’re looking to gaze at some beautiful Victorians check out Mole Hill in the West End. Bordered by Thurlow, Pendrell, Bute and Comox, this lovely neighbourhood has some excellent examples of Vancouver heritage including 28 restored Victorian and Edwardian era houses, dating from 1888 to 1908. These houses all have had their front facades restored, and have been returned to their exact original paint schemes. The Moll Hill homes were amongst the 100 Vancouver homes that were scraped to identify the original colours used in early Vancouver – 35 colours were found to be commonly used throughout the city and became the template for VHF’s True Colours paint palette. For more on Mole Hill, or to go wander the neighbourhood, check out this map guide from Vancouver Heritage Foundation. The paper guide is out of print, however it is downloadable and displays well on tablet computers.

OTHER ROOFS OVER YOUR HEAD

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Vancouver Heritage Foundation is a registered charity supporting the conservation of heritage buildings and structures in recognition of their contribution to the city’s economy, sustainability and culture. VHF supports Vancouver’s built history by offering educational tours, talks and lectures, courses, and special events. Launched early in 2013, the Vancouver House Styles Architectural Web Tool is a free online reference cataloguing Vancouver’s common architectural styles.

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