Mid-Victorian Vernacular

408 Elm Street.  Photo: Jim Lamb

We are most fortunate to have in Oakwood excellent examples of the various styles of American domestic architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This series of articles will attempt to describe the various periods, styles and forms, with examples from the neighborhood. Most of the houses built in Oakwood during its period of significance can be placed into one of five major categories: Mid-Victorian Vernacular, Mid-Victorian High Styles, Queen Anne, Neoclassical Revival, and Craftsman.

“Mid-Victorian” is not a style, but a time period arising in the 1850s and fading around 1890, coinciding with the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. During the Mid-Victorian period several high styles of architecture were in fashion in America, namely the Italianate, Second Empire and Stick styles. However, most houses in the small town of Raleigh were not built in these styles, but in what historians of architecture have called Folk Victorian or Victorian Vernacular. “Vernacular” refers to the architecture of a certain region, as opposed to the national styles. The term should not be seen as derogatory; some of the Mid-Victorian Vernacular houses in Oakwood have a beauty and elegance that make them in no way inferior to the high-style houses. Most of Oakwood’s Mid-Victorian houses were built in one of four vernacular North Carolina forms: the central-hall plan, the side-hall plan, the gable-front-and-wing, or the shotgun. Most were ornamented in one or both of two styles, “Sawnwork Victorian” and “Chamfered Victorian.”

410 Elm Street 410.  Photo: Steve Jahn

416 Elm Street“Central-hall plan” houses are basically North Carolina farmhouses transplanted into town: the façade has a front door in the middle leading to a central hall, and one window on each side, serving the two front rooms. There is always a porch across the front of the house. See 516 N. East Street. Some of these houses have a second story with three windows, symmetrically placed, as in 408 N. Person Street and the Pullen houses at 408, 410 & 416 Elm Street. The roof ridge is always parallel to the street. Most of those built in the 1870s have a hip roof (four sloping sides and no gable) as in 516 N. East Street and 530 E. Jones Street. Most built after 1880 have a saddle roof with the gables on the sides, and another gable in the middle of the front of the house to minimize the amount of rain running off the roof onto the person walking up to the house. See the Pullen houses at 408, 410 and 416 Elm Street, 221 Elm Street and 515 Polk Street. These are known as “triple-A” houses because of the three gables. Most central-hall plan houses were originally only one room deep, plus a wing in the back (called an “ell”) for the kitchen, so that it wouldn’t heat up the house in the summer. Some were two rooms deep. See 519 E. Jones Street.