Mid-Victorian Vernacular Ornamentation

Most houses built in Oakwood during the Mid-Victorian period were ornamented in one or both of two styles: “Sawnwork Victorian” and “Chamfered Victorian.”

534 East Jones Street.  Photo: Jim Lamb

“Sawnwork Victorian” ornamentation was most popular in the 1860s through the early 1880s. Although it was employed in many parts of the country, nowhere was it more popular than in North Carolina. Sawnwork was cut by a jigsaw, usually in elaborate curvaceous shapes. It was used on porches for balustrades or brackets or set between pairs of very slender square posts. It is a two-dimensional style; there is almost never any raised design on the sawnwork. Some more elaborate examples are 408 N. Person St. , 530 E. Jones St., 534 E. Jones St. , and 604 Oakwood Ave. A simpler example is 516 Polk St. The attic vents of these houses were also usually done in elaborate sawnwork, often in the form of a trefoil (like a three-leaf clover) or quatrefoil (four-leaf clover). The symbol of our neighborhood, as seen on our signs and on tour publications, is taken from the quatrefoil design visible in many of Oakwood’s attic vents. See 502 Polk St. and 315 N. Boundary St.

515 Oakwood Avenue. Photo: Steve Jahn

“Chamfered Victorian” ornamentation was popular in the 1870s and 1880s. It features square-section columns with the corners beveled off, or “chamfered.” These columns are thicker than the very thin posts of the Sawnwork Victorian style. There are often brackets at the tops of the columns, cut by a jigsaw, but usually of thicker wood than in the sawnwork style, and often with raised or incised details. See 515 Oakwood Ave. and 515 Polk St. . Some of the chamfered columns have molding toward the top that creates the appearance of a capital. See 542 E. Jones St., and 547 E. Jones St. . This is definitely a three-dimensional style. It was likely influenced by the 1872 publication of the writings of Charles Eastlake, and some have called the style Eastlake. However, that name is more often used with reference to furniture, and the furniture to which it refers has more in common with the woodwork of the later Queen Anne style, so it is questionable to call this style Eastlake. Unlike the Eastlake or Queen Anne style, very little woodwork during the Mid-Victorian period was turned on a lathe. The exception was the balusters, which were often turned, and quite heavy by modern standards. See 542 E. Jones St. and 502 Polk St. . The latest and most elaborate achievement in Oakwood of Chamfered Victorian ornamentation, one which I would be willing to describe as Eastlake, is 521 E. Lane St.

Quite a few houses in Oakwood feature both types of ornamentation – usually chamfered columns with a sawnwork balustrade. See 514 E. Lane St. , 401 Elm St., and 408 Elm St.

Either or both of these types of ornamentation have been referred to as “Steamboat Gothic” or “Gingerbread.” These are informal nicknames that point out the similarity of the woodwork to the steamboats of the period, or to gingerbread houses. Sawnwork Victorian ornamentation was also known as “Carpenter Gothic,” because the carpenter had a major role in creating the designs. However, as these styles were so different from true Gothic or Gothic Revival ornamentation, it is misleading to refer to them as Gothic.

NEXT: Neoclassical Revival