Special Halloween Post!
Photo credit: scorpiorules58 / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA
Victorian mansions are things of beauty, but there was a time when turrets, gingerbread and mansard roofs went out of style. So out of style, in fact, that Victorian mansions became permanently associated with haunted houses. There’s a fascinating article on fastcodesign.com that traces the history of the Victorian house from its origins in the 19th century as a “McMansion” for the noveau riche to default haunted house. The whole article is worth a read, but, basically, the history goes like this: in the 1930s, it was time for a new direction. To usher in the new, it was necessary to make people hate the old; artists, writers and architects successfully convinced people that Victorian architecture was “vulgar”. After it went out of style, writers and artists began to use Victorian houses as settings for scary stories, like “Psycho” and “The Addams Family.”
And voila. The Victorian-manse-as-haunted-house meme was born. And permanently embedded into our culture.
How Victorians Came Back
Though we still associate haunted houses with Victorian mansions, Victorian houses are not longer hated. In fact, many such houses have been beautifully restored, sold, lived in and loved. So how did the Victorian mansion come back after going so completely out of style?
One word: hippies. In the mid-60s (just a few years after “The Addams Family” first aired), young bohemians began to move into the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. The Haight was cheap — and full of old Victorian houses. You could rent an airy old Victorian with window seats for next to nothing. The hippies didn’t care that the houses weren’t fashionable. In fact, many hippies liked to wear Edwardian-era clothes. (For more on this, read The Haight Ashbury: A History by Charles Perry. Also, I’m proud to say I spent some time there myself, years ago.)
The Haight quickly became the center of the 60s counterculture, and people flocked to it. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane all took up residence in the Haight — in those “vulgar” Victorian mansions that popular culture deemed creepy. They made Victorian architecture cool again. (It makes sense when you think about it — pop culture said Victorian mansions were ugly and creepy, so of course the counterculture rejected that notion by living in Victorian mansions. Brilliant.)
Of course, it would be a few more years before Victorian mansions started to undergo restorations. The Haight was still pretty rundown into the 80s. But now, everything has been renovated and you can’t rent anything in the Haight for less than $3,000. The pattern is always the same: first come the artists, then the hipsters, then the developers.
Victorian Mansion Appreciation
I, for one, am happy that Victorian architecture regained the appreciation that it deserves. How sad would it be if it went completely the way of the dodo bird?
Now, we have the best of both worlds: we can enjoy Victorian mansions as creepy, haunted places and as beautiful homes. Works for me.