Los Angeles Architecture 101: Victorian Architecture

Even those with the most casual of interests in architecture will likely recognize the Victorian style. It’s an architecture that takes its name from the era in history that spawned it, which in turn took its name from the reigning monarch crowned in 1837. But the Victorian era is perhaps best remembered for its breakthroughs in mass manufacturing. And you’d likely not recognize when glancing at the intricate details so inherent to Victorian architecture that they were the result of strides in factory-produced housing. Just in time for a city experiencing its first major population explosion! So, while the Victorian era impacted much of the world, its architectural influence on Los Angeles was very specific. 

The Coincidence of Victorian Architecture and the LA Population Boom

Photo credit: Konrad Summers

Most historians would agree that the Victorian age encompasses the years 1837 to 1901. Amidst those revolutionary decades, Los Angeles was just coming into its own as a major U.S. city. When the city first shook off the dust to become more than another western outpost, it was largely due to railroad expansion. 

It was 1885 when the Santa Fe Railroad opened its Los Angeles terminus. This put a white hot fire under their primary competition, Southern Pacific. In a quest to become the dominant railway line, companies began offering transcontinental tickets at staggeringly low costs even for the time period. We’re talking dollar fares. 

With affordable travel options and the open promise of the frontier, east coasters and midwesterners alike flocked to California in droves. The rail also brought in prefab materials fresh from the factories. Mass manufactured columns, posts, and everything in between were loaded onto trains. After all, these new Californians needed homes… and quickly. 

Photo credit: Laëtitia Zysberg

In 1880, LA’s population was estimated at approximately 11,000 citizens. By 1900, that number had ballooned to 102,000. And with Victorian architecture being so convenient to the times, thousands of new homes were erected in the Greater Los Angeles area. 

Common Attributes of Victorian Era Architecture

Victorian architecture is rather distinct, including a series of potential hallmarks including:

  • Paint schemes that often incorporate multiple striking colors
  • Tall windows
  • Flowery filigrees typically positioned at the crown of porch columns
  • Soaring ceilings
  • Dramatically pitched roofs and sharp gables
  • Gothic turrets
  • Liberal use of rich woods
  • Decadent flourishes and intricate decorative details
  • Delicate lattice work indicative of the classic “gingerbread house” design
  • Multiple stories (typically)
  • Clapboard facades
  • Decorative shingles

Architectural Adversity to Victorian Designs

Photo credit: Los Angeles

From its very introduction to the Southern California area, Victorian architecture was fraught with adversity. Developers wanted an architecture style that was unique to the SoCal character. Mission Revival fit into the romanticized mythos better than Victorian designs which had already fully been embraced on the east coast. Likewise, a movement against the factory-produced parts of Victorian homes would find new homeowners largely embracing the quality of Craftsman homes

The Westward Expansion of Los Angeles

The glut of LA’s Victorian homes sprouted up near today’s downtown. When 1900 came and the population boom showed no signs of slowing, the disbursement of housing units demanded reevaluation. At one time, Victorian architecture had been the perfect solution. But with the population continuing to skyrocket, developers began buying up those looming single family Victorian homes. 

Their plan? Knock them down to make way for multifamily apartment buildings and commercial space. And with wealthier, established families moving to newer, trendier neighborhoods like Bel Air and Beverly Hills, there were plenty of Victorian properties up for grabs. 

The Full Time Job of Maintaining Victorian Homes

Photo credit: Los Angeles

There was also the upkeep of Victorian houses to consider. Those decorative wood flourishes requested a heightened level of maintenance that wore out its welcome quickly. Families needing to hustle in the growing city couldn’t always devote the time and resources necessary to keep Victorian homes in pristine condition.  

Soon, Bunker Hill, once a sprawling display of Victorian architecture, was overtaken by tenement buildings. And a great deal of the Victorian homes that remained were left in various states of dilapidation. Over the decades, their condition more often worsened than improved. 

A Renewed Appreciation for Victorian Architecture

It wasn’t until the 1970s that appreciation for Victorian architecture returned. By that point, many of the remaining Victorian structures had been destroyed to make way for downtown LA’s Civic Center District. Look for those homes today and you’ll instead find a slew of courthouses, government buildings, and LA City Hall. 

Image credit: Los Angeles

However, pockets of homes steeped in Victorian architecture remained. Some even weathered the years nicely. A reverence for historic structures was coming into fashion that would ensure those homes remained standing many decades longer. 

The Preservation of Victorian Homes

In 1976, a full block of Carroll Avenue was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Despite being located adjacent to low income areas, Carroll Avenue’s Victorian homes (as well as many Victorian structures in the greater Angeleno Heights neighborhood) continue to steadily rise in value. 

It’s also a popular neighborhood for Halloween revelry as Hollywood magic has immortalized specific examples of the area’s Victorian architecture. Fans of the 1990s TV drama Charmed will instantly recognize the historic Innes House as the home of the shows’ Halliwell sisters. And just yards away stands the worse-for-wear Sanders House which members of the MTV Generation may recall from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. 

Photo credit: Priwo

Some of LA’s most well-preserved Victorian homes found new life when they were moved to Heritage Square Museum. Think of it as a wildlife preserve for Victorian architecture. When you visit Heritage Square, you can tour Victorian manors furnished in much the same way they would have been in the late 1800s. Volunteers even do seasonal re-enactments, such as Victorian funeral processions and seances around Halloween. 

Touring the Remains of LA’s Victorian Architecture

To see some of the city’s other sterling examples of surviving Los Angeles architecture, look no further than our list below!

Greater Los Angeles Area

Carroll Avenue

Heritage Square Museum

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