Early Victorian Architecture: Overview
Explore This Article
In the forty-five years from 1850 to 1895, architecture in Georgia advanced from simple Greek revival forms to the massive steel-frame skyscraper. In between, architects and builders used a myriad of styles as the state endured a disastrous war, Reconstruction, and economic depressions. Nevertheless, the entire postwar period was generally marked by increasing wealth due to urbanization, industrialization, expanding cotton production, and the rapid expansion of rail service into almost all areas of Georgia. From the 1850s to the 1870s, Italianate and Second Empire buildings were erected around the state, but most church buildings were in the less popular Gothic revival. From the late 1870s to 1895, Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles predominated. Both were soon replaced, however, by Neoclassical design work as the new century approached.
In 1850 the most significant architectural style in the United States and Georgia was Greek revival. Important commissions like that for the Governor's Mansion in Milledgeville (1838) by Charles B. Cluskey helped to create a demand for Greek revival throughout the state that lasted well into the 1850s. Characterized by grand columned porticos, low-pitched roofs often with triangular pediments, entablatures, and rectangular/symmetrical construction, Greek revival became common throughout Georgia.
Savannah was the architectural center of the state, and the city's rich merchants and businessmen invested their cotton wealth in new residences and commercial buildings of a slightly altered Greek revival style changed to suit narrow city lots. With low or flat roofs, symmetrical window placement, raised entrances, and one-story, square-columned porticos, the new buildings were often designed by recently arrived architects such as New York's John Norris. Greek revival buildings included the U.S. Custom House, commercial buildings along Bay Street, and row houses like the Gordon Block and Mary Marshall Row.
Greek revival, however, was not confined to Savannah in the 1850s. In 1856 Charles Sholl and Calvin Fay partnered to design the state mental hospital (Powell Building) in Milledgeville with a soaring three-story portico of the Greek Ionic order. Local builders were also active in the popular style. In the distant southwest corner of the state, designer/builder John Wind built the impressive Greek revival structures of Cedar Grove Plantation and the Thomas County Courthouse. The rich Cotton Belt region of central Georgia was soon dotted with massively colonnaded homes like those of John Thomas Grant in Athens, which is now the President's House at the University of Georgia, and of Austin Leyden in the burgeoning rail center of Atlanta.
Despite the predominance of Greek revival, more romantic or picturesque buildings in Gothic revival and Italianate styles began to appear in this prosperous decade. Decorative Gothic motifs had been added to the state capitol in Milledgeville during the late 1820s, but that did not reflect any widespread use of the pointed arches, asymmetrical ground plans, crenelations, buttresses, steeply pitched roofs and gables, and trellised verandas that were the main characteristics of the style in the 1850s. The most outstanding example of the Gothic style is the 1853 Green-Meldrim House in Savannah by John Norris.
Not well suited to the harsh southern climate, however, Gothic revival was used mainly in church architecture both during and after the Victorian era. This was due in part to a general belief that the fervent Christianity of the Middle Ages, which gave birth to the Gothic style, should be emulated. One of the first Gothic revival churches in the state was St. John's Episcopal in Savannah, designed in 1850 by New York architect Calvin Otis. More like a simple English country church than a grand cathedral, St. John's has distinctive pointed arches, buttresses, and great hammerbeam trusses on its interior. After the Civil War (1861-65), virtually all religious sects hired an ever-increasing number of major architects to design Gothic revival churches. Atlanta is particularly illustrative of the continuing popularity of the style during the late Victorian era. William H. Parkins designed the Roman Catholic Church (later Shrine) of the Immaculate Conception in a simplified Gothic revival style in 1869, and Edmund G. Lind created Central Presbyterian Church in 1885.
The Italianate style, however, proved more successful than the Gothic revival style because it was easier to build and maintain. Based on Italian Renaissance buildings, the style consisted of one or more rectangular blocks at times grouped asymmetrically. Low-pitched roofs usually had wide eaves supported by brackets and often topped with cupolas or lanterns. Other decorative features included round or segmental arches, window hoods, classical details, and one-story porches. Italianate homes could be quite elaborate, as in the grandiose Hay House (1855-59) in Macon or John Norris's Mercer House (designed in 1860 but not completed until 1870) in Savannah. Other outstanding antebellum examples of the style can be found throughout the state, including Joel Hurt's Dinglewood (1855) in Columbus, and Woodlands in the northwest corner of the state. Built in the early 1850s by Sir Godfrey Barnsley, the latter is an asymmetrical Italian villa constructed of a series of blocks with a central tower—a near-perfect example of the newest style of architecture for the time. Today, the grounds, known as Barnsley Gardens, are open to the public.
Little significant construction took place in the 1860s. The Civil War and the resulting poverty of the Reconstruction years left scant time for high-style architecture. Railroads, however, were rebuilt and expanded as cotton production slowly returned to prewar levels by 1882. The wealth generated by cotton and the new textile factories provided the cash necessary to build many new buildings during the years following the depression of 1873.
During the 1860s and 1870s, Italianate and the similar Second Empire style with its distinctive mansard roof were frequently used in all types of buildings statewide. Composed of simple, symmetrical blocks, both building types fit well into the new postwar urban settings and could also be expanded as needed with little trouble. The ornamentation could be simple hoods over windows or elaborate quoins, voussoirs, or turned posts and balustrades. Public buildings like Savannah's 1870 police barracks (architect J. H. Boggs), Atlanta's 1869-70 Kimball House Hotel (William H. Parkins), and the 1874 Moore College Building in Athens (Leon H. Charbonnier) were Italianate buildings, the last two with mansard roofs. Much more elaborate was the 1876 Southern Mutual Insurance Company Building in Athens. It had projecting and receding bays in the massive block of the structure and was accented with quoins, heavy window molds, and a mansard roof punctured by large dormers and supported with a bracketed cornice.
By the early 1880s, however, both Italianate and Second Empire styles were decidedly old-fashioned. New ideas, technologies, and architects established new styles of architecture in Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Neoclassical. Economic prosperity from the late 1870s to 1893 made it possible, and often necessary, to erect new buildings in the latest fashions or with the latest technological advances, such as fireproof and steel-frame construction with hydraulic elevators. In the 1890s skyscrapers first rose in Atlanta (the Equitable Building by John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham of Chicago) and in Savannah (1895 Citizens Bank by G. L. Norrman in the Chicago style of Louis Sullivan). It was not until after 1895, however, that steel-frame skyscrapers proliferated in Georgia.
In general, architects prospered during this period. Their most popular style was Queen Anne, and striking examples can still be found in almost every part of the state. It featured open floor plans around a large central space, extensive porches, and an exterior reflecting the irregularly sized and arranged interior rooms. Imminently suitable to the southern climate, Queen Anne residences tended to have extremely varied building materials in an often complex arrangement of spindle work, shingles, brick and masonry combinations, and terra-cotta highlighting. The more elaborate homes might have towers, turrets, belvederes (open observation areas on a tower), porte cocheres, gazebos at porch corners, and a variety of bay windows and ornamental chimney stacks.
In 1883 G. L. Norrman designed a masterpiece in Queen Anne style for Atlanta businessman Edward C. Peters. The central mass of the house is topped by a hipped roof with extensions containing high, peaked gables and adorned with cut-away bay windows, half timbering, carved panels, brackets, turned posts, and foliate capitals. Reflecting its interior arrangement, the dramatic irregularity of the exterior is further emphasized by huge porches, balconies, a shingled skirt roof, and a massive Romanesque-arched porte cochere. The interior rooms encircle a gently rising staircase ascending from a large central hall, and there is an open flow of rooms incorporating the great porches with both the interior and the grounds. The Peters House is the finest example of Queen Anne residential design in the state.
The asymmetry and picturesque characteristics of High Victorian or Queen Anne architecture also found expression in urban commercial buildings. Constrained by rectilinear building sites that had favored the block-like forms of the Italianate and Second Empire styles, architects solved the problem by using elaborate wall treatments with balconies, projecting bays, recessed porches, and terra-cotta, patterned brickwork, or stone on wall surfaces. Meanwhile, the roof itself might have alternating gables of varied shapes, corner turrets, towers, mansard roof sections, dormers, and a multiplicity of chimneys. The most outstanding example of this style still remaining is the 1892 Windsor Hotel in Americus by G. L. Norrman.
The real tension in the competition of architectural styles at this time, however, was between Romanesque Revival as expressed by H. H. Richardson and a host of followers, and Neoclassicism espoused by the followers of McKim, Mead, and White of New York. In Georgia the Romanesque Revival style exhibited arches in various forms, a strong monochromatic feel with the use of red brick and terra-cotta, horizontal lines, rusticated stone basements or first floor levels, and various foliate or classical decorative features applied in a restrained fashion. Architects used Romanesque designs for all types of buildings. Leading exponents were G. L. Norrman of Atlanta, and William G. Preston and Alfred Eichberg of Savannah. Significant examples of their work remain: Atlanta's Inman Park Elementary School (1892) and Stone Hall (1882) at Morris Brown College, both designed by Norrman; Savannah's Schwarz Building (1890) and J. S. Wood residence (1891), designed by Eichberg, and the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory (1893), by Preston.
During the 1890s, neoclassicism (including American colonial revival, Beaux-Arts, and classical revival) swept the nation and Georgia. Supposedly expressive of patriotism and America's emerging role as a world economic and political power, these classically derived styles had a wide appeal. Exemplary of this are the buildings for the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. The exposition's structures were generally described as Romanesque in design. On the other hand, one of the most highly praised and admired buildings at the fair was the Beaux-Arts designed Fine Arts Building, a monumentally symmetrical and classical building by W. T. Downing. Other Georgia works in classical revival styles—including the 1889 state capitol—certainly preceded this building. The Fine Arts Building, however, presaged the final eclipse of both Queen Anne and Romanesque styles over the next decade in favor of neoclassicism and more historically correct period revivals.