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Tacoma's Victorian Architecture

Written by Corin Fayé

Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2009 Spring issue

Updated for blog publication in 2020 by: Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the first in a three-part series about Tacoma's Victorian architectural styles, especially in the Old Town neighborhood. The second post is available here. The third posts is available here.

The Hosmer House built in 1875 is the oldest remaining residence in Tacoma at 309 S 9th St.

It is an example of the Italianate style of Victorian architecture. Source: Tacoma Public Library

Victorian Homes in the West

A hundred years before the city of Tacoma's founding, the Western world was in love with ancient Greece. The East Coast of the United States is a veritable shrine of elegant neoclassical buildings. The design of public buildings like the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court showcases Greek and Roman features, including domes, columns, and symmetry.

By the time Tacoma's urban development began to expand, however, the Western world had discarded ancient Greece in favor of a riotous melting pot of all the world's styles, from Japanese exoticism to the curvilinear, rococo effect of San Francisco's famous Victorians. The Victorians were a curious bunch, notoriously restrained and almost obsessively decorous, and yet glorying in houses that have a keen sense of fun. Tacoma's North End, though not as brilliant as San Francisco's blocks of row houses, nevertheless possesses many jewels of the Victorian era that link the city to the last years of the nineteenth century.

It all started when the English got tired of large columned porches and perfect symmetry in their houses, with windows all in rows, the front door exactly in the center, and a cubical effect which did not at all look dark, brooding, and romantic. By 1830, society was in the thrall of poets and novelists like Lord Byron, William Blake, the Bronte sisters, and Mary Shelley, whose writing collectively described a passionate Gothic world of violent emotions, unsolvable mysteries, and ruined, misty landscapes. The public responded by building houses, dressed with turrets and spires, arches and medieval filigree. Thus began the Victoria era in houses, from the 1830s into the early twentieth century, a tremendous influence all over the world, but particularly for the young Western cities just coming of age in that era.

Tacoma, founded in 1869, has examples of three of the great movements of late Victorian architecture: Italianate, Stick/Eastlake, and Queen Anne.

The Russel Heath Boarding House built in 1903 on N McCarver St is an example of the simplified Italianate style of architecture in the Old Town Tacoma neighborhood. It features a lightly framed porch, tall windows and a square shape. Unlike other Italianate structures, it is missing some typical grand features such as decorative brackets and large overhanging roof eaves.

The Italianate Style

Italianate houses tend to be cube-shaped with shallow hipped roofs, long hooded windows, and more restrained often quite plan exteriors. The Italianate style for houses was dying out in the 1880s, but Tacoma has a few examples of this Victorian style of residential architecture.

This Italianate building was designed in 1903 by Ambrose Russell and Frederick Heath, two prominent Tacoma architects.

The original owners and residents were Canadian immigrants Francis and Catherine Clegg.

Tacoma has fewer Italianiate houses than commercial buildings because, while the successive styles popular for houses soon overshadowed Italianate, they did not translate well to commercial buildings. Italianate architecture predominates particularly in the commercial district along Tacoma's Pacific Avenue. No sooner had the Victorians revived Gothic architecture than they wanted to revive Italian Renaissance architecture, which paved the way for imposing brick buildings with long hooded windows and heavy cornices. The Pinkerton Block Building, 1889, is a strong example of commercial Italianate architecture.

The Meeker Mansion, completed in 1890 in Puyallup, is another example of the Italianate architectural style.

Learn more about Tacoma's vernacular architecture in our next post.

Sources

Delehanty, Randolph. In the Victorian Style. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991.

Sommer, Robin Langley. The Victorian House. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1999.

Swope, Caroline T. Classic Houses of Seattle: High Style to Vernacular, 1870-1950. Portland, OR: Timber Press, Inc., 2005.

About the Author

In 2008, the museum welcomed Corin Fayé as a new volunteer. He came to the museum through his volunteer work with AmeriCorp where he spent his days working with kids who struggled to read. With his love of research, reading and writing -- combined with his BA in English from Whitworth University -- he was a perfect fit to spend some of his evening hours working as our "library lion." We were fortunate to have him as a regular research contributor.

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