A Quest for the Authentic Victorian

marcellaparlour7976Touring a Victorian home is much like looking into a jewelry box. Beaded lamps with fringed shades and cut-glass baubles replace cameos. China sets for lemonade or chocolate take the place of garnet rings. Silver sets of combs and brushes adorn dressers. Wreathes from bird feathers, velvet tea cozies, silver tea sets and marble topped walnut furniture festoon every nook and cranny. Victorian women loved to bedeck themselves with decoration and the same impulse guided their choices for interiors.

In an era that provided pickle jars for the sideboard and brass dust corners for staircases, when windows were draped more elegantly than a bride, every plain surface cried out for embellishment. Even corners could be decorated with corner chairs (one arm is missing), corner cupboards and corner shelving.

marcellapurse7997“It’s like going to your great-grandmother’s house,” says Marcella Norton, who lives surrounded by Victoriana, “old-fashioned, cozy and warm.”

Marcella is a grandmother herself, but started collecting Victoriana at the age of 20. “An elderly neighbor collected and got me started long before it became popular,” she says. Raising seven children put her passion on hold for a few years. So when her children were grown and she bought a Victorian close to the ski slopes, her enthusiasm blossomed. “I stopped skiing for five years,” she says, although she is a champion skier: “It became an obsession, a compulsion because I knew what I wanted.”

marcellapiano7971For years, Marcella haunted every antique store she could find, scouring shops for the trinkets others considered too fussy, too inconvenient, too out of date and too gaudy. She delighted in the cast off, cradled it gently and brought it home. What might have looked excessive in a shop window melded into her interior landscape and looked to be perfectly attuned to its surroundings. That’s because Marcella purchased an 1876 home, once the house of a lawyer, who had been an officer in the Civil War. History exists in every room and a few items, like a chair and chandelier that belonged to the first mayor of Aspen, arrived with a story.

marcellawoman7905Never a lavish home, but solidly middleclass, nothing about the exterior has changed much, keeping to the original intent of the owners. The floor plan is not unlike the homes most Americans aspire to own today. An interior of three bedrooms, parlor, dining room, kitchen and baths contains wallpaper, carpeting, furniture and lavish decoration authentic to the times. “I’m a purist,” she says, about her quest to find the genuine. After all, the Victorian era defined modern Colorado. “This state began with the Victorian age and this home was built the same year that Colorado became a state.”

Marcella discovered photos of the early owners, which she framed and hung by the front door. “The owner before me left this photo,” she says, pointing to the man. “And I’ll leave it for the next owner.” The woman’s photo was discovered in the attic. Marcella had it enlarged and framed, imagining that this tidy and serene woman must have been the original lady of the house.

marcellaneedlepointchair8005Because Victorians witnessed the Industrial Revolution, but delighted in finely crafted decoration, they juggled between machine made and hand made goods. Machine made velvets and brocades joined handmade lace or needlepoint tapestry. Textile arts reached a zenith that has never been excelled in fine linens, damask, bobbin lace, embroidery and ruffles. Hand crochet bedspreads echo machined white lace curtains.

Victorians borrowed lavishly from previous ages, like the Tudor, Gothic or Classical Italian. In Marcella’s stairwell, a tapestry depicts Napoleon and Josephine. A bust of Lucretia, the Italian Renaissance beauty, sits on her dresser. As world travelers, they often acquired souvenirs from their travels. Marcella’s Africa room sports the trophies of hunts, complete with prints of safari sojourns and a lady’s gun.

“They were great collectors,” says Ray Sylvester, an interior designer who has worked on the Molly Brown House in Denver as well as with Marcella on her home. And that characteristic can be found today. “The latter part of the 20th century was our Victorian period,” he says, in which fortunes were made and lost. He cautions that much of what we have interpreted about Victoriana came from the wealthiest homes. Wood-lined bathtubs and brocaded walls, “only if you could afford it,” he says.

marcellablueneedlepointstool7966“America has become an acquisitive society and loves a make-believe house to live in. That’s exactly what the Victorians were doing,” he says. But few people, he notes, are as comfortable with a Victorian interior as Marcella. “Her parlor is the crowning glory. I think it’s her Victorian hideaway. Marcella is unusual because she lives in her house. For a family with young children, it might not be practical.”

The parlor, which she calls her, “pièce de résistance,” could fit into a Victorian museum. A stickler for accuracy, Marcella added touches like a stereoscope complete with 19thcentury photo postcard, a Victorian piano and 19th century sheet music. This is the room, an elderly friend exclaimed, “that you would never be allowed into” as a child.

True to the Victorian belief that no surface should be left undecorated, the ceiling is painted in clouds and contributes to the Victorian love for rooms that evoke stage settings.

marcellastairway7935“This was the coffin room,” Marcella says, which may explain the formality of a front parlor that also served as mortuary in many homes. A door exits to the outside, but wouldn’t be needed today with an entry on the other side of the wall. “That allowed them to bring the coffins into the room,” Marcella says, since the staircase would serve as an obstacle in the entry hall. Pneumonia, measles, diphtheria led to many graves that filled the town’s cemetery. “It wasn’t uncommon for children to die. They simply didn’t have the medical advances we have today.”

Perhaps this is why the Victorian parlor often looked forbidding and somber. “The furniture maker made the coffins,” Ray adds. “I don’t know when mortuaries started—they didn’t exist back then and people did have to use their homes and the church.”

But staying true to the era can only go so far. Baths were simple tubs, with outhouses for toilets. Marcella built two baths, all in existing spaces. Old porcelain tubs were resurfaced and dropped into wood-lined boxes. The Victorians might not have our sewage and septic systems, but they hoped for a leisurely warm bath. For those who could not afford bathtubs, “they used tin tubs,” Ray says.

Certainly the greatest departure from the 19th century is our attention to comfort and hygiene. Fortunately the fumes of coal furnaces have disappeared, too. No wonder the Victorians craved fresh air, so much so that they designed transoms, or small windows above each door inside the house for air to circulate. And that, Marcella says, must have meant that they were forced to continually clean their wallpaper from soot and grime.

maracellabordello7988Today, Marcella uses a mild vinegar solution on some of her wallpapers, which are patterned in bold and vivid designs—most in red and pink colors. She has scrubbed and papered most of the rooms herself. True to Marcella’s love for the color red, nearly every room in the house is rosy-hued from the pale blush of a child’s bedroom to the wine and brassy gold brocade of the guest’s bedroom. The dining room is a plum pink. Pinks are accented with greens or blues. Deep rose is complemented by lavender.

In a guest bedroom, even the ceiling is decorated with a pink swath around the edges. The brocaded walls of red and gold are stretched over a soft flannel so that they feel cushioned, as if the room is lining a box for pearls. Ray says a similar technique adorns the Molly Brown House. “It was uncommon, even then, but people wanted it,” he says. Molly chose satin damask.

marcelladress7995Stretched out on the bed is a black dress ready to be slipped over a chemise for a trip into town. A tiny mesh purse is strewn nearby. A hat with an ostrich feather waits downstairs. Another dress in deep purple has dozens of tiny beads dripping from the bodice. Dress styles have changed considerably, but the love for decoration has not.

Victoriana architecture and design would be outdated for almost a century before being reprised as a popular look. Perhaps it’s because the basic family home, unlike dress styles, has changed very little. Victoriana invites whimsy and excess, color and pattern at a time when houses may look drearily alike. Even modest Victorians provide lofty ceilings, light-filled windows and charming fireplaces—many of the same attributes that homeowners crave today.

“Sometimes I think there is nothing new under the sun,” Ray says, “Here we are with a front parlor and a back parlor. That’s no different from a living room and family room. Private places and public places: those haven’t changed any. A period house can be practical and you can design with respect to the period. And you can make it comfortable, too.”



Historic Victorian Homes in Colorado

  • The Rosemount Museum, 419 West 14 Street, Pueblo, 719-545-5290, www.rosemount.org/ is a stunning Victorian from 1893.
  • Byer-Evans House Museum, 1310 Bannock Street, Denver, 303-620-4933. A restored Victorian mansion with many of its original furnishings
  • The Bloom Mansion, 150 E. Main Street, Trinidad, 719-846-4224, part of the Trinidad Museum complex. Open summer only. An extravagant mansion with remarkable brickwork.
  • Molly Brown House, 1340 Pennsylvania Street, Denver, 303-832-4092, http://www.mollybrown.org/, the home of Colorado’s famous Titanic survivor.
  • The Colorado Governor’s Mansion, 400 E. 8th Ave. 303-866-3682, a Colonial Revival home, offering guided tours.
  • Grant-Humphreys Mansion, 770 Pennsylvania Street, 303-894-2505, a Beaux Arts home built in 1900-1902.
  • The Lace House, 161 Main Street, Black Hawk, 303-582-5221, the elaborate filigree front best describes this 1860s house.
  • Hamill House, Argentine and Third St., Georgetown, 303-674-2625, 1867 Victorian home that was expanded upon for two decades by a wealthy mine owner. It’s one of a five-house historic district that features distinct classes in the mining town. Included are the Bowman-White 1892 Italianate home of a wealthy mining entrepreneur, the modest Kneisel House of a merchant’s family, the Tucker-Rutherford Cottage, which was a miner’s home, and the very early rustic Johnson cabin, constructed by a prospector.
  • Arnett-Fullen House, 646 West Pearl, 303-444-5192, www.historicboulder.org , home of Historic Boulder. It’s a tiny gingerbread Victorian full of whimsical touches.
  • Healy House Museum and Dexter Cabin, 912 Harrison Avenue, Leadville, 719-486-0487,www.leadvilleusa.com/history/healy.htm Greek Revival Victorian mansion that celebrates the silver rush in Leadville. Inside is much of the history and lore of the silver barons, H.A.W. and Augusta Tabor. Alongside is a rough-hewn cabin.
  • Astor House Hotel, 822 12th St., Golden, 303-278-3557, www.astorhousemuseum.org, originally an 1867 hotel that became a boarding house, the Astor House was built from native stone.
  • Avery House, 328 West Mountain Avenue, Fort Collins, 970-221-0533; 1879 locally quarried sandstone home with Queen Anne touches.