Without a doubt, it was the lovely architecture that originally lured me, like many others, into the area of Montclair. Like many homes in the area, mine is an old, yet beautiful, cash suck. My house is an Italianate built most likely in 1840, according to my friend Frank Godlewski, aka the House Whisperer, aka Frank GG, as a second and or third country home to a wealthy NYC family. Yes–an Italianate not a Victorian. A lesser known style usually characterized by its low pitched roofs, deep eaves and long rounded windows mimicking Italian villas of the day.
Victorian may the most misused stylistic-buzzword that most architecture buffs find maddening. A blanket term thrown over everything from the 19th century and a bit after. Look, a curly Q — it must be Victorian. Flocked wallpaper — must be Victorian. Flock of Seagulls—while probably never referred to as Victorian, having popped out a century later, they are a perfect example of British style, that with new and improved technology (hair gel), took the States by storm.
You may be asking yourself, “What in the Sam Hill is this woman talking about?” Let me break down a huge chunk of history and condense it into a few simple sentences that will most likely set the “Well actually…” folks into a tailspin.
While the Victorian era in England was from 1837-1901 during Queen Victoria’s reign, classic Victorian American architectural style came about much later from about 1860-1900. During the mid 19th century new technology, see Flock of Seagulls reference above, such as the use of steel, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, had a profound effect on architecture. The ornate styles of large scale buildings in England combined with the availability of inexpensively manufactured materials fueled the fire onto the growing middle class in America. Simply put, it was fancy time.
Italianates came about before the stylistic Victorian era and remained the most popular home style on the East coast from the 1840s- 1860s. They were still popular through the end of the century, hence being often wrongly categorized. Dirty crime-ridden cities became unfriendly places to raise families while the countryside became a more fashionable alternative for those who could afford a country home. These homes did not cry out for of 17 layers of wallpaper or windows flanked by thick red drapes and ridiculous looking tassels—NO! With large open rooms, flexible floor plans, tall windows and doors that would open to a porch or balcony, these homes welcomed the country inside.
My favorite local examples of this style are known as the Seven Sisters (formally the Eight Sisters before one was lost in a fire) on Chestnut Street in Montclair. Over the decades some have lost their arched windows due to the high cost of custom storm windows while other have gained adornments these lovely homes showcase the style from this period well. Most of the homes still have their lovely floor length windows that open up to a front porch.
In my quest to find out more about my home and this era in Essex County I searched through books and maps at Montclair Historical Society. What I found was fascinating. While many of the streets have been renamed and many streets were un-named dirt roads or country driveways I could more or less pinpoint my block on the large map from 1865 hanging on the second floor of the library. Searching through the huge 3′ x 4′ Montclair Tax Record Book from 1900, I was able to find my lot, block and the owner of my home.
More Architectural/Historical local resources:
- Newark Hall of Records
- Montclair Public Library
- The Historic Preservation Commission of Montclair
- Glenridge Public Library
- Bloomfield Public Library
- The Historical Society of Bloomfield
- The Glenridge Historical Society
Do you have a favorite architectural style in the area? What would you like to see more of and what would you like to disappear from the history books?