A Primer on Boston’s Victorian-Era Buildings
More than 350 years of domestic architecture helps tell the story of the city’s evolution.
From Boston Home’s Summer 2023 issue.
Boston is considered a contemporary architectural underdog, often overshadowed by larger cities. But few places can boast of more than 350 years of domestic architecture. Even fewer still retain the charm, beauty, and individuality of Victorian-era buildings found lining Boston’s streetscapes.
The oldest building in the city is the humble James Blake House in Dorchester, built in 1661. There are only two other surviving 17th-century homes here. The 18th century saw growth, with the town of Boston bulging from its isthmus. After becoming incorporated as a city in 1822, Boston expanded quickly. In just 50 years, the city’s boundaries and topography drastically changed. Hills were leveled and marshes filled. The Back Bay, Bay Village, East Boston, and South End were willed into existence. Boston is not a “City on a Hill” but rather a floating metropolis in the shimmering sea. Hills could not be thrown into the ocean fast enough.
Architects and developers used this brand-new land to showcase their individuality and style. French fashion took over the newly created Back Bay with broad boulevards and eclectic façades. All of this individualism was expressed while following strict material and design guidelines. That’s why all Back Bay homes are roughly the same width, built with the same materials, and set back the same distance from the street—it’s by design. The next time you stroll these harmonious streets, look up at the many styled hats of the Back Bay townhouses. Elegant and detailed mansard roofs are shoulder-to-shoulder with Gothic Revival pitches, Italianate cornices, and Flemish-revival caps.
Another invention of the 1800s had a huge impact on Boston’s domestic aesthetic—the streetcar. Boston annexed neighboring agrarian towns, and streetcars quickly reached every nook. Drumlins in Roxbury (annexed 1868), Dorchester (1870), and West Roxbury (1874) were ripe for architectural expression. Walk the hills of these streetcar suburbs, and you will find homes in every shape, color, and Victorian style—each one dressed in their Sunday best. If you know where to look, you might even see, perched on a hillside, a dodecagonal house covered in scales and wearing a crown. Octagonal and round homes were an unusual style that swept the nation in the 1800s. Orson Fowler started this national obsession with his 19th-century self-published book, The Octagon House: A Home for All. Afterward, hundreds of octagonal houses appeared all over the country.
All of Boston’s many examples of Victorian-era housing exude craftsmanship. Their proportions are human in scale. The façades give your eyes places to linger, to drink in the details, and pause in admiration. If you’re an urban explorer seeking to see examples of these residences, Melville Avenue (Dorchester), Beaumont Street (Dorchester), Howland Street (Roxbury), and Roanoke Street (Jamaica Plain) are all worth a stroll.
With Boston architecture, no individual building shines, but as a collection, the architecture of our fine city is a symphony of craftsmanship. The next time you are strolling the streets, slow down. Look around. Pay attention to the materials. How far are the buildings set back from the street? Ask yourself how they make you feel. What draws you in? These are the questions of a streetscape curator.
Matthew Dickey is director of communications and operations for the Boston Preservation Alliance. See more of his work on Instagram, @streetscapecurator.
First published in the print edition of Boston Home’s Summer 2023 issue, with the headline, “Statement Structures.”