When Judge Edmund W. Wells erected his elegant home in 1878-79, he undoubtedly wanted to build a comfortable home for his family. At the same time, however, he was concerned with making a statement regarding his status in the community and reflecting the latest in current architectural tastes. As a distinguished lawyer, legislator and financier who came to Prescott in 1864, he spared no expense in the building of his Italianate influence Victorian era house.
While the Wells home reflected the influences of Italy, other homes being built in Prescott in the 1870s, 80s and 90s espoused the styles of other historic influences from Europe and England including Gothic, Shingle, Romanesque, Eastlake, Queen Anne, Georgian and Victorian Melange.
Today, the homes and commercial buildings of the Victorian era are often recognized as those structures of the 1800s that employed a variety of designs and embellishments to create unique and exciting designs. Steeply pitched and varied rooflines, bracketed eaves, multiple layers of trim, turrets and towers, arched, bay and oriel windows, turned columns with fancy capitals: each of these elements characterize the architecture that we generally refer to as “Victorian”. But what is Victorian architecture?
Generally, “Victorian architecture” is that which came into being during the reign of Queen Victoria of England. Ascending to the throne n 1837, she lived until 1901. However, the Victorian era is often rounded off to 1840 to 1900. Queen Victoria had little or nothing to do with the architectural designs of the nineteenth century. Rather, her reign paralleled an era of great technological, economic and social advance. These events paved the way for advancements in building techniques, new materials, the ability to transport materials, and, consequently, unprecedented experimentation in architecture.
In the early days of the Victorian era, the United States was still an agrarian nation. By the end of the era, however, the Untied States had emerged as a powerful industrial player in the world economy. The industrial revolution ushered in may new economic, educational and social changes for the people of the United States. Along with these changes came a burgeoning interest in domestic and world travel and, consequently, the broadening of aesthetic tastes. Great strides in personal wealth also supported this shift in aesthetic taste, resulting in a desire for over-the-top decor. Advances in transportation made the dissemination of goods throughout the country much easier and catalogs, magazines and other literature gave the average homeowner unprecedented access to new ideas and new products.
In the American West, this shift in the availability of transportation along with goods and the expansion of tastes moved communities from strictly rural life to the beginnings of urbanization. The “Victorian” styles represented the bridge in the gap between wilderness and civilization.
In 1864 the “Governor’s Mansion” was built in Prescott – a log structure built by hand from locally felled trees. By 1876, sawmills were in operation and the local building style shifted from log to “Territorial Frame Cottages”, one story with side or end gabled wood shingled roofs, horizontal sawn siding, glass windows, turned posts and a minimal amount of exterior decoration. In 1877, Dr. Warren E. Day built his Octagon House of locally made brick with Gothic and Italianate details including the “highly irregular” Gothic facade. That same year, Theodore Otis constructed his “L” shaped wood frame Gothic Revival home on North Pleasant Street and the Bashford/Norris House was constructed at 128 South Mt. Vernon Street, a Territorial Frame Cottage which was later (1905) to be remodeled into a more elaborate style with Eastlake influences. A mere one year later, Judge Wells was building his elaborate Italianate influence “Victorian” house. This was the beginning of the shift to more elaborate, high-style architecture in Prescott. Other buildings constructed in the 1870s include the Noah Sheckels House on South Cortez Street and the M. Goldwater Mercantile (1879).
There were many buildings constructed in Prescott in the 1880s, although a great number of them no longer exist. Some of the better known 1880’s construction includes Curtis Hall and the Curtis Cottages on South McCormick Street, built by the Curtis brothers from lumber supplied by their sawmill, the Leonard Hale House on North McCormick Street, the Eli P. Clark House at 109 North Pleasant Street, the Jane Roberts House and the Obdulia Delaney House, also on North Pleasant Street, and the John T. Shull House and the W. J. Mulvenon House (demolished). These buildings, particularly the houses, were essentially constructed with a fairly simple plan, simple rooflines and a minimum of ornamentation, although some did exhibit decorative architectural details, such as sawn-work brackets, quoins, spindlework, and turned posts.
Frequently, nineteenth century buildings are lumped together under the catch-all phrase “Victorian”, especially if they exhibit towers, turrets, stained glass windows, detailed trim work, second story porches or elaborate roof lines. But general terms do not adequately tell the stories of the architectural design movements that were spawned during the Victorian era. And many of the elements which can be attributed to a particular stylistic classifications were mixed and matched with great artistic abandon within individual buildings – thus the use of the term “Victorian Melange” for several of Prescott’s Victorian era buildings. Transcending both cultural and economic class, these melting pot mixtures of architectural elements were a product of personal taste and a desire to make a personal statement regarding ones home, whether that statement be related to economics, social standing, profession, hometown influences or ethnic background.
But during the 1890s the architecture influenced by the Victorian age really stepped into the forefront in Prescott. Most of high-style homes built during this period, from 1890 to 1906, reflect a mix of Victorian era styles – Gothic, Greek Revival, Eastlake, Georgian Revival, Italianate, Shingle, Queen Anne, Classical and Colonial Revival and the mostly indescribable “Victorian Melange”. Queen Anne style predominates, and although the style has nothing to do with Queen Anne, who reigned over Great Britain from 1802 to 1714, it was the initial creation of Richard Norman Shaw, an English architect. Queen Anne has become one of the most recognized of the Victorian era architectural styles. Characterized by embellishment in nearly every conceivable way, common elements include steeply pitched, irregularly shaped roofs with several planes, asymmetrical facades made up of a balance of contrasting shapes including octagons, hexagons, stepped bays, curved elements, turned elements, spindle and sawn work, wood shingles used in decorative patterns, elaborate eave brackets, verandas and “L” shaped or rounded one or two story porches, leaded and stained glass windows, fan and eyebrow windows, dormers, a second story stringcourse or overhang and decorative balusters, sometimes utilizing several patterns in one buildings.
As each iteration of Victorian style ran its course in the east, it was transported to the American west by new arrivals, pattern books, architectural magazines, building plans, and the availability of the goods needed to build Victorian era architecture. In the west, these styles often took on a strictly local or regional look, based on the local availability of materials and craftsmen. This results in an overlap of stylistic elements and the blurring of typical timelines which are normally assigned to various architectural styles of the Victorian era, giving western communities like Prescott as distinctively unique architectural identity. In Prescott, there were several buildings constructed in the late 1890s and early 1900s which reflect this blending of styles, but at the same time clearly show a trend toward more simple styles, based primarily on the classical styles – Neo Classical, Renaissance, Colonial and 20th Century Transitional influences. The most intact example of this shift is the former Ft. Whipple, not the Veterans Administration Medical Center. As these styles became more popular, the residential buildings began to transition to the Bungalow styles, which became the primary trend in the teens twenties and thirties, along with a few revival styles, such as Tudor and Mission.