Victorian is a term you hear real estate agents throw around a lot. The term refers to Queen Victoria, who reigned the UK from 1837 to 1901 during the height of the industrial revolution. Victoria’s was a long reign, and the reason you hear her name so much in reference to buildings is that many architectural styles began during her reign, starting with Jacobethan and ending with the British Arts and Crafts movement that would later become the Craftsman style.
These styles don’t have much to do with each other, save for the fact that they came about during the reign of the same British monarch. This is the reason that such different-looking buildings as the Smithsonian Institution Building, Philadelphia City Hall, and a typical San Francisco row house can all be called Victorian. Technically they all are. That means that when it comes to choosing railings for Victorian houses, the individual style of the home needs to be taken into account.
What Styles Are Considered Victorian?
In the United States, there are three styles that are thought of as Victorian. They were all widely built in the late nineteenth century, and are geographically restricted, with some styles being nearly the sole example in their region.
Romanesque/Gothic Revival is a revival of the architectural styles that dominated the early Middle Ages, with some elements from the Gothic cathedrals of the high Middle Ages. It is an early Victorian style, and examples tend to be large-scale public buildings like the Smithsonian Castle or the Canadian Parliament building. Private homes in this style are rare, but there is a similar style called Carpenter Gothic that’s seen in private homes.
Second Empire gets its name from the Second French Empire under the hapless Napoleon III, who rebuilt Paris from a medieval city to the one we know today. Its defining trait is the mansard roof, which is a double-pitched roof with the lower pitch nearly vertical, creating an attic that is fully walkable. This style is common in the Northeast and the Midwest of the U.S., and rare along the Pacific Coast.
Queen Anne is the style that most Americans think of when they think of a Victorian house, and it’s the style of the San Francisco row houses. These are homes with asymmetrical frontages, sides decorated with elaborately patterned shingles, and lots of ornamental details often highlighted with contrasting colors.
The common feature of all of these homes was that they were built to impress. This means a lot of ornate architectural details above the doors, windows, and in the porch and balcony railings without regard to practical concerns like maintenance. In Queen Anne-style homes, especially, this leads to a lot of rotted wood shingles and railings that need replacement.
Types of Railings Used on Victorian Houses
Most Queen Anne-style Victorian homes were built with wooden railings, and these aren’t your usual straightforward wooden railings. Railings on Victorian homes often take the form of:
- Lathed balusters, which are sometimes thicker than normal, at three inches or more in diameter, and closely spaced.
- Fretwork, in which individual railing balusters are replaced by intricately-carved boards.
- Wooden belly balusters, which curve outward in a way similar to metal belly balusters. The difference is that the wood version is very thick and chunky, with each baluster three to four inches across.
The issue with wooden balusters is that they don’t last forever. After a few decades they tend to rot, split, splinter, and flake paint, often requiring replacement. Purchasing enough lathed balusters to fill an entire railing, though, can be prohibitively expensive. Replacing fretwork is a custom job, and the skills to do it come at a premium. New wooden belly balusters require large pieces of wood that aren’t widely available anymore. All of these things mean that directly replacing a Victorian railing is expensive, at the very least, and in some cases might not even be possible. However, it is possible to replace Victorian wood railings with another Victorian-period railing style.
Wrought iron is another material commonly found on Queen Anne-style homes. It runs a distant third to chunky wood and fretwork railings since wood and skilled carpenters to work it were much easier to come by than steel foundries, especially in the Western U.S. Nevertheless, wrought iron was used in many Queen Anne-style and Second Empire homes in the Eastern U.S., and modern wrought iron railing alternatives can be an excellent replacement for worn-out Victorian wooden railings in any part of the country.
Wrought Iron-Look Railings for Victorian Houses Are a Cost-Effective Alternative
A homeowner who needs replacements for old and rotted Victorian wooden railings may want to consider modern wrought iron-look railings. These have several advantages over the traditional wood.
- Metal doesn’t rot or decay like wood does. Mold and insects don’t find metal to be an appetizing supper, increasing railing longevity and cutting down on the maintenance of metal railings.
- Steel and aluminum are sturdier than wood. Wood, especially rotten wood, can be broken by a careless kick. Even aluminum, which is the less hardy of these two metals, requires a deliberate effort to damage.
- Metal railings are easier to install. Woodworking is as much an art as a skill due to the fact that each tree and piece of lumber is different. Metal, on the other hand, is a more consistent material, and, as a direct result, metal railings install more quickly and require less skill to get professional results.
There are two basic types of railings that look like wrought iron. The first is a pre-welded panel that is simply cut to length and installed. These come in basic styles that may seem a little too plain at first glance to really fit with a Victorian home, but many manufacturers offer ornamental options. Accent panels can be added to the top along with post caps for a bit of Victorian flair. Additions like baluster knuckles and ornamental panels can add engaging details. Another option is to choose to replace the wooden balusters in a wood railing system with individual steel balusters. These have a wide variety of ornamentation available, such as twists and baskets. Metal belly balusters are also available, and may in many cases be the only cost-effective replacement for hefty wooden belly-style balusters. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while metal may not rot, it does corrode. Whatever railing type you choose, only buy metal railings that come with high-quality, integrated corrosion resistance.
Good examples are the aluminum and steel panel railing systems from Fortress Railing. These railings have the look of Victorian wrought iron but use galvanization, a zinc precoat, a modern e-coating, and a final powder coating for excellent corrosion and fading resistance. Fortress also sells individual steel balusters with the same quality coatings. This unique coating system creates a multi-layered defense against the elements. Fortress Buildings Product carries this attention to detail through all their products, including their lines of fencing and decking, for products that will look great with your home, whether it’s a cheery Queen Anne or a Gothic mansion.