Popping Up Grandma’s Folk Victorian

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Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is a practicing architect whose
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“I own a one-story home (formerly a farmhouse), which I occupy with my daughter (age 11) and son (age 13). A friend tells me it's a "folk" Victorian, probably built around 1905. It has an L-shaped floor plan consisting of a gabled front with side-facing wing unified by large front porch. It also has a replacement tin roof. While it's a simple house, the porch has the original spindle work detailing and there are period brackets under the eaves and pediments over the windows. Now that my children are getting older and searching for privacy, I'd like to add a second story. What are some guidelines that will help me gain the desired new space while preserving the home's classic look?”

- FT and Family, Chantilly, VA


You do indeed own a fast-disappearing classic, and your concern for preservation is well-placed. Homes in this style were common from 1870 to about 1910, so yours was likely built at the end of the 40-year late-Victorian period in which this idiom flourished. The “folk” modifier, incidentally, simply clarifies that these homes were usually built by local carpenters who embellished their work with brackets, spindles, and other decorative millwork ordered from catalogs and transported to the site (along with the lumber) by rail. As a rule, the selection of decorative elements depended upon what was available- which explains why the ornamental detailing styles on folk Victorians can vary from Italianate to Queen Anne to Gothic Revival. A good first assignment for you: identify the style of all existing design elements. This is critical in a cohesive remodel.

An L-shaped floor plan with front-facing gable roof and a front porch is found in both one- and two- story variants– so it will not be difficult to develop elevations that provide a new second floor, yet protect the integrity of the original house. Your decision to “pop-up” implies that your lot has space limitations. In this case, I recommend a second level that exactly adheres to the footprint of the existing house and doubles the available square footage. The new structure is, therefore, a two-story version of your current house. No problem.

But here are considerations to help assure the second level is also as seamlessly integrated possible:

  • This style’s exterior cladding was typically a cost-effective wood clapboard covering the entire house and painted. Today, however, you can use highly durable cementitous products that resemble wood clapboard, yet sharply improve longevity and ease of maintenance. On the other hand, if your house is clad in vinyl or aluminum and you cannot afford to replace all the siding: a design compromise might be considered. A horizontal band board at the line of the second floor, for instance, creates a transitional device that allows you to combine old first level siding and new second level siding while presenting a balanced and historically accurate facade.
  • The window style and placement should replicate the home’s original double-hung wood windows. Do not use vinyl or metal windows and select a mullion pattern that replicates the originals. (Usually 2 lites over 2 lites). With regard to decorative pediments over your windows, it’s important not to overdevelop an inherently understated style. As such, consider that simple square trim on the second level windows avoid competing with the original window pediments. In your case, less may be more.
  • The new roof pitch should copy the original and utilize the standing seam tin that was first installed on your home.
  • The decorative brackets and spindle work should be replicated as complements on the new addition. These decorative elements are what people see first; the siding is merely background. If you are unable to find ready-made components that match the existing – it is worth spending the money to have them custom made. They are the sizzle in a historically accurate remodel.

On the practical matter of floor structures: the former attic floor will have to be heavily reinforced, or replaced with new floor joists sufficient to support the new floor loads (added weight) of your addition.

Lastly, your front porch is the facade’s most important architectural component. Careful restoration of the railings, columns, spindle work and brackets is critical to the curb appeal of your home’s presentation. When building a second floor addition, protect your investment with an historically correct porch restoration.

Thoughtful planning and design will enhance your family’s lifestyle and protect the quality and relevance of this historical property. As ongoing development trends continue, there will be fewer of these Folk Victorian residential treasures. Thank you for respecting architectural history.

Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is the principal of Wentworth, Inc, a residential architecture, interiors and construction practice. For question about architectural style considerations in the greater Washington area, consult our free resources at www.wentworthstudio.com or call 240-395-0705.