You can discover magnificent examples of Victorian architecture on a Northern California road trip. Each tells a unique story of California's boom and bust in the 1800s.
A Northern California road trip will take you through redwood forests, cattle ranches, dairies, Pacific headlands, tiny towns, and big cities. Northern California boomed in the 1800s, during the Victorian era, so you will find many homes and buildings built during that time. In fact, most Northern California communities include spectacular examples of Victorian architecture. Some are palaces; others are simple and functional. Yet, each tells its own story of California's history of boom and bust in the late 19th century. A road trip to four Northern California Victorian collections will immerse you not only in jaw-dropping architecture but Redwood forest, wild Pacific Coast, big rivers, Big Foot Country, and the San Francisco Bay.
Victorian Architecture in Northern California
In the 1800s, untouched Redwood forests covered hundreds of thousands of acres in Northern California. As the area boomed, it became the largest producer of timber in the US. With such abundant timber at the time, many of those who made their fortunes built elaborate Victorian homes from the local timber.
Victorian architecture is a collection of popular styles introduced during Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901. Americans fell in love with the designs imported from England. Although you find examples in every state, California's heyday for these often-elaborate styles was 1880 to 1910.
As you explore Northern California and various Pacific Northwest communities, you quickly discover that many communities maintain their Victorian buildings. You could spend days tracking down some of the most photographed buildings in California.
Popular Victorian Architecture Styles in Northern California
No one style defines Victorian. In many cases, the designs incorporated numerous styles and cultures. There are, however, some basic categories you can define as you explore Victorian architecture on your Northern California road trip.
Queen Anne Victorian Architecture
Queen Anne is the style most folks think of as Victorian. These elegant homes have gingerbread trim, turrets with onion dome or witch hat roofs, deep shady porches, and some have shingles in intricate patterns and vivid colors. Entrances might be grand double door affairs. They are often called Painted Ladies.
Gothic Revival Victorian Architecture
The Gothic Revival style improved upon and imitated the Gothic stone buildings of Europe from the 12th to the 16th centuries. Look for steep gabled roofs, ornate bargeboards, pointed or arched windows, towers, verandas, and pediments. The style was somewhat reminiscent of the ancient European churches, cathedrals, and palaces.
Carpenter Gothic Victorian Architecture
Also known as American Gothic, Carpenter Gothic features steeply pitched roofs and lacelike bargeboards. Carpenter Gothic, popular in the 1850s, included more modest homes and farmhouses.
Italianate Victorian Architecture
Based on romanticized farmhouses and villas in Northern Italy, Italianate architecture might be picturesque like Gothic or reserved like Classic. Italianate style features low roofs, overhanging eves, columned windows, bay windows, and arcaded porches.
Considered to be an American style, Stick/Eastlake is actually a combination of styles. Stick is the application of long, thin sticks of wood to the exterior of a wood building in horizontal and vertical patterns. Stick homes often feature complex roofs and intricate designs.
Eastlake, which began in Britain based on designs of architect Charles Eastlake, called for craftsmanship above all else, both inside and outside. Eastlake's ideas influenced interior spaces as well. Furniture went from dark, heavy, and gaudy to much more clean, simple, and functional.
First Stop in Our Northern California Road Trip: Eureka
Starting near the California/Oregon border, on Hwy 101, the Victorian Trail begins in Eureka. Eureka is a small seaport founded in 1850 on Humboldt Bay, the second-largest bay in California. The town has a working harbor with commercial fishing, sport fishing, and pleasure craft, making up much of the harbor's activity.
You can find examples of Victorian architecture all over town, with the highest concentration in the old downtown area. Eureka has what is considered to be the grandest Victorian in America, the Carson Mansion. The Queen Anne-style home was built by lumber and railroad baron William Carson in 1885.
Today the Carson Mansion is the home of the Ingomar Club, a private social club open to members only. You can't go inside, but you can take all the photos of the exterior you like.
There are two Victorian walking/driving tours in town: The Eureka Victorian Walk, which begins at the Carson Mansion, and the Downtown/Waterfront Walking Tour, highlighting Old Town Eureka and the waterfront.
Next Stop on the Victorian Architecture Trail: Ferndale
Ferndale is only 20 miles from Eureka. This small agricultural community is famous for its Victorians and friendly locals. Ferndale is called Cream City and its Victorian mansions are known as the Butterfat Palaces. In the 1800s, European pioneers came to the area, claimed land, and started dairies. Many of the farmers amassed great fortunes from the milk and butter. As was the era's fashion, they built their Butterfat Palaces so all could see their wealth.
One of the most distinctive Victorians is the Victorian Inn. Built in 1890 by banker Ira C. Russ, the Inn is made entirely of Redwood. Ground floor walls are 16″ thick while those on the second floor are 12″ thick.
The Victorian Inn is a perfect place to spend a night or two. The original character of the building has been lovingly maintained. The rooms are decorated in a nouveau-Victorian style, combining antiques, reproductions, and modern furnishings.
Ferndale has a Main Street Walking Tour and a Ferndale Driving Tour for studying and photographing one of the best-maintained collections of Victorians in California. You'll find maps for both on the last page of The Ferndale Enterprise, Souvenir Edition.
Even without a guide, you won't have any problem finding a wide selection of Victorian architecture in Ferndale. Victorian buildings line both sides of Main Street. You'll find Victorian homes, churches, banks, lodging, and retail establishments in and around Ferndale. Even some of the barns are from the Victorian era.
Continue the Northern California Road Trip to Explore Fort Bragg
Next on our Northern California road trip, we head to Fort Bragg. The town boomed in the late 1800s as logging and fishing developed along the Mendocino Coast. Those who made their fortunes built mansions to show their status.
Unfortunately, much of Fort Bragg burned after the 1906 earthquake. Although the fire destroyed many homes and businesses, leaving nothing but chimneys, the owners built replacements in the original style.
One of the survivors is The Guest House Museum. Built in 1892, it is the grand dame of Victorians in Fort Bragg. The Fort Bragg Redwood Company built the home as the private residence of the Johnsons, owners of the lumber company. Later it became a guest house for visiting executives. Today it's a museum and a not-to-miss attraction.
Fort Bragg doesn't have an official Victorian walking tour, but the lovely beauties are easy to find. Walk along both sides of Main Street between Redwood and Elm Streets.
From Redwood to Pine, on both sides of the street, are retail and eateries. The false fronts of the Victorian-style commercial buildings were typical in the era and remind some folks of wild west movies.
From Pine to Elm you can find several Victorian B&Bs. You'll see different styles mixed together, including some modern additions. Each has its own character and color scheme.
Discover More Victorian Architecture in Mendocino
Mendocino is less than 10 miles from Fort Bragg. It's filled with Victorian buildings, including the Blair House, used in the television series Murder She Wrote. In addition, you'll discover numerous Victorian B&Bs and residences scattered about the enchanting seaside town.
One of Mendocino's enduring Victorian legacies is its water towers. You will see them everywhere. In the late 19th-century, residents stored water in the tower tanks. They used windmills to pump water to the tanks. While some are still used today, others are now converted into lodging.
Kelly House Museum offers guided and self-guided walking tours.
The Grand Finale on the Norther California Road Trip: San Francisco
Most folks think of San Francisco's painted ladies when thinking of Victorians. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, peppered about the city.
I like the Cow Hollow and Marina Districts the best for viewing Victorian architecture. These adjoining neighborhoods have numerous homes and commercial buildings built in the Victorian era that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire.
The most spectacular of these is the Vedanta Society Old Temple. Built between 1904 and 1908, this Moorish-looking structure was the first Hindu temple in the western world. Many that see it think it is a Russian embassy or a Russian Orthodox church.
There are numerous walking tours of San Francisco neighborhoods. For Cow Hollow and Marina Districts, I recommend San Francisco City Guides. Look for a walk covering Marina District, Cow Hollow, or Pacific Heights. Their walks change each month, but there is always a neighborhood in their lineup.
Thank a Redwood
I suggest spending a night or more at each of the stops along the way. Check out more than the lovely buildings. Go find some Redwoods to thank; after all, most of the buildings you will see are made of Redwood.
In Eureka, go to the Sequoia Park Zoo and walk among Redwoods 100-feet off the ground on the Redwood Sky Walk.
In Ferndale, take the scenic Avenue of the Giants, and drive among the planet's tallest trees. Be sure to bring a picnic.
In Fort Bragg, take the Skunk Train Rail Bikes for a leisurely open-air ride through a Redwood grove.
While in San Francisco, head to the Presidio. It's right next door to Cow Hollow District. Then, walk the easy 2.1-mile Presidio Promenade Trail. It passes through Wayburn Redwood Grove.
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When You Head Out on Your Northern California Road Trip
There are Victorians in many more towns along this road trip, but these will get you started tracking down the Painted Ladies of bygone days. Pack your bags and hit the road. Happy Victorian hunting. Be sure to check out Wander for more great architecture finds as you travel. We also have suggestions on more to see and do as you travel in California.