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Royalty Remembered in Architecture

While reigning as monarch of the United Kingdom and empress of India, Queen Victoria probably had little idea her name would become synonymous with the history, architecture and fashion of the 19th century around the world. But the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 to 1901, turned out to be one of the most notable periods in recent history, and today, travelers can enjoy its vestiges in destinations across North America.

Victoria never ruled over the United States, but the tastes and style that developed here during her reign became permanent parts of the artistic and architectural landscape in America and Canada. Today’s travelers will find the beauty and imagination of the Victorian era in all sorts of places, from the grand “summer cottages” of Newport, Rhode Island, to the unique design of the Charpentier Historic District of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Here are a variety of places around North America where your groups can get in touch with the best of the Victorian era.


Newport Mansions

Newport, Rhode Island

Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Newport, Rhode Island, proved a popular retreat for the elites of the Gilded Age, who flocked to the island to escape the heat of summertime in more populous East Coast cities. Though they were called summer cottages, the palatial homes built in Newport by the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and other titans of industry typified the grandeur and aesthetic of the Victorian era in America.

Today, the Newport Preservation Society preserves a number of those homes and opens them to visitors.

“We have 11 house museums,” said Andrea Carneiro, the preservation society’s communications manager. “Many of the houses are technically Victorian because they were built in that era. But when people think of the grand, imposing Victorian mansions, they think of Chateau-sur-Mer. It has been cited as one of the great Victorian houses in America.”

Constructed in 1852, Chateau-sur-Mer was the first of the grand homes in Newport to be built with stone and was the most palatial mansion in town for almost 40 years. In the 1880s, it was extensively renovated by Richard Morris Hunt, who would go on to build the Breakers and the Biltmore Estate. The home’s Italianate architecture, furniture, wallpapers, ceramics and stenciling are typical of high-end design of the Victorian era.

“It’s virtually intact, and that’s one of the things that make it so special,” Carneiro said. “People see original surfaces, wallpapers, colors and furnishings. There’s hand-carved Italian woodwork and elaborate stenciled wallpapers. Even the landscape there is beautiful; it’s almost a Victorian park.”

Groups can take guided tours of Chateau-sur-Mer to learn about the home and the family that built it. Many groups visiting Newport also take advantage of the opportunity to see other famous homes, such as the Breakers and the Marble House, or to learn about the life of the servant class at the Elms.


Charpentier Historic District

Lake Charles, Louisiana

One of the country’s most interesting Victorian neighborhoods is the Charpentier Historic District in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Though other cities may boast larger and more elaborate Victorian homes, the buildings of the Charpentier district reflect a local take on Victorian style.

“In the late 1880s, there were a lot of people coming into the area, but there were no rules and regulations about how homes were supposed to look,” said Elizabeth Eustis, public relations manager for the Lake Charles/Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau. “A lot of the people who came here were carpenters in their own right, so they built whatever looked good to them, and that made their homes unique.”

Named with the French term for “carpenter,” the Charpentier Historic District now encompasses 40 blocks of downtown Lake Charles. Many of the homes in the district are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and feature hand-carved woodwork created by the carpenters who first lived there.

Groups can arrange to take tours through the neighborhood that highlight some of the most beautiful and historic buildings. Special theme tours cover tales of ghosts and hauntings throughout the district, as well as the fire of 1910 that extensively damaged the area.

Though none of the Charpentier homes are regularly open to the public, the CVB can help group travel planners arrange special access to some of the houses.

“We have a few families that work with us at the bureau when we have groups come in,” Eustis said. “So they’re sometimes open to letting people come in and see them. A lot of families living there will keep them historically accurate with artwork and furniture.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.