Photography by CAROLYN TURGEON
I grew up in a humble West Virginia ranch house with low ceilings, wood paneling, and hideous orange-and-avocado-toned vinyl flooring. I vowed that would not be my fate as an adult! I longed instead for an opulent Victorian home with soaring spaces, hardwood floors, leaded glass windows, and widow’s walks. In college, I had apartments in two different Victorian houses in the one-stoplight town of Athens, West Virginia. One of the houses was a three-story brick affair with dark green trim and no small amount of gingerbread. On one side was a round turret with original curved glass offering a wavy, imperfect view of the garden and my world in general. Since I can remember I wanted to own such a house. I didn’t care if I’d possibly freeze in winter or have a heatstroke in summer. Old homes are often not very energy efficient by today’s standards.
Gothic and medieval style has always appealed to me. I’m intrigued by the intersection with Victorian design. Like trends in fashion, architectural styles are often borrowed and given new life. One of my biggest inspirations is the Gothic Revival work of A.W.N. Pugin, whose offerings were ecclesiastical but also adapted to grand homes and public buildings in the U.K., like the interior of the Palace of Westminster. He created everything from these soaring structures to decorative metal work, tile, and stained-glass designs in the Gothic style. I love the repeating elements of spires, quatrefoils, and Gothic arches that appear somewhat delicate but have strength and endurance.
Decades following my college days, I bought my current home outside Raleigh, North Carolina. It was described on the blueprints as a Queen Anne Cottage, unfortunately built in 1988, not 1888 as I would have preferred, but within a price range I could manage. Finally my dreams were realized—or as close as I could feasibly get. In this part of the southeast, true Victorian homes are hard to come by (Raleigh has a very small historic area downtown) and rarely come up for sale. Even more rare is the dreamy Carpenter Gothic style I adore, with its use of wood instead of stone to create a grand space. I’m likely romanticizing the past to some degree, but I love the ability to pick and choose styles from different decades—centuries even—and incorporate them into my home in some small way.
So even though your home may lack the grand architecture you desire on the outside, you can transform the inside with a bit of work, good quality paint, and some inspired furnishing choices!
My first year in this house was spent removing pastel floral wallpaper in shades of nauseating blue and pink (I imagine Morticia Addams saying “Pastels?” and raising her eyebrows even now) and then painting and furnishing with as close to a Victorian Gothic style as I could conjure. This progress continues—one is always fine-tuning! My own style is what I would refer to it as “flea market”: I buy almost everything secondhand from thrift stores, antique malls, and outdoor markets and did so even before eco-friendly was a thing. Buying secondhand is good for our planet and good for those of us with no generational wealth and living on shoestring budgets!
Ebay came along during my first years in this home (cue the angelic music), and I’d spend hours besotted with gothic lightfixtures and antique reliquaries. I scored a pair of large gothic chairs from a church, one of which is in my bedroom from time to time—the other is a cat perch in the office. Somewhere I’ve a folder of “Ebays that got away,” as I often got outbid at the last second. But things often have a way of reappearing. One has to be patient, creative, and clever, and I do most all home projects myself, from replacing light fixtures (don’t do this if you have no working knowledge of electricity!) to painting fifteen-foot walls with five coats of burgundy paint (no fear of heights comes in handy).
My enduring love affair with dark jewel tones is wonderful, but a home needs to be functional as well as beautiful. I find that warm parchment colors (dare I say beige?) are great in rooms where good lighting is essential. These softer tones work as a neutral backdrop for carved wood furniture, iron candelabras, wall-mounted candle holders, framed artwork, and gothic mirrors. My biggest splurge in the house is the Gothic arch bed by Corsican in my bedroom (shown at right) bought at the furniture market in High Point, North Carolina, twenty years ago. I chose a gold finish because I wanted it to glow against the burgundy walls inspired by online photos of rooms at the Witchery in Edinburgh, not to mention Cher’s Sanctuary catalog from 1995, which I still have. This bed remains one of my favorite purchases ever.
Much like Cher’s Sanctuary catalog, my house is just that—my little sanctuary that serves as both working and living space. It’s never perfect, always changing, but it is the house I dreamed of as a girl. And I did get my turret!