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Architectural wonders pepper America’s evolution

Extravagant designs seems to pop up every decade

The Carson Mansion in Eureka, Calif. – perhaps America's most recognized Victorian house – is so preposterously ornate that it approaches caricature. Lumber magnate William Carson was anxious to showcase the marvelous versatility of his California redwood, so he made sure his architects, the brothers Samuel and Joseph Newsom, pulled out all the stops in his mansion's design. And did they ever: Since its completion in 1886, Carson's soaring gingerbread confection has remained the last word in Victorian bombast. The Carson Mansion is a good example of what might be called an architectural extravaganza – a design that represents the zenith of its era. Such works usually arose in the most prosperous times, which accounts for their frequent appearance during the 1880s, the Roaring Twenties and the supremely confident decades following World War II. Whether we call such buildings outrageous, way out or over the top, we know an extravaganza when we see it. "Over the to...