April 16, 2019

What Is Italianate Architecture?

  • By: Meghan White

Walk through the neighborhoods of Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, Brooklyn Heights in New York City, or the 600 block of East Capitol Street NE in Washington, D.C., and you’ll notice a distinctive type of architecture: the Italianate style. This mid-19th century style became popular as the United States looked towards a romantic past to recreate in the present. Italianate buildings cropped up in the early 1840s and reached a high point after the 1850s before dying out in the 1880s. Some say it was more popular than the Greek Revival style. Many main streets and neighborhoods of this period have at least a few Italianate examples. But how do you identify them? There are a couple of ways to figure out whether a building is Italianate or not. Read on for tips on how to spot this grand style (and for some fun facts).

Villa Finale

photo by: Carol Highsmith

Villa Finale, a National Trust Historic Site in San Antonio, was constructed in 1876 in high-style Italianate.

1. The style was derived from medieval Italian villas and farmhouses.

The Picturesque movement, which showed a preference for asymmetry, variety, and natural landscaping, was in full swing by the mid-19th century, and helped to grow the popularity of the Italianate style. Irregular floorplans were preferred over earlier plans that championed more rigid and proportional classical ideals. Due to this flexibility, the style could be applied in equal measure to grand country estates to middle-class rowhouses.

2. The growing popularity of pattern books in the 1840s created a consistent architectural template that spread across the country, primarily to the East Coast and Western states.

Italianate architecture was made popular through pattern books written by well-known designers like Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux. They were intended to bring the client into the building process and present an easy-to-follow blueprint for craftsmen. Downing, a landscape designer from New York, was one of the most prolific of these writers. His books, such as The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), were widely consumed by the public.

3. Many (but not all) will have a belvedere.

Many people confuse cupolas and belvederes, which makes sense, given that they serve similar purposes (to ventilate and allow natural light into a building). When picturing a cupola, many recall small, round cupolas like that at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In the Italianate style, these cupolas are typically square, not round. And if they are big enough that a person can comfortably stand in it and look out of its windows, as many of them were, it becomes a belvedere. This is typically what you’ll find in Italianate structures.

This Italianate house is a textbook example of the style, with a small porch, narrow windows, overhanging eaves, and a belvedere.

photo by: Teemu008/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The William M. Marsh House in Sycamore, Illinois, built in 1873, is a textbook example of Italianate architecture, with details such as the porch, narrow windows, wide eaves, and a belvedere.

4. Overhanging eaves with substantial brackets are a key feature.

Italianate eaves extend farther away from the building than in other styles of the period. These are one of the most recognizable elements of the Italianate style. They are typically supported with substantial, decorative brackets. This harkens back to the medieval Italian villas.

5. Tall, narrow windows are an easy way to spot the Italianate style.

Many will have a crown that is typically in the shape of an inverted “U,” but they can also be pedimented. Other window crowns frame the entire window. They vary in levels of ornamentation. Many Italianate windows will be rounded, rather than flat, at the top. Rectangular ones will usually be topped with ornamented pediments.

The Adolphus W Brower House in Sycamore is a great example of an Italianate residential structure.

photo by: Teemu008/Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Though the porch has been altered, the Adolphus W. Brower House in Sycamore, Illinois, built in 1876, is a great high-style example of Italianate architecture.

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6. Most residential structures will have one-story porticoes or porches.

Porches are rarely taller than one story and will nearly always be located on the ground floor of the house, though there are exceptions. Often the columns on these will be beveled (or chamfered), where the corners are shaved so that they are no longer 90 degrees. This creates a smoother surface and a more decorative appearance.

7. Many Italianate structures will have cast iron decoration.

Cast iron became a popular material in mid-19th century architecture thanks to new methods that made it easier to produce. Many decorative elements of Italianate architecture, such as window and door crowns and roof cresting, were made of cast iron. On commercial structures, the first-floor facade is usually made of cast iron, because it allows for large expanses of glass that are perfect for window displays.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

mwhite@savingplaces.org

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