A Romantic Past Re-created in the Present
More than just a “simple box with a lot of ornamentation,” Italianate architecture is a less formal, more romantic, and flexible style that could be applied to mansions and grand country estates as well as middle-class homes and row houses. Taking a cue from the Renaissance villas and rambling farmhouses of northern Italy, the style is fanciful, and a stark contrast to the clean and symmetrical lines of Neoclassic architecture.
From 1840 to 1885, Italianate style was the most popular design in the American architectural scene. When it surged in the U.S. in the 1840s – mostly through the work of landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing – it was transformed by architects into something truly American. Because it was more informal, architects had artistic freedom to apply its concepts not only to sprawling manor homes but also to urban townhouses, modest homes, and public structures.
And with an emerging large and prosperous middle class eager to embrace the style’s celebration of the wealth and romance of the Italian villa, Italianate architecture sprouted from coast to coast – and reached its peak after the Civil War.
Let’s explore the Italianate architecture style, its origins and defining features, key architects of the style, and some of the existing historic examples.
Reminiscent of the Italian country houses of Tuscany, this highlights some of the key features of Italianate architecture: square cupola atop the colonnaded entryway, decorative brackets, double door with large glass panes and rounded windows. The 4,934 sq.-ft. home includes a courtyard entry, 4 bedrooms, 5 baths, 3-car garage, and other amenities (Plan #175-1150).
Italianate Architecture and its Origins
The Italianate style began in England in the early 19th century as a reaction against the rigid formalism and order of the classical ideals in art and architecture. It is often classified as part of the Picturesque – or Romantic – movement that emphasized asymmetry, variety, irregular floor plans, whimsical features, and natural landscaping.
Inspired by breezy Italian villas, Italianate buildings have a boxy or square feeling to them and “freer more asymmetrical massing and ‘romantic’ features such as towers, cupolas and bay windows.” The style is also distinguished by its nearly flat roofs, the use of ornamental brackets set under wide cornices, and door and window hoods.
As the Italianate continued to evolve in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, it became particularly popular in the expanding towns and cities of the Midwest, the older cities of the Northeastern seaboard, and the growing cities of the West, particularly San Francisco.
Key Elements of the Italianate Style
1. Let’s start with a rectangular structure that can consist of two or three stories. The simple shape lends itself to a variety of ornamental features in Mediterranean styles that can enhance the overall look of the building or residence.
Situated in a picturesque landscape, this attractive 2-story, 3,585-sq.-ft. Mediterranean home with Tuscan influences features the typical rectangular shape of the Italianate style. The 5-bedroom home has a low-pitched roof, a balanced number of windows on both floors, and a colonnaded portico (Plan #136-1039).
2. Italianate homes have low-pitched or flat roofs – similar to Tuscan style homes – that may sometimes include a squared-off cupola-like dome. The overhanging eaves – with single or double brackets or corbels in a variety of shapes – highlight the cornice.
This rendering of a stately 3-story, 4-bedroom, 5.5-bath Mediterranean style home includes a square dome or cupola atop the roof. Reminiscent of an Italian villa, the home comes with Palladian windows, matching columns on the front porch, and an arched entranceway (Plan #175-1192).
Italianate accents – specifically the amazing single and double corbels that enhance the eaves – add to the charm and curb appeal of this classic 2-story Victorian style home. The 3,100-sq.-ft.-plan has 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, a lavish master suite, and a family room (Plan #198-1021).
3. Windows in the Italianate style are tall and narrow and come in sets of threes or in pairs. A number of them are rounded on top – like an inverted “U” – while others are topped with ornamented pediments. Usually, the first floor windows are taller than the ones on the second level. Shutters are seldom found in Italianate windows.
Take a look at the tall, slim windows on the first level of this elegant 3,616-sq.-ft. home with 4 bedrooms and 4.5 baths. The three windows on the left have a rounded top and the pair near the door is simply framed in wood. Note that they are taller than the second floor windows, which include one in the Palladian style (Plan #175-1257).
4. A classic porch is also part of the Italianate character. Compared with other Victorian styles, the porches are restrained in sizes and decorative touches. Most Italianate residences have one-story porches or a small portico anchored by columns.
Well-designed and inviting main- and upper-level porches – with the beautiful front columns - are part of the charm of this gorgeous 3-story Tuscan Italianate style home with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths (Plan #195-1192).
5. Italianate homes were the first to have doors with large glass panes instead of the traditional sidelights with the small panes. Both single and double doors were common in the homes and were mostly outfitted with a large hood supported by brackets.
This magnificent 5,300-sq.-ft. luxury home with 4 bedrooms, 5 baths and 3 powder rooms has a number of the key elements of the Italianate style. The double door with the large glass panes is framed in wood and topped by an amazing Palladian window. Then there are the balanced number of tall, narrow windows on both floors and the 2-story-high entry porch roof (Plan #195-1218).
6. Brick and wood were the main materials in the construction of Italianate buildings and residences, while cast iron was used for decorative purposes. Cast iron became popular because of new technology in the 19th century that made mass production easier and faster. You can find cast iron decor in window and door crowns of homes and in front facades of commercial structures.
Pioneers of the Italianate Style
Andrew Jackson Downing
Credited with establishing the popularity of Italianate architecture in the U.S. – and its most influential advocate – Andrew Jackson Downing was a landscape designer and writer from Newburgh, New York. He published two pattern books about Italianate and related styles that promoted well-designed, tasteful houses set in generously spaced rural landscapes.
Downing’s books – Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), which contained architectural plans, drawings, landscaping, and examples that builders could use to replicate the styles – were widely distributed and consulted. Because he was a landscape artist, he relied on architects like Alexander Jackson Davis and Calvert Vaux to illustrate his books.
A page from Andrew Jackson Downing’s Cottage Residences provides an illustration of an Italian villa as well as a floor plan for the home that builders and craftsmen could replicate (photo credit: Andrew Jackson Downing - Cottage Residences (1842), Design VI, Public Domain).
Alexander Jackson Davis
A New Yorker like Downing, Alexander Jackson Davis started as a lithographer and architectural illustrator before he focused his efforts as an architect and designer of buildings. Before publishing Rural Residences, his first pattern book for picturesque residences in the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles, he illustrated Downing’s pattern books.
As an architect, Davis recorded his most productive period from 1840 through 1860, when he designed a number of country houses in the Gothic Revival Cottage style. While these residences were mostly in the Hudson River Valley, Davis had clients in other states, including Indiana and North Carolina.
In 1846, he designed Blandwood for North Carolina Governor John Motley Morehead. The mansion is the country’s earliest Italianate Tuscan villa.
Davis designed approximately 18 or more Italianate houses in the 1850s. Among them was Winyah Park, the 300-acre country estate of Colonel Richard Lathers in New Rochelle, New York. For his design, Davis was awarded the first architectural prize at the New York Worlds Fair of 1853–54. He would design four more houses for Colonel Lathers estate.
Blandwood Mansion (Greensboro, North Carolina) was designed for Governor John Motley Morehead. Originally built in 1795 as a 4-room Federal style farmhouse, it was renovated and designed in the Italianate style by Davis. Believed to be the oldest existing example of the Italian Villa Style in the U.S., Blandwood was designated a National Historic Landmark 1988 (photo credit: Blandwood Mansion by Exwhysee under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
Winyah Park, the Italianate style villa designed by Davis for Col. Richard Lathers in New Rochelle, was destroyed by a fire in 1897 (photo credit: Tuscan Villa, NR, NY, by NR Chamber of Commerce - New Rochelle - The City Beautiful, Public Domain).
British-born Upjohn who emigrated to the U.S. became known for designing Gothic Revival churches and for helping to popularize the Italianate style. He was a founder and the first president of the American Institute of Architects.
Upjohn’s first Italian villa design was the Edward King House in Newport, Rhode Island, for the largest landowner in town. Built between 1845 and 1847, the brick mansion with its three-story tower was the earliest representation of the Italianate style, and was Newport’s most majestic home at the time.
Upjohn would later design another house in the Italianate style – Kenworthy Hall. The plantation house in Alabama is the Southern counterpart of the Edward King House.
The Edward King House – a brick mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, with its 3-story tower, signature windows, and decorative brackets – was described by Andrew Jackson Downing as "one of the most successful specimens of the Italian style in the United States" (photo credit: Edward King House, Newport, RI, by Daniel Case under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
One of the most important early American architects, the Scottish-born John Notman is credited with introducing the Italianate style in the U.S. He is also known for the use of brownstone. Notman, who was born in Edinburgh, emigrated to the U.S. in 1831 and subsequently settled in Philadelphia. Like Richard Upjohn, Notman also designed churches and was a founding member of the American Institute of Architects.
Among the country homes and villas designed by Notman were
• Riverside, a residence built for Bishop G.W. Doane in Burlington, New Jersey
• Alverthorpe in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, for prominent Philadelphia merchant Joshua Fisher
• Fieldwood, designed for Richard Stockton Field, a descendant of a major colonial family in Princeton, New Jersey
• Ogontz for Civil War financier Jay Cooke in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
• Athenaeum of Philadelphia, built in 1845 and the first Italianate building in his adopted city.
After designing Philadelphia’s historic Laurel Hill Cemetery and Gatehouse, which was developed and completed between 1836 and 1839, Notman was hired to design a larger, grander gatehouse (shown here) for Mount Vernon Cemetery, which was built directly across from Laurel Hill and was completed in 1858 (photo credit: Entrance to Mount Vernon cemetery, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, Public Domain).
A prominent and prolific architect born in Hamden, Connecticut, Henry Austin designed many homes and public buildings in the New Haven area. Austin, who practiced for 50 years, also worked with Alexander Jackson Davis.
Austin worked in a variety of styles popular in the 19th century. Between 1840 and 1850, he designed buildings and residences in the Gothic, Italianate, Egyptian, and Moorish Revival styles – at times combining elements from the different concepts.
Among the churches that he designed were: the First Methodist Church, Congregational Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, and the Second Congregational Church.
His Italianate designs include the James E. English House, Willis Bristol House, the James Dwight Dana House, and the Moses Yale Beach House for the American inventor and publisher who started the Associated Press.
While some of his buildings have been demolished, a great number have been preserved and are still around in New Haven and other parts of Connecticut.
Designed for Willis Bristol, a prominent shoe and boot manufacturer in New Haven, the house is a basic Italianate shape with elaborate detailing. Yale University has the original plans and illustrations of the house (photo credit: WillisBristolHouseNewHaven by Jdf8 under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
Designed in 1845 and completed in 1848, the historic James Dwight Dana House was home to Yale University geology professor James Dwight Dana. The 19th century Italianate house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Dana published works emphasizing the broader aspects of geology (photo credit: Robert Fulton III, Public Domain).
In 1858–60, Austin designed the Morse-Libby House in Portland, Maine, for Sylvester Ruggles Morse. The house is considered one of Austin’s best works and one of his purest expressions of classic Italianate architecture. It is now a museum and is called Victoria Mansion (photo credit: Victoria Mansion, Portland, Maine, by Staib, under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
Key Regions with Italianate Style
The Italianate style swept the country in the mid-19th century. In Cincinnati, Ohio, the first boom town of that era, there is the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that is believed to be the largest collection of Italianate buildings in the U.S. The homes were built by German-American immigrants who settled in the area. The city is very mindful of preserving this impressive collection – and is beginning renovation efforts.
In addition to Cincinnati, Covington, Kentucky; the Garden District of New Orleans; and parts of California feature Italianate architecture. In San Francisco, the Painted Ladies, row houses in the Queen Anne style, are celebrated examples of the time period that saw the rise of Italianate style, and they display aspects of the romantic, whimsical architecture.
The Italianate graystone on Clay and 13th Streets in Cincinnati, Ohio is one of the buildings in the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood (photo credit: OTR-Italianate-brownstone, by Wholtone, Public Domain).
This 2-story, 3,987-sq.-ft. Luxury Mediterranean house with 3 bedrooms and 3.5 baths illustrates how the Italianate style can be adapted to the 21st century (Plan #195-1250).
If you’re fascinated by the decorative brackets and details on the front porch, the lovely bay windows, and the tall rounded ones, and other fanciful accents, remember that the Italianate style offers tremendous design flexibility and adaptability.
Footnote: The top photo in lead image of this article is a very striking 2-story, 5-bedroom Mediterranean style home with the classic elements of Italianate architecture. For more details on the beautiful home with 6,121 sq. ft. of living space, go to Plan #195-1173.
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