Picturesque Italianate Architecture in the U.S.

Most Popular Style in the U.S. from 1840 to 1885

Two 1/2 story Italianate mansion with arched central tower protruding from a slightly sloped roof
Italianate Ryerss Victorian Mansion, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Of all the homes built during the Victorian era, the romantic Italianate style became the most popular for a short period of time. With their nearly-flat roofs, wide eaves, and massive brackets, these homes suggested the romantic villas of Renaissance Italy. The Italianate style is also known as Tuscan, Lombard, or bracketed.

Italianate and the Picturesque Movement

The historical roots of Italianate styles are in Italian Renaissance architecture.

The first Italian villas were designed by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in the 16th century. Palladio reinvented Classical architecture, melding the designs of a Roman temple into residential architecture. By the 19th century, English-speaking architects were reinventing Roman designs yet again, capturing the flavor of what they imagined to be the "Italian villa look."

The Italianate style began in England with the picturesque movement. For centuries English homes tended to be formal and classical in style. Neoclassical architecture was orderly and proportioned.  With the picturesque movement, however, the landscape gained importance. Architecture not only became integral to its surroundings, but also became a vehicle for experiencing the natural world and surrounding gardens. The pattern books of British-born landscape architect Calvert Vaux (1824-1895) and the American Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) brought this concept to an American audience.

Especially popular was A. J. Downing's 1842 book Rural Cottages and Cottage-Villas and their Gardens and Grounds Adapted to North America.

American architects and builders such as Henry Austin (1804-1891) and Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) began to design fanciful recreations of Italian Renaissance villas.

Architects copied and reinterpreted the style for buildings in the United States, making Italianate architecture in the U.S. uniquely American in style.

Queen Victoria ruled England for a long, long time—from 1837 until her death in 1901—so Victorian architecture is more a time frame than a specific style. During the Victorian era, emerging styles captured a large audience by the widely-published house pattern books packed with building plans and home building advice. Prominent designers and illustrators published many plans for Italianate and Gothic Revival style homes. By the late 1860s, the fashion had swept through North America.

Why Builders Loved the Italianate Style

Italianate architecture knew no class boundaries. The high square towers made the style a natural choice for upscale homes of the newly rich. However the brackets and other architecture details, made affordable by new methods for machine production, were easily applied to simple cottages.

Historians say that Italianate became the favored style for two reasons: (1) Italianate homes could be constructed with many different building materials, and the style could be adapted to modest budgets; and (2) new technologies of the Victorian era made it possible to quickly and affordably produce cast-iron and press-metal decorations.

Many 19th century commercial buildings, including urban rooming houses, were constructed with this practical yet elegant design.

Italianate remained the preferred house style in the U.S. until the 1870s, when the Civil War curbed the progress of construction. Italianate was also a common style for modest structures like barns and for larger public buildings such as town halls, libraries, and train stations. You will find Italianate buildings in nearly every part of the United States except for the deep South. There are fewer Italianate buildings in the southern states because the style reached its peak during the Civil War, a time when the south was economically devastated.

Italianate was an early form of Victorian architecture. After the 1870s, architectural fashion turned toward late Victorian styles such as Queen Anne.

Italianate Features

Italianate homes can be wood-sided or brick, with commercial and public properties often being masonry. The most common Italianate styles will often have many of these characteristics: a low-pitched or flat roof; a balanced, symmetrical rectangular shape; a tall appearance, with 2, 3, or 4 stories; wide, overhanging eaves with large brackets and cornices; a square cupola; a porch topped with balustraded balconies; tall, narrow, paired windows, often arched with hood moldings projecting above the windows; a side bay window, often two stories tall; heavily molded double doors; Roman or segmented arches above windows and doors; and rusticated quoins on masonry buildings.

Italianate house styles in America can seem like a mix of characteristics from different eras, and sometimes they are. The Italian-inspired Renaissance Revival homes are more palatial but still often confused with the Victorian Italianate style. The French-inspired Second Empire, like houses in the Italianate style, often feature a high, square tower. Beaux Arts buildings are grand and elaborate, often embracing Italianate ideas along with Classical. Even Neo-Mediterranean builders of the 20th century re-visited Italianate themes. Victorian architecture encompasses a variety of popular styles, but ask yourself how picturesque each is.

Sources

  • Italianate Architecture and History, Old-House Journal, August 10, 2011
  • Italianate Villa/Italianate Style 1840 - 1885, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
  • A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester, Knopf, 1984, 2013
  • American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker, Overlook, 1998
  • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, AIA, Norton, 2002
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