The Italianate House, Most Popular Style in the US, 1840-1885

The Romance of Italy Comes to America

Italianate Lewis House in Upstate New York
Italianate Lewis House in Upstate New York. Photo ©Jackie Craven

Of all the homes built during the Victorian era, the romantic Italianate style became the most popular. 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.

History of Italianate Architecture:

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. By the 19th century, English-speaking architects were reinventing these designs by capturing the flavor of what they imagined to be the "Italian villa look."

The Italianate style began in England with the picturesque movement. For 200 years, 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. Builders began to design fanciful recreations of Italian Renaissance villas. American architects copied and reinterpreted the style for buildings in the United States. Italianate architecture in the US is a uniquely American 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 via widely-published house pattern books packed with building plans and home building advice.

Prominent designers and illustrators such as A.J. Downing, Calvert Vaux, and Alexander Jackson Davis 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:

  • Italianate homes could be constructed with many different building materials, and the style could be adapted to modest budgets.
  • New technologies of the Victorian era made it possible to quickly and affordably produce cast-iron and press-metal decorations.

Italianate remained the preferred house style in the US 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:

  • Low-pitched or flat roof
  • Balanced, symmetrical rectangular shape
  • Tall appearance, with 2, 3, or 4 stories
  • Wide, overhanging eaves with large brackets and cornices
  • Square cupola
  • Porch topped with balustraded balconies
  • Tall, narrow, paired windows, often arched with hood moldings projecting above the windows
  • Side bay window
  • Heavily molded double doors
  • Roman or segmented arches above windows and doors
  • Rusticated quoins on masonry buildings

Similar House Styles:

Learn More:

Sources: Old-House Journal; A Field Guide to American Houses by the McAlesters (Read a Review); American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home by Lester Walker; American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, Norton, 2002

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