INTRODUCTION TO THE ITALIANATE HOUSE
Some find the Italianate house to be picturesque, which when in the countryside, it can be, though, for the most part, the Italianate house is found in the city and there it is formal, often stately, respectable, upright and proper. The designers of the Italianate thought it picturesque: John Nash in England, Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing in America, imagined little Italianesque castles capping an expansive, bucolic countryside, and drew their houses so. And yet, for the most part, the Italianate is found in cities, the cities of the Jacksonian democrats (note the middle name of Davis and Downing) before The War to End Slavery, and after the war in cities of the victorious Republicans, North and South. Few Americans had actually seen an Italian countryside, or even an Italian villa, except in some rare engraving, though Americans did know of the Italians Michelangelo and Piarinasi, and thought ourselves inheritors of a great tradition, which yet we are.
As you might guess, the Italianate was first named the “Italian Villa” style, and the “Tuscan Villa” style, both accurate names, of a sort, though names better reserved for the later “Italian Renaissance”, a style rather more archeological, rather more accurate, rather more grand with less playfulness and no Gothic Romanticism. In fact, should mention that there is something in the Italianate which remembers Byron and Scott, even Mary Shelley, something dark and brooding and hidden in the heavy, rich beauty. Then too, there is something in the Italianate which differentiates it from its French cousin, the “Second Empire” style, and that, the Italianate’s Englishness, its restraint, almost a humility next the showy, braggadociosness of Second Empire, though the two styles often merge, when the Italianate is over-dressed to impress.
And then, the Italianate, when not direct from Davis or Downing or Upjohn, grows from the Greek Revival and the Gothic; in the Greek Revival, a dressing up; in the Gothic, a weighting down; and you will notice this dressing up and weighting down when the Gothic or Greek are redressed by new owners or by owners eager to be in fashion, as now eager museum boards will re-dress their beautiful Classive buildings with Progressive barnacles, disastrously, embarrassingly … not so when the Classive Greek and Gothic are re-dressed in the Italianate; each is an accent of Classive architectural language, compatible in structures of thought and design.
The Italianate style is bracketed between 1840 and 1890 and shows America’s increasing muscle, Americans’ increasing wealth, America’s transformation into a manufacturing power by the experience and practice of war (1861-1865). Here, the beginnings of mass production, of Home Depot-like and Lowes-like brackets, iron railings, machine-stamped tin ceilings, etched glass windows, and the dozen other parts of what would become the manufactured house of Sears and other companies.
You will find that the Italianate style expands with the nation, from the Eastern Seaboard through Ohio, from New Orleans to California (CA statehood, 1850) where the first “American” houses were Italianate, as in San Francisco, as in the home of John Muir, naturalist philosopher who upon reaching the Pacific from the mid-West turned back east and concluded, we must preserve what we’ve expanded into, God’s work, you know (J. Muir could recite from memory all of the New Testament and much of the Old Testament [KJV]). Memorization of excellent literature is perhaps the best practice for becoming an excellent thinker and writer; memorization of Classive architecture is certainly the best practice for becoming an excellent architect, as best examples of the Italianate show.
Why is it, you might wonder, that the Italianate is for the most part unknown, the least represented in architectural surveys, the least celebrated and least imitated. Many causes, I suppose, not the least, the Italianate being a contractor style, as on Capitol Hill, D.C., a style accessible through pattern-books and manufacturers, a style with few “signature” architects, with few “big ideas” that can be pinned on a style, as big ideas are pinned onto Classical, Nouveau, Deco, Modern, International, et cetera. And yet, the style is well loved because beautiful, because of its easy elegance, the shapes that sometimes seem to smile, because porch and garden encourage the pleasure of outdoors, and the towers are romantic, and the “L” shapes create surprise and delight. And then there is the Italianate’s solidity, its blocky permanence, especially in the foursquares (box-like houses) that plant themselves with authority on a city block or farmed field.
And then, the Italianate finds itself in the time of The War to End Slavery, that civil war between the states when we tore ourselves apart to prove a principle, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed”, and there the rub: half the nation did not give consent, the other thought all equal by gift of the Creator, a sticky issue that has not a constituency, an issue avoided by academics and news-readers and architects, all of whom must flatter to find work.
Italianate House Precedents
The Roman ruins that inspired our American Romantics (Hawthorne, Cooper, Longfellow, et alia, Morse, Vanderlyn, and Church [mentioned below]); the picturesque farms and vineyards that cap the Tuscan landscape, and the house-attached towers, vestiges of defense; the Italian country-house of the rolling English countryside, and the great, expansive Italian-style villas of John Nash; the books and house-plate illustrations of Downing, Davis, and Nash that touched the senses of we sentimental Americans, that bit which is wholesome and pretty, in love with the idea of God’s land stretching sea to shining sea, much in the way of John Muir whose spirit is with us yet, despite its current bureaucratic impositions and atheist insistences.
Cronkhill, Shropshire, 1802, John Nash, the first Italianate villa.
Osborne House, Victoria and Albert’s Royal Residence, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, designed by Prince Albert (with assistance of Thomas Cubitt), 1845-1851.
The Architecture of Country Houses, Andrew Jackson Downing, 1850
* Should mention: By language we English speakers hold ideas in common, our precedents, traditions, and potentialities in the arts and sciences, in architecture … what is common to one is common to all in the way of a people who share a language, in the way that peoples who do not share a language do not share course and direction. You will find accents of the Italianate in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Australia, New Zealand, Canada.
Italianate House Characteristics
Symmetrical, though not always bi-laterally symmetrical. Cubic, even when “L” shaped.
Low pitched roofs project in wide eves bracketed in support with corbels. A roof might be hipped, or gabled, or towered, or flat, yet always there are brackets supporting deep eaves, and sometimes there is a cupola or proper lantern. Chimneys are tall and massive, symmetrically placed.
Most often grouped in twos, most often arched, segmented or perfect. The panes might be divided in half or in four, the cross being the most common shape. Sometimes, windows are three grouped, especially in tower and cupola. Windows and doors sport a cornice that is sometimes simple as soldiered bricks, sometimes extravagant, stylistic in abstract floral.
Structure and Materials
Stone, brick, stucco, or wood, yet always solid and heavy. Iron rails might be light on balconies, heavy when a rail approach.
Space and Floor Plan
Logical and rectangular alike the plan of rooms in the Greek Revival. If “L” shaped, a porch might extend the long length, often along two floors. You will notice a verticality, not only in the common tower and cupola, but also in a kind of aspiration to something higher.
If the house is foursquare, the door is smartly centered; if “L” shaped, the door centers the tower; or if in a house of towered bays, the door will stand next the bays, allowing the bays to do the work of light and pleasure. Always, the door is heavy paneled, reflective of the fenestration; the door might be a straight lintel or an arch, in both a transom, sometimes of etched glass, allows light into the foyer or stair-hall.
A wealth of manufactured ornamentation is every apparent, sometimes to excess; best examples restrain with measure and decorate with unassuming taste.
If masonry, the material is unpainted, though brick and wood examples (especially when several houses are in a row linked) are painted in tans and browns and grays with contrasting trim, as A.J. Downing recommended. Most often, the Painted Lady Italianate is the work of a sentimental, enthusiastic impulse.
Porches invited congress with neighbors, and long porches create opportunities for informal family gathering, and porches, whether long or wrap-around, or extending, marry nature to the civil in all that marriage implies in health and in partnership.
The practical Octagon House: A Home for All, 1853, by Orson Squire Fowler, created a fad which here-and-there persists to this day (because useful and commonsensical), especially in naturally picturesque locations, mountainsides, et alibi. And too, must mention Olana, the home of the painter Frederick Church, a house as-unique-as Monticello, and as beautiful, yet so very individual that it has neither precedent nor progeny, and yet there is in it something of the Italianesque spirit, via Al-Andalus.
** And this interesting note: Chuck Berry wrote “Roll Over Beethoven” and many another song in his unassuming, Italianate, St. Louis home.
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Italianate house-plans will be found in this month’s The Beautiful Home.
Featured image: Governor William H. Ross House, Sussex County, DE. credit: Liz Jandoli, LOC
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