Popularized by American architect Alexander Jackson Davis (A.J. Davis) in the 1840s as an alternative to Gothic or Greek Revival styles, Italianate architecture was prominent in American residential structures between 1850 and 1870. By the 1880s, the style’s predominance in many of America’s main-street commercial buildings was established as one of America’s most distinctive symbolic landscapes of midwestern town centers.
Elements of Style
Most Italianate structures are two or three stories with low-pitched roofs (frequently hipped), or flat even roofs, with widely overhanging eaves supported by corbels. Tall narrow windows, arched or curved above, are most often found on commercial buildings. Other common features of the Italianate style include balconies with wrought-iron railings, pedimented windows and doors, and imposing cornice structures. Towers were often incorporated, hinting at the Italian belvedere or even campanile tower.
Background and Popularity
Italianate style came into the U.S. from England as part of the Picturesque (Romantic) Movement which surfaced in the eastern U.S. as a reaction to formal classical ideas and orderly Renaissance planning. A. J. Davis’ design for Blandwood, the former residence of North Carolina Governor John Motley Morehead, is the oldest surviving example of Italianate architecture in the United States. Originally constructed in 1795 as a four-room frame farmhouse, the home received an extensive addition in 1844, designed by Davis in the “Tuscan Villa” style, a subtype of Italianate architecture.
While remaining popular in the still-growing older cities of the Northeast, the style spread as cities and towns were settled across the Midwest, making Italianate a common sight in such places. Cincinnati, Ohio features the largest single collection of Italianate buildings in the United States. The style is very common in San Francisco and is least common in the south, except for New Orleans.
By the late 1860s, Italianate became more popular than Greek Revival. Its popularity was due to its being suitable for many different building materials and budgets, as well as the development of cast-iron and press-metal technology, making the production of decorative elements like the brackets and cornices more efficient. By the late 1870s, Italianate was was superseded in popularity by the Queen Anne style and Colonial Revival style.
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