Mid-nineteenth Century America was a time of great energy and change. Cities grew, immigration soared, railroads expanded, and new building technologies emerged. To meet the housing needs and tastes of our growing and increasingly diverse populace, architects designed houses in a multitude of styles. Though widely varied, the Romantic Revival styles of this period all reflect Romantic and Picturesque sensibilities in their yearning for the security of the past to ameliorate the complexities of modern life and in their idealization of nature as an antidote to the city.
Roman and Greek architectural forms were no longer touted as the only appropriate models for houses. Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) writes that domestic architecture should be “less severe, less rigidly scientific, [than public architecture] and…exhibit…the freedom and play…of every-day life.” To spread their philosophy, and to make house plans widely available, architects published pattern books for the homeowner, unlike earlier builder’s books which were written to instruct builders. Pattern books, such as Downing’s Architecture of Country Houses (1850) and Samuel Sloan’s Homestead Architecture (1861) presented designs for houses while they celebrated the ideals of family, home, and rural life.
The Italianate style was but one of many presented. Built as early as the mid-1830s, the Italianate style supplanted the popularity of the Gothic Revival in the 1860s and reached its zenith in the 1870s. Borrowing from “the charming character of the irregular villas of Italy,” according to English Architect Charles Barry, and Italian Renaissance examples, architects filtered these sources through the Romanticism of the 19th century into something wholly new. Three distinct Italian-inspired sub-styles emerged: the Tuscan Villa style, with its asymmetry, arcaded porches, and towers; the more rare Renaissance Revival style inspired by Renaissance urban palaces; and lastly, the Italianate style, shown here.
By far, the Italianate (or American Bracketed) style was the most popular. It is characterized by its cubic form, vertical proportions, low pitched roofs, and oft present cupola. Though the massing is simple, elevations are ornate. One-over-one or two-over-two sash windows, with arched, segmental or flat heads, are elaborated by decorative surrounds, hoods, or pediments. Windows are commonly paired or tripled together. Deeply projecting eaves supported by ornate brackets, turned or chamfered posts at porches, quoins dressing corners, horizontal bands separating floors, and stone or materials imitating stone complete this style. An excellent example is Sloan’s George Allan House in Cape May, New Jersey (1863), whereas the Tuscan Villa style is typified by Richard Upjohn’s Edward King House (1845) in Newport, Rhode Island.
Gazing back on this period of rapid change, increasing immigration, rampant eclecticism, and the beginnings of the plan book and housing industries, one must wonder if we today are not more influenced by this time than we might otherwise think. The above books and more on America’s traditional domestic architecture and classical architecture may be found at my online bookshop.
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