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Italianate Architecture in America

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn what characteristics define Italian architecture. Explore the history of Italianate architecture in America, including in which regions it flourished. Find out how architectural pattern books and new manufacturing practices contributed to its popularity.

What is Italianate Architecture?

Have you ever visited a small town in the Midwest and walked its main street? What kind of architecture did you see? If you've been to small towns or cities in many parts of America, you've probably seen rectangular brick or wood frame buildings with decorative scrolls along their top, supporting a wide, flaring, flat roof. You might have been looking at a style of architecture called Italianate.

Origins

Italianate architecture became extremely popular in America in between 1850 and 1870, but the style started in Europe, especially England, where it was based on ideas connected to rambling brick Italian country homes and villas found in Northern Italy. Italianate architecture was a reaction to the Neoclassical style, a very formal architectural style that preceded it. Italianate was a lot less stiff and certainly less formal, based on a rustic country architecture rather than the temples and structures of Ancient Greece.

Italianate architecture eventually found its way to America. There it continued to change, evolve, and spread across the county, becoming distinctly American in the process. In fact, once in a while, you might see Italianate architecture referred to as 'American bracketed architecture.'

Commercial building in the Midwest done in Italianate style
Italianate architecture example

Characteristics

Even today, you can recognize Italianate architecture with several identifying characteristics. In general, Italianate buildings were often rectangular structures of more than one story. They might be asymmetrical, with a door off to one side and many windows. Below their roof line were large decorative brackets with scrollwork, supporting wide flat cornices with outstretched eaves. Similar brackets might also support large door and window hoods.

Italianate Architecture in America

Italianate architecture became popular around 1850, and from that point on, it spread to almost all parts of the country, remaining the most common American architectural style until right after the Civil War, roughly around 1870. It lasted longer in some places in the West. You'll find it in big cities and small towns, used on all kinds of commercial and residential structures.

Italianate style house in Upstate New York
Italianate style on a house

American Expansion

But why did it become so popular? Italianate architecture's rise in popularity coincided with a time of great expansion in America, and as new communities were established, Italianate architecture followed. Italianate architecture had simple decorative flourishes, and it was easily adaptable for use on many kinds of structures, especially after American builders translated the style into wood frame buildings from previously being only used on brick constructions.

The style became especially popular in the Midwest and on the West Coast in places like San Francisco. The only region of the country that didn't build much in this style was parts of the American South. Even there, cities like New Orleans did use elements of Italianate architecture on many buildings, especially cottages and small urban houses.

Italianate row homes in San Francisco
Italianate row homes

Architectural Pattern Books

Books helped to spread the style, specifically architectural pattern books. Architectural pattern books were lavishly illustrated guides to architecture styles and specific building elements. Such publications were widely available in America by the mid-19th century, and they meant architects and builders from all parts of the country could replicate popular styles.

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