Preserving A Classic Italianate Style Home
DC Metro Area
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An Architect’s Perspective
“I own an 1870s Victorian row house. The front façade is flat, about 18’ wide, and clad in wood clapboard. Windows are taller on the first floor than the second. The front door has a semi-circular transom and there’s an ornamental cornice with brackets at the roofline. What are some things I should know before repairing the front façade?”
You’ve described a “flat-front Italianate”—a Victorian-era home usually classified as a “Romantic House.” Interestingly, Italianate architecture began in England as a reaction to 19th century architectural formalism. Inspired by Italy’s rambling farmhouses, the look showcases informal detailing. Of the many Victorian-era subtypes represented in our historic neighborhoods, Italianate is one of the most passionate — a feast for the eyes characterized by its distinctively romantic detailing.
Some Italianate Characteristics:
A period Italianate home is usually two-stories, though there are many surviving variations from three-story detached homes with towers and cupolas to town houses such as yours. The town houses feature wide projecting cornices with heavy brackets and richly ornamented windows, porches, and doorways. Most American Italianate examples mix elements from rural models with the more formal renaissance detailing.
Brick and wood clapboard are the most common siding materials used in Italianate design, though brick is decidedly more expensive. Ornamentation is usually wood; still, one can find cast iron window and door hoods on a brick Italianate home.
Italianate roofs are low pitched, sometimes with a square cupola on top. Projecting eaves with large brackets in a variety of shapes and spacings dominate the cornice. Arranged singly or in pairs, the brackets are usually underscored with wide decorative bands and further elaborated with panel moldings. The decorative cornice on your home was probably designed to conceal a low-pitched roof.
The glazing in Italianate window sashes is mostly one-over-one or two-over-two. (Large window panes were becoming a status symbol in the period when your home was built.) Also, Italianate window trim can vary widely. U-shaped crowns with brackets, for example, or pedimented crowns with decorated hoods. Arched and curved windows (now considered quite elegant) were popularized in America by the Italianate architecture trend.
Italianate doors occur in variety as often as Italianate windows. Paired and single doors are common, often announcing themselves with elaborate hoods supported by brackets. Italianate doors were the first to present large glass panes in the door itself as opposed the prevailing mode: side lights.
When an Italianate house includes a porch it is subdued in size and detailing compared to other Victorians– and usually one story only. The most common Italianate porch column is a 6-inch square post, with beveled or chamfered corners.
It’s About Caring
Think of your repair as a restoration. Consistency with materials and details are critical to success. Repair whenever possible, replicate when necessary; consult with your local preservation representative. Remember, retaining beauty is about care. Read more remodeling tips for Italianate homes »
In one Washington, DC home, Wentworth combined modernity with beautiful Italianate architecture. The remodeled home fits the family’s lifestyle but preserves the style.
Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is the principal of Wentworth, Inc a metro area residential architecture, construction and interior design practice. Questions on residential remodeling styles can be sent to www.wentworthstudio.com.