Turning Stones - George McKale


Italianate architecture 101

The Italian villa was the rage in merry old England in the 1820’s.  The country home of Queen Victoria was built using the architectural stylings of the relatively new architectural rage.  A decade later, English pattern books provided Italianate designs and many of the new immigrants , architects by trade, made their way out of Britain and over to America. Names like Richard Upjohn, Calvert Vaux, Gervose Wheeler and John Notman, made their names as architectural masters incorporating the Italianate stylings for their American clients.

These creators were quite bored with the classical Greek Revival stylings that had occupied the minds of many developers.  Though the Victorian era was quite prevalent between 1830-1910, the Italianate style dominated American architecture between 1850 and 1885.

There are certain characteristics that most Italianate homes will have: asymmetrical arrangements of square shapes; shallow pitched roofs; overhanging eaves with decorative brackets, tall, arched windows with elaborate window moldings, square towers; loggias, verandas, porticoes and porches. Andrew Jackson Downing published numerous “picturesque” house designs which became extremely popular in northern California throughout this time period.

A great source book for everything architecture is McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses.  McAlester has identified six Italianate sub-types, all of which can be found in Sonoma County.  These sub-types include: the Simple Hipped Roof cube; the upright and wing or stepped Asymmetrical; the front facing centered gable; the Towered house; the Front-Gable rectangle; and the urban Town House.

Now for something you didn’t know.  Lebanon was greatly influenced by Tuscan architecture dating back to the Renaissance.  Fakhreddine, the first Lebanese ruler, had ambitious plans to develop his country on the Mediterranean coast. The Ottomans exiled Fakhreddine to Tuscany in 1613, and when he returned to Lebanon, he instigated large development projects to modernize, with European influences, this great city.

Fakhreddine hired Italian engineers and architects who began to construct mansions and civil buildings throughout the country.  Buildings in Beirut were particularly constructed using the Italianate style, a pattern of construction that continues today.

In the US it was Alexander Jackson Davis that popularized the Italianate style in the 1840s.  His work was initially centered around our east coast, and his 1844 design for Blandwood, the residence of North Carolina Governor John Motely Morehead, is considered the oldest surviving example of Italianate architecture in the country.

One need not travel to Lebanon to witness the beauty of Italianate architecture, though that might be interesting.  Instead, head over to 531 Second St. East right here in Sonoma.  This home was built around 1880-81 and has a five-sided two story bay window with segmental arched windows, pipestem colonettes, bracketed cornice, and elaborate roof cresting. Please don’t knock on the door.  I relate “housing” to “birding”. Appreciating the huge diversity of architectural styles we have here in Sonoma, makes “housing” all that more rewarding with a good book in hand.  Now go out and find me a classic Queen Anne and let me know how it goes.

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