A Sea Captain’s Preference

Circa 1875 Italianate at 3551 S. Main Street, Lemon Township, Ohio
Circa 1875 Italianate at 3551 S. Main Street, Lemon Township, Ohio

The Italianate architectural style–meant to evoke the glorious villas of Renaissance Italy–first hit the United States in the 1840s and remained very popular until 1890. General lore colors the style as favored by sea captains with its “widow’s walk”–or rooftop platform–and associated romantic myth of mariners’ wives vainly waiting for their spouses to return (nothing really supports this). On a more practical level, architects liked the Italianate style because it allowed higher degree of artistic freedom than other, more rigid architecture and it was easily adapted to fit a range of budgets. The style became fashionable due to two books with a wide readership at the time: Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), both by Andrew Jackson Downing.

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)
Architect Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852)
Richly detialed
Richly detailed eves of the A.E. Harding home, 3551 S. Main, Lemon Township, Ohio

The most typical Italianate design was a simple two-story building. However, there were many variations from 3-story, detached homes with towers and cupolas, to urban townhouses. The photo above is the 3-story, A.E. Harding home that we currently have listed for sale in Lemon Township, Ohio. Built circa 1875, its trademark cupola was removed when the roof was replaced in recent years and is still in storage…

Italianate townhouses are identifiable by their wide projecting cornices with heavy brackets and ornamented windows, porches and doorways. As is typical, most Italianate examples mix details from both vernacular and formal forms.

Italianate cupola
Italianate cupola

The most common building materials for Italianate buildings were brick and wooden clapboard.  Decorative elements were typically wood and, sometimes, “fancy” (i.e., expensive) brick buildings used elaborate cast iron window and door hoods.

An Italianate in its urban townhome form ( 901 Russell Street, Covington Kentucky and currently for sale [MLS# 441332 ])
A 3-story Italianate in its urban townhome form ( 901 Russell Street, Covington Kentucky and currently for sale [MLS# 441332 ])
Italianate roofs were a characteristic low pitch. Stand-alone houses often had a square cupola on top. Roofs also featured projecting eaves with large brackets in a variety of shapes and spacing. Brackets were usually underscored with wide decorative bands.

Italianate windows were typically one-over-one, or two-over-two double hung affairs while trimwork variations included U-shaped crowns with brackets, or pedimented crowns with decorated hoods. Arched and curved windows were also popular with this style.

2-story Italianate at 1605 Russell Street, Covington, Kentucky currently for sale (MLS# 437066)
2-story Italianate at 1605 Russell Street, Covington, Kentucky currently for sale (MLS# 437066)

Door form varied as much as windows. Both paired and single doors were common, often featuring a large, elaborate hood supported by brackets. Italianate doors were the first to have large panes of glass in the door itself instead of side lights with small panes.

Compared to other Victorian styles, Italianate porches were a little minimalistic in terms of their size and decoration, and often contained only one story. The most common type of porch column was a simple, square post with beveled corners.

Throughout the Greater Cincinnati area, there are numerous, fine examples of the Italianate Style–probably because its popularity also overlapped with Cincinnati’s historic development and heyday. Just across the Ohio River, both Covington and Newport, Kentucky have sizeable collections, while–of course–Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine Historic District (NRHP # 83001985) contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the country. So, with springtime finally here, you can easily choose any one of our oldest, walkable neighborhoods and see how many Italianates you can spot!