Ah, the Italians!

By Elizabeth Brown

The sunny climes and tropical breezes (translation: hot with a humid wind from the Gulf of Mexico) were thought to make the South the ideal locale for the Italian influence — or such was the idea of Samuel Sloan, a well-known Philadelphia architect. His pattern book, The Model Architect, proposed Italian Villas for the South, noting the villas’ wide, overhanging eaves, large windows, abundance of porches and arched arcades as appropriate for our climate. He even designed special wall constructions with an interior airspace to keep us cool. Towers and low roofs, often hipped,  also characterized the style.

When I think of Italian architecture, I think of Palladio or the Renaissance, with more formal, symmetrical villas and almost rigid urban residences, but the style Sloan and others brought to the United States is different. It begins to depart from the strict form of a central hall with rooms on each side that characterizes much early architecture in the south. The style found a ready local audience. The Model Architect features a design for “a southern home,” a house he designed for the Winter family in Montgomery, with two interlocking rectangular volumes off-set and a characteristic tower between them. Sadly, like most of the Italianate houses we once had in Montgomery, this house is long departed.

The low hipped roof, eave brackets and ventilators, and graceful front portico of the First White House of the Confederacy are all hallmarks of the Italianate style.

This is not to say that all Italianate houses were asymmetrical. For example, take a look at the First White House of the Confederacy on the corner of Union and Washington. A rectangular form with a low hipped roof, heavy eave brackets, between which are very interesting round cast iron ventilators in a “liberty cap” design. There is a light (almost fanciful) one-story portico with small round paired columns, and a balustrade with turned spindles. One of the most interesting, and often overlooked features of the facade is the area under this portico where, instead of weatherboard, we find narrow boards shaped and coursed to look like long, regular stonework. There must have been dozens of similar examples of this kind of house in Montgomery in the areas around Bibb and Lee streets, where this house originally stood. An early postcard view (and confirmed by paint analysis) shows the house in shades of brown and tan. These earth tones were popular for Italianate houses, thought to convey the idea of stone. “White House,” in this case, perhaps says more about the status of the house than the color!

Pleasing proportions and an imaginative color scheme highlight the decorative details of this Whitman Street cottage. Sash colors were almost always dark in both Italianate and Greek Revival color schemes.

Also take a trip to Cottage Hill, to the southeast corner of Whitman and Martha , to view a one-story cottage with much charm. Here everything is lighter, as befits a smaller house, but the composition is just as charming, with a low hipped roof, eave brackets, and a portico almost large enough to be called a porch.

The very lavish Italianate facade of 1 Dexter Avenue is among the finest in the state. The storefront level has been remodeled several times, but the design remains compatible with the upper floors.

Not confined to residential structures alone, Italianate ideas also provided style for commercial buildings. The Winter Building on the southeast of the Court Square fountain, with wide eaves and heavy brackets and stucco scored to look like stone, show the influence of the Italianate style. It once had a two-story balcony around the Dexter and Court sides. Turn around now and look across Dexter at the upper stories of the Klein Building, with arched windows, scored stucco, and an abundance of detail to please the eye.

The second-story French doors make more sense when you know there was originally a two-story balcony on the building. The balcony softened, and provided a more decorative detail, to what appears now to be a very severe façade.

Although I have been known to say that architecture is not a cafeteria, where you push your tray along and select the features you want from among the styles, the truth is that many builders have always done just that — and occasionally with success. For those who were still married to Greek Revival, Italianate details had appeal and we begin to see what is often referred to as Bracketed Greek Revival, where eave brackets and lighter and more fanciful railings and bannisters were applied to otherwise standard Greek Revival houses.

Another related style is the ornamental cottage, or Cottage Orne (pronounced or-nay), which was promoted by several pattern books (including Sloan’s) as an excellent home for a rural location. This did not keep us from using the design in town too! Take the Rice-Semple-Haardt house on the corner of Court and High Streets. Purely a Greek Revival cottage on the first floor with large, square columns on a wrap-around porch, it got an update and enlargement which gave it an entirely different character a few years after it was built. With a new upper story showing lighter columns and an arcade of decoration sweeping across between the columns, a new mood is created altogether. This is a remodeling so drastic that it shouldn’t have worked. Yet, these dissimilar elements form a harmonious composition in spite of themselves. From paint analysis, we know the first color scheme applied after the enlargement was a carnation pink, not unlike the Whitman Street house in Cottage Hill, but a later cream scheme was retained in this rehabilitation. I think I’m relieved!

A happy marriage between the Greek Revival and Italianate are evident in the Rice-Semple-Haardt House, which was moved from the 700 block of Monroe Street to the current location on the corner of Court and High. Note the large, square paneled columns and even a little dentil moulding on the first floor, and then an explosion of lighter decorative elements above.

Sloan’s pattern books were perhaps the most complete of the pre-Civil War years. He talked about regional differences and designed buildings tailored to locales. More than other early pattern books, his volumes provided information about landscape and gardens, suggesting designs more appropriate to mountainous, flat, or rolling sites. Still very readable, Dover produced a version (which contains 2 volumes together) in 1980 called Sloan’s Victorian Buildings. New copies are available for about $25.00, with used ones available for less than five dollars on the used book sites. Of course, for the well-heeled among us, there are other editions in which the drawings are not reduced ($70.00 and up), and some original copies of the volumes one and two ($1,700.00 each). This may expand your notion of perfect summer reading.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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1 Comment

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown, Historic preservation

One response to “Ah, the Italians!

  1. Pingback: The Victorians « Midtown Montgomery Living

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