Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania.  In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century.  This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950

PA Architecture Italianate Villa/Italianate Style 1840 – 1885

Identifiable Features

1.  Cornice with decorative brackets
2.  Widely overhanging eaves
3.  Two or three stories in height
4.  Tall, narrow windows
5.  Curved (segmental) arches over windows or doors
6.  Elaborate window crowns, often arched or with brackets and pediments
7.  Single story porches, either full width or entry porticos
8.  Low pitched roof
9.  Cupola or square tower with bracketed cornice
10.  Quoins


The Italian Villa/Italianate style was also part of the romantic and picturesque movement, a quest to provide architectural forms that evoked a romanticized region or earlier period of history. Previous architectural styles had also looked to the past for design inspiration, but those styles were all based on the more formal classical buildings of ancient Rome and Greece . The Romantic movement was to some degree a rebellion against architecture’s strict adherence to the classical form. The movement expressed a desire for greater freedom of architectural expression and for more organic, complicated forms that were intended to complement their natural setting.

The Italianate style was modeled after the medieval farmhouses of the Italian countryside. These farmhouses were irregularly shaped and seemed to fit naturally into their rustic settings, an important objective of the Romantic Movement. The Italianate and Gothic Revival styles were made popular by the published pattern books of architect Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1840s and 1850s. This style first developed as the Italianate Villa style, which was seen as early as the 1830s and was intended as a suitable design for substantial homes or country estates. The most outstanding feature of the Italianate Villa style is the square tower, topped with a bracketed cornice. The Italianate Villa style is also marked by irregular massing (not a simple square or rectangular shape), and an L or T shaped floor plan. As the style evolved from the Italianate Villa to the Italianate form, the square tower and irregular massing were not always present, but other elements of the style continued, notably the decorative bracketed cornice. Freestanding Italianate buildings display the cornice under widely overhanging eaves, while contiguous Italianate rowhouses or commercial buildings have a bracketed cornice on the front façade. Other markers of the Italianate style are tall, narrow windows, some with elaborate hoods, often shaped like an inverted U. Italianate windows often have round arch tops and can also be crowned by a pediment or entablature with brackets. Most Italianate buildings have columned porticoes or porches, sometimes extending across the full width of the front façade.

The Italianate style was very prevalent within its period of popularity, more so than the Gothic Revival Style. It was especially dominant in the period from 1855 through 1880. Since it was easily adapted to numerous building forms, it became a popular style for urban and rural residences and commercial and institutional buildings. The Italianate style is especially identified as the common architectural theme of mid- to late-19th century commercial buildings that lined the main street of many American cities and towns. Downtown streetscapes of this era are marked by a continuous line of distinctive bracketed cornices. The Italianate style was also commonly used for the construction of urban townhouses, again easily identified by their common bracketed cornices and long, narrow windows. Some decorative elements were of cast iron, a newly developed technology in this period.


About Danielle Keperling

Danielle Groshong-Keperling has worked full-time in the restoration industry since 2001, but her education in the traditional trades, construction industry, and historical preservation was built from an early age through her Father's work in the traditional trades and her Mother's love of historic architecture. Now, with Jonathan (an artisan craftsman in his own right), her partner in business and life, they work together to help historic building owners restore and preserve their piece of our built history.