Ask the Architect Preserving A Classic Italianate Home


I own an 1870s Victorian row house. The front faade is flat, about 18 feet 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 theres an ornamental cornice with brackets at the roofline. Its considered a classic example of the Italianate-style and there are several others on my street in Old Town probably built within a few years of each other. What are some things I should know before repairing the front faade?

J.K., Alexandria

Youve described a flat-front Italianatea Victorian-era home usually classified as a Romantic House.  Interestingly, Italianate began in England as a reaction to 19th century architectural formalism. Inspired by Italys rambling farmhouses, the look showcases informal detailing. Of the many Victorian-era subtypes represented in Alexandrias historic neighborhoods, Italianate is one of the most passionate a feast for the eyes characterized by its distinctively romantic detailing.

Some Characteristics:
A period Italianate is usually two stories high, though there are many surviving variations from three-story detached homes with towers and cupolas to townhouses such as yours. An Italianate townhouse typically features wide projecting cornices with heavy brackets and richly ornamented windows, porches, and doorways. Most American 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.

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 panes in Italianate window sashes are 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, 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 trend.

Doors occur in variety as often as 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 to 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 six-inch square post, with beveled or chamfered corners.

Above all, think of your repair as a restoration. Consistency with materials and details is critical to success. Repair whenever possible, replicate when necessary; consult with your local preservation representative. Remember, retaining beauty is about care.

Bruce Wentworth, AIA, is the principal of Wentworth, Inc a metro area residential architecture, construction, and interior design practice. Questions on residential architectural styles can be sent to or call 240-395-0705 x 100