Restoring an Italianate on Columbus Day

Restoring an Italianate on Columbus Day

Ive had my eye on an unoccupied circa-1880s Italianate-style house nearby, which Im thinking of buying and restoring. My wife and I are smitten with the lushly ornate faade but how much latitude do I have to make changes without diluting the basic integrity of the look? The house is primarily brick with a wooden front porch and bracketed frieze at the roofline. Some of the brick is crumbling, however, the porch is sagging and many of the distinctive decorative elements are damaged or missing. Can you give me a general overview of the applicable architectural guidelines?

RD, Alexandria

I must confess Ive been holding your question for Columbus Day, October 12, because its a particularly apt occasion for drawing attention to this highly-charged romantic style and its prominent place in the architecture of Alexandria.

By way of background, youll be interested to know that Italianate takes root 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 our historic neighborhoods, Italianate is one of the most passionate a feast for the eyes characterized by its distinctively romantic detailing.

Here are some of the basic guidelines you should bear in mind as you consider restoring the home described above:

First, brick and wood clapboard are the most common siding materials used in Italianate design; anything else is probably going to seem astylistic. Yes, ornamentation is usually wood; you will also 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 in Italianate window sashes is mostly one-over-one or two-over-two. (Large windowpanes 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 with 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 6-inch square post with beveled or chamfered corners.

Think of your repair as 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 remodeling styles can be sent to