Walkabout: Italianates, the Ornamental Imperative

Read Part 1 of this story.

A mid 19th century magazine, extolling the virtues of the Italianate brownstone, declared that, the doorway is the most indispensable feature of the structure, and therefore calls loudly for adornment, and should generally be distinguished by more impressive decoration than any other feature.

Architects of the time must have been listening, and many went overboard, piling layers of ornament on the doorways of our buildings. Perhaps even more than the other decorative elements, the doorways of the Italianate brownstone define the style.

In the most expensive homes, the doorway is a porch at the top of the stairs, formed by large columns with ornate capitals, holding heavy door hoods that are either rounded, or classic triangular pediments, with heavy carved keystones above the doors.

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

These are flanked by enormous acanthus leaf brackets which face the street. Smaller acanthus brackets can often be found facing each other in the doorway, and for good measure, more acanthus brackets often frame the windows, and/or support the large window box shelves below the parlor floor windows. There are fine examples in Brooklyn Heights, as well as on Washington Park, in Fort Greene.

Most of the Italianates in Brooklyn do not have the columns, a feature for only the most expensive homes, but all have the acanthus brackets. Some of these brackets are beautiful in their expression of plant forms, and are in amazing condition.

Some architects must have wanted to show off something different, and we can find fantastical combinations of leaves, flowers and decorative shapes. Some of these can be a bit disturbing at first glance, and to the modern eye, look like mutant plants run wild, or extruded foam, especially when the lines have been blurred by water damage, and badly painted over or repaired.

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

The more creepily vegetal remind us that tastes certainly change over time, and that the desire to please a demanding public can often result in the overdone.

Like any architectural style, over the course of its popularity, the Italianate brownstone can be found in its pure form, as a gracious upper class dwelling, and its knock-offs, as details are simplified for more middle class houses, and again, simplified even more for smaller working class homes, and the acanthus bracket becomes a plain curved shape.

As the years go by, similar styles emerge, and styles are mixed with wild abandon. The addition of a mansard roof, found often as a fifth floor, classifies these Italianates as Second Empire, named after the popularity of the mansard roof in the architecture of Napoleon II, in France.

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

The addition of carved ornamental patterns incised into the brownstone, alongside familiar Italianate motifs, shows the influence of the Neo-Grec style, itself a popular style here in Brooklyn. The Anglo Italianate has a short stoop and an English basement.

Because of their flat surfaces, Italianates and their cousins were easy prey for the modernizing of brownstones that took place in the 20th century. Cornices, window and door hoods, brackets, and even the graceful double doors have vanished on too many of our streets, leaving bare flat surfaces, improved by paint, stucco, brick and stone faces, and even vinyl siding.

In many of our historic districts as well as unprotected areas, it is not uncommon to see the ornate stoops removed for ground floor entrances, and the tall parlor floor windows bricked in to hold standard window sizes, or doorways filled in to accommodate cheap factory doors.

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Fortunately, there are still surviving rows of intact Italianates in many neighborhoods, all of which remind us of why we love our brownstones. Long may they stand. Photo album on Flickr.

Charles Lockwood’s Bricks and Brownstone remains the bible for our brownstone heritage, and was the source of much of the historic and stylistic information. If you love this stuff, you must own this book.

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

Italianate Design in Brooklyn

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