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Italianate Architecture in Mobile, AL
Greek Revival Door
Italianate Door Type Up Close
Brick Residential Italianate Styles
The Italianate style in the United States was first seen in England in 1802 from a design by John Nash. It was a very rustic, Tuscan villa type. Full-blown romanticism over the idea of 16th century Italian villas fed the mania to make the style bigger and better. Over time, it did change with features added such as Belvedere towers and more pronounced loggias. In the United States, it began to be embraced as an alternative to Greek Revival from the 1840's to the 1890's. In Mobile, its ability to adapt to the area gave it a unique flair. The style emerged here in the 1850s and remained popular until the 1890's.
In Mobile, the gradual change from Greek Revival style to Italianate style seemed almost imperceptible due to our love of the boxy Federal style (see the second picture). In the 1850's is when this style seemed to emerge in Mobile. In the city center, brick housing was enforced in the population-dense city of the of mid-1800's due to chance of fire.
The style changes can be seen mainly in the front doors. A Greek Revival doorway will be recessed, adding around the first entrance heavy and molded Greek key style with a three part transom that featured Tuscan pilasters (plain square columns) on either side of the recessed door. It continued all the way up through the transom. The Italianate transom kept the three part transom but it wasn't recessed from the street entrance and featured more elaborate styling. Instead of the Tuscan pilasters, the pilasters were embellished with acanthus-scrolled corbels and Bohemian leaded glass(sometimes red) in the sidelights. (Please see two photos midway down)
The style also employed a molded fascia board at the top of the building. Typically, in Italianate, the fascia board was extended to allow for the heavy brackets that make the style stand out the most. Most homes used brick or stone to hold the style together with lavish embellishments of cast iron or stone moldings over windows. Heavy brackets supported rooflines. Sometimes, wreaths in relief or other add-ons were added to style the fascia board.
Italianate architecture was Mobile, Alabama's way of showing their wealth as the nation's 3rd largest port, exporting mostly cotton along with some timber. Many of the owners were cotton brokers, the middle men between the plantation owners and the mills in England. Riverboat captains were other owners, as were stevedores, who unloaded the boats and later became quite wealthy as well. The homes were for wealthy or upper middle class residents. Earlier, the style started more as a Federal, plain style, with no cast iron balconies. First, delicately wrought iron graced the stark brick fronts of residences, and then later, sturdier molded cast iron came into vogue. Typically, homes were two to three stories high, with either a one story cast iron balcony or two story balconies like the last photo of the three story home in the De Tonti district. This particular home is the Rogers' house, which features a third story ballroom. The last Italianate brick home built was the Bernstein house(circa 1872) on Government Street. Soon a new version of the Italianate would blossom in the city.
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Wood Italianate Styles
Locally known as Bracketed, wooden homes adapted to a Mobile style came into vogue, despite our rainy sub-tropical climate. These were two story with two story tall, square columns that covered the full height of the building. Brackets at the top fascia board were usually put in sets of two. Homes were placed side by side with the same Neoclassical porches. Some of the best places to view the bracketed wooden Italianate homes are all around Washington Square in Oakleigh Garden District. The square dates to the 1850's and has a recently restored fountain. However, many of the homes in this area date to the early 1870's. Loggias, which were long and breezy porches, could be arched with either stone, or in this case, wood as you see in the first picture. The home on a large corner lot has many porches and is quite romantic. Instead of cast iron balconies, the style usually manifested itself using decorative cutwork as ballustrade. This involved flat pieces of wood with designs cut into the sides; when they are put side by side, the cut designs make a simple pattern like a diamond shape,etc.
This bracket style was popular until the end of the 1800's in Mobile. Soon the Victorian period would arrive in the 1880's and many of these homes, along with old brick townhouses, would be torn down to make the way for large Victorian style homes. Only the Creole style would hold a forever place in Mobile's building landscape.
The first Italianate building was introduced by Ammi Young in 1852 with the building of the Custom House, now destroyed. Ammi Young was the supervising architect for the United States Treasury.
The old City Hall is the first picture and was a combination marketplace with the city hall on the top floor. The marketplace was called the Old Southern Market and wives could do their daily shopping there. Today, the city hall is the oldest city hall where they continually meet, dating to the 1850's. It also functions as a state of the art history museum for the city.
The Daniels Elgin building is another business Italianate style. The hooded and curved cast iron window moldings that came into vogue a couple of decades after the 1850 introduction of the style are easily seen here. In fact, the entire facade is cast iron.
By the end of this period, Mobile would change dramatically from a port that exported mostly cotton to one that expanded its commercial importance, featuring products such as fruit, coffee, and most importantly, lumber. Once there were many warehouses on the streets close to the Mobile River; today, those buildings are gone, victims of Mobile's progress. Progress has always been the enemy of preservation.