The Italianate style flourished between the late 1840’s and the 1870’s. It was more ostentatious then the preceding Federal and Greek Revival rowhouse styles. In the Post Civil War environment, there was a desire by New York’s wealthy to flaunt their growing affluence and nowhere better to show off than with in one’s home. Townhouse facades became wider, taller and more elaborately detailed, and in the interiors of the homes wealth was most evident.
Early Italianate townhouse interiors followed floor plans of the preceding Greek Revival style, identical double parlor rooms with sliding doors, an archway or Corinthian columns between the parlors. Some homes had small sized wood frame extensions used as a tea rooms in the rear parlor extending into the garden and first floor. As New York’s affluence grew, a full sized parlor room was added to the parlor level and the garden level adding to the size and structure of the home and creating homes with triple parlors. This new parlor room was used as a formal dining room. With the advent of the dumb waiter in the 1870’s, servants could send food up from the kitchen to the dining room and the small stair and hatch, which had existed between the lower level kitchen and parlor was removed.
For ventilation and light flow in the middle parlor, Pocket doors were then moved to rear parlor and the only sign of separation between the front and center parlor was an open archway. When indoor plumbing and heat were introduced to homes, and heating homes became easier, the scale of home increased was increased to 25 feet in width and a top a fifth floor was added to the construction of many fine homes.
The majority of the rich detail was on the Parlor level. Elaborate ceiling moldings, chandelier rounds, etched glass pocket doors between the parlors and highly ornate white marble fireplace mantels. As the center focal point of a room, mantels were an essential component in decor. Families and their guests gathered around the fireplace. The rectangular mantels with flat pilasters of the Greek Revival period were replaced by boldly carved rococo features with rounded or arched openings and carved iron plates. Mantel shelves had scalloped edges supported by acanthus or oak leaf faced console at each end. The finest homes had statuary mantels with maidens standing on each side carrying the shelf on their heads like ancient caryatids. Handsome rope moldings with an ornamental keystone at the top center edged the arched metal opening. Later Italianate mantels exhibited scallop shells, baskets of fruits and maidenheads. The mantels of upper level rooms often maintained the Geek Revival style or an echo of the Italianate shapes without the intricate carved detail found on the lower levels.
Complementing the admirable craftsmanship of the mantels were large ornamental gilded mirrors, placed over the fireplace mantels or between the front and rear window walls. These mirrors would extend almost to the top of the parlor wall to the crown moldings. Mirrors were a way to add drama by reflecting the many beautiful furnishings and tapestries, the fine clothing and festivities.
Crown moldings and chandelier rounds became thick and elaborate with foliate and floral detail, rope twisting through the leaves, imitating mantel designs. The advent of paper mache allowed for more intricate designs and easier installation.
Wainscoting, wood or plaster chair rails ran through the hallways up to the top floor. Walls were plaster, however in the parlor and along the parlor level hallway velvet or leather embossed wallpaper were the fashion. Dark mahogany, oak black walnut and satinwood were used for doors, frames and parlor woodwork. These woods contrasted the bright decor of wall coverings and rugs as well as elaborate ceiling moldings.
Many entry doors were double arched doors, with a tiny foyer and another set of double doors. A black and white triangular pattern marble floor or encaustic tiles were laid in elegant patterns on the foyer floor. Interior floors were four two six inch pine with mahogany, or black walnut inlay around the borders. Rugs were fitted to the room to allow the lovely wood inlay to show.
Stairwells curved elegantly up the flights, with mahogany banisters and a elaborate carved newel post. Newel posts were made of rosewood, ebony, or walnut inlay. Balusters were carved in complimentary forms to the newel post. At the top floor a large oval or rectangular skylight shed light down to all the floors and spotlighted the beauty of the banister. The interior of the skylight frame often contained elaborate period plaster decor or forms echoing the crown moldings of the home. The glass in the skylight was often etched in a similar pattern to the parlor pocket door glass.
On the upper, bedroom floors, moldings and fireplace mantels were much simpler Large closets came into fashion in the late 1860’s with well crafted mahogany drawers and cabinets. As plumbing advanced cold and hot running water became a mainstay washbasins were installed in the closet hallway pass through. Ceiling heights on these floors were generally ten feet on the master bedroom level and nine feet on the top floors, reserved for the children and servants.
Coal and wood burning ovens replaced the hearth and iceboxes appeared in kitchens by the 1860’s. Additionally running water and the invention of hot water heater allowed for the creation of bathrooms on the bedroom levels. Polished tubs, mahogany and marble vanities, silver fixtures began to appear in wealthier households.
There are many wonderful examples of Italianate architecture in New York City found both in Manhattan and in Brooklyn including several which can be visited such as the Salmagundi Art Club at 47 5th Avenue, The Merchant’s House at 27th East 4th, and Isaac Van Anden House in Brooklyn Heights. Stroll down Saint Lukes Place in Greenwich Village, along Washington Square North and houses along the Promenade in Brooklyn heights or to view the most authentic examples of homes from the period.