Picturesque Houses: Gothic Revival & Italianate


In the 1840s and 1850s, a reaction began against the earlier architectural styles, like the Greek Revival, which had looked back to Classical models. Instead, a new type of house design, referred to as Picturesque or Romantic, took hold. Emphasizing irregularity in their floor plans and a variety of decorative motifs derived from medieval sources, these kinds of houses would predominate to the end of the nineteenth century. The first two Picturesque styles to appear were the Gothic Revival and Italianate. Influenced by the contemporary English picturesque movement, these designs were popularized in America by the books of Andrew Jackson Downing, which featured designs by his friend, the architect Alexander Jackson Davis. These early models were conceived as country villa residences and Downing, a landscape designer, was imagining picturesque cottages placed within an English pastoral landscape.


The Gothic Revival Villa

Connecticut has one of the great examples of Downing’s ideas in the form of Roseland Cottage (Fig. 1), built in 1846 in Woodstock, which closely resembles the models that appeared in Downing’s books (Fig. 2). This house was intended as a country retreat in the hometown of its owner, who had become wealthy in New York City. With its dramatic pink color and the board-and-batten siding typical of such homes, Roseland is frequently referenced as an exemplar of the Gothic Revival, or Carpenter Gothic, style. Typical features of the style include steeply pitched roofs and steep cross gables with decorate bargoards (also called vergeboards), either square windows with drip molds or Gothic-shaped windows, frequently having a pointed arch (or lancet) shape, and bay and oriel windows. Other examples of Gothic Villas in Connecticut include the Duane Barnes House in Middletown, the Charles Green House (designed by Davis himself) in South Windsor, and the elaborate Raynham in New Haven, which was an earlier built house significantly altered in the Gothic Revival style in the 1850s.


The Gothic Revival Houses of Nook Farm

In the mid-nineteenth century, the neighborhood of Nook Farm, then on the western edge of Hartford’s expansion, was developed as an affluent neighborhood. A former farm, at the time it retained a park-like landscape, suitable for Downing-influenced Gothic Villas. A number of such homes were built there in the 1850s and 60s, including three houses designed by Octavius Jordan for three sisters from the famous Beecher family. The earliest was the home of Isabella Beecher Hooker (Fig. 3). Although significantly altered over the years, this brick house still displays the distinctive features of the Gothic Revival and it had an influence on others built later in the neighborhood. Jordan also designed houses for Mary Beecher Perkins and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the latter being a mansion known as Oakholm. These two are no longer extant, although Stowe’s later Nook Farm home, also in the Gothic Revival style, survives and is open to the public as the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Another Gothic Revival home designed by Jordan is on nearby Woodland Street: the Perkins-Clark House (Fig. 4), built for the son of Mary Beecher Perkins. Unlike the Hooker House, it is an unaltered example of Jordan’s Gothic style and shares a number of similarities with the long vanished Oakholm. The house has the chimney pots typical of the style.


Later Examples of the Gothic Revival

As with the earlier Greek Revival style, the early Gothic Villas influenced many builders who designed less complex homes which nonetheless have distinctive elements of the Gothic style. Examples of these houses, many built after the Civil War, can be found in communities throughout Connecticut, although less often found in urban areas. Examples from the 1870s include the Henry Stillman and James R. Anderson Houses in Wethersfield and a house at Allen Place in Hartford.

Another Hartford example is the Cedar Hill Cemetery Superintendent’s House (Fig. 5). In addition to other typical features, this structure has an unusually large, floor-to-ceiling second floor window in the gable end with an elaborate hood supported by distinctive braces.


High Victorian Gothic

In the mid-nineteenth century, in Britain, John Ruskin and others were encouraging an interest in the use of authentic Gothic forms for churches, universities and public buildings. These examples of the High Victorian Gothic style had a strong influence in Hartford in the 1870s and led to the construction of such surviving buildings as the State Capitol (1878), the Church of the Good Shepherd (1869) and Trinity College’s Long Walk (1878). It was less common for houses to be constructed in this style, but it is an interesting fact that the three architects involved in the projects mentioned above each designed a house which survives in Nook Farm. Richard M. Upjohn designed both the Capitol and the 1875 Smith House. Edward Tuckerman Potter, who designed the Church of the Good Shepherd for Elizabeth Colt, was also the architect of the 1874 Mark Twain House (Fig. 6). This famous building combines traditional Gothic features with Potter’s interest in the polychromatism also evident in his church designs. It is also an example of the Stick Style, which was becoming popular in the 1870s and would soon lead to the new architectural style known as Queen Anne. Francis Kimball, who was the on-site architect responsible for adapting the plans for the Long Walk, designed the Katherine Seymour Day House. Not High Victorian Gothic, this later (1884) home, combines numerous Picturesque elements and a generally Queen Anne-type form.


The Italian Villa

In addition to the Gothic Villa, Downing also popularized the Italian Villa style, which flourished in the 1840s to 1860s. Influenced by Renaissance Villas found in the northern Italian countryside, Italian Villas are similar to Gothic Villas in their irregular layout. They are notable for their hipped roofs and the presence of a cupola or a tower, known as a campanile. Distinctive decorative elements include wide overhanging eaves with prominent brackets, tall and narrow windows which are frequently arched with molded window crowns, large double doors, balustraded porches and bay windows. An excellent example of this style is the Day-Taylor House in Hartford (Fig. 7). Many homes in this style and the related Italianate style (see below) were constructed in Hartford in the 1850s, including the Calvin Day House, the Isham-Terry House, the Edmund Hurlburt House, and the Lucius Barbour House. It was also the style of choice among members of the Colt family, as seen in Sam Colt’s Armsmear, the James Colt House and the Ashmead-Colt House.


As with the Gothic Revival, models of the Italian Villa were to be found in works by A. J. Downing (Fig. 8). Such models were followed by architects who specialized in the style, like Henry Austin of New Haven, who designed one of the earliest Italian Villas in New Haven for John Pitkin Norton (Fig. 9)


When Austin later designed a Villa for Oliver B. North (Fig. 10), he showed greater freedom in his use of the basic elements of the style. As the style developed, it tended to get more ornate. An overly ornamented example of a later Italian Villa is the Graves-Dwight House in New Haven.


The Italianate Style

As can be seen in the Hartford examples listed above, the Italian Villa was more easily adapted to an urban environment than the Gothic Villa. Taking a more regular, box-like form (familiar from the Greek Revival style), the Italianate house had a relatively simple shape ornamented with the decorative elements of the Italian Villa and often featuring a cupola. This approachable style came to overshadow the Gothic Revival and flourished into the 1870s. A good and quite large example is the George W. Loomis House (Fig. 11) in Suffield.


A number of Italianate houses were also constructed along Main Street in Cromwell for individuals associated with the J. & E. Stevens Company, including the Stevens-Frisbie House (Fig. 12), the Joseph W. Waters House and the Edward S. Coe House.


As with other changes in style, older homes could be adapted to suit the latest taste. The Hurlbut-Dunham House (Fig. 13) in Wethersfield was a Federal style home that was altered in the 1850s with the addition of Italianate features, including a centered gable (another common feature of the Italianate style) and a cupola. Centered gables can be found on many Italianate houses, like the Nathaniel Shipman and Kingsbury-Gatling houses in Hartford.


The Octagon

Often stylistically related to the Italianate house is the Ocatagon house, with its distinctive eight-sided form. These were popularized by Orson S. Fowler in his book, The Octagon, A Home for All (1848). Fowler believed Ocatagons would provide more floor space and better light and ventilation. A few thousand were built in the United States, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest in the 1850s and 60s, but only several hundred survive today. Very few were constructed in Connecticut, with only a handful remaining, including the Gilbert Stancliff House (Fig. 14) and neighboring Joseph Williams House in Portland.


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