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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 4:42 pm | Fair 62º


Anthony Grumbine: Santa Barbara’s Italianate Architecture Standing the Test of Time

Victorian era design mastered the art of mixing to add character, ornamentation and distinction


Architecture styles during the 1800s were like dog breeding ... you never know what a mix will make. When it comes to dogs, interesting combos such as a Chug (Chihuahua + pug) or a Horgi (Husky + Corgi) occur regularly.

This also happens in architecture. The early 1800s witnessed the Italian villa reworked into English estates, which was then brought to America. We call it “Italianate.” If it was a dog, we might call it a Bull-Bolognescue (English Bulldog + Italian Bolognese + American rescue ... since it was adopted from the Brits).

So, what does our Victorian era Italianate friend look like? If we take a top-down approach starting with the roof, then the Italian influences are clear in the low-sloped hipped roofs and a cornice wrapping around the building in one continuous band.

An asymmetrical tower or sometimes a cupola can be seen popping up above the main roof, adding visual interest.

It’s All About the Brackets

The signature mark of Italianate architecture is, however, the brackets. Often these brackets stretch the entire height of a simple cornice — or “entablature” — dominating the eave-line.

Italianate construction in America was mostly built of wood, and this was especially the case in Santa Barbara, which did not have the stone carvers and masons who were plentiful on the East Coast.

The wood brackets could be mass-produced in a variety of designs. This was cost-effective due to developments in woodworking technology. They were then shipped to Santa Barbara via train, then boat. The brackets were often paired, or alternated (intricate, plain, intricate, plain), to add rhythm and variety while keeping expenses down.

Fancy-Fenestration and Axial-Approach

The composition and detailing of Italianate doors and windows range from fairly fancy to highly ornamental. The tall windows were either arched or rectangular with intricate pediments, corbels and molding surrounds, and are usually spaced in a very regular pattern across the front of the building.

Compared with the rest of the Victorian era styles, Italianate buildings tend to be the most formal. They also tend to have a strong, central approach-axis aligning the visitor with the main porch. The porches are typically Classical in detailing, with columns and turned-balustrade railings framing the porch.

Popular in the ’70s ...

1870s, that is. Italianate had its heyday during Santa Barbara’s first Victorian era construction boom.

Buildings such as The Upham Hotel — built in 1871 at 1404 De la Vina St. and the oldest hotel in Santa Barbara — as well as many residences were constructed in the popular style. Many such buildings were by architect Peter Barber, a prolific designer in the Italianate style who also served as mayor.

Today, Santa Barbara owes much of its charm and character to beautiful examples of Victorian architecture, many of which can still be seen.

Some of our Italianate structures are now approaching 150 years old, which is a testament to the quality of materials and to the care they have received over their long and enriching lives.

Anthony Grumbine is an architect and principal at Harrison Design, a Santa Barbara architecture firm with offices across the country specializing in high-quality architecture in a range of styles. He sits on Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmarks Commission and is active in a range of programs that promote the understanding and appreciation of architecture. Anthony can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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