Saturday, August 24, 2013

Italianate Style Houses on Syracuse's Eastside

Syracuse, NY. 909 Salt Springs Rd., Italianate house, mid-19th century.  The bifora windows in the attic level are unusual. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013

 Syracuse, NY., 2800 East Genesee Street. Italianate house, probably built in the 1850s.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013

Syracuse, NY., 2800 East Genesee Street, Italianate house, probably built in the 1850s.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013

Italianate Style Houses on Syracuse's Eastside
by Samuel D. Gruber
I didn't make it to Italy this summer as I had hoped, so instead I've kept my eyes open for Italianate style houses around Syracuse.  These include some of the oldest and most distinctive structures on the Eastside of Syracuse; cube-like houses that are still scattered throughout the thousands of other later residences.  

These houses, built mostly in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, pre-date Syracuse's suburban expansion to the East and the laying out of the new residential grids that mark the first new residential developments.  Thus, the Italianate houses quickly tell us where the old roads were.  The houses mostly faced major travel routes, and these also often indicate the locations of prosperous farms, all of which, like the Scott Tract (later developed as Scottholm) were subsequently built over, especially from 1880 through 1930.  

This phenomenon is hardly unique to the Eastside; the process can be traced on all sides of Syracuse.  The further one travels from the modern city on the old pre-automobile routes, the more Italianate houses one finds still in relative pristine isolation. To my knowledge there is no list of all of these buildings, and certainly no detailed architectural or photograph record.  When the historic preservation movement began in Onnodaga County in the late 1960s and 1970s some of these buildings were noticed and celebrated, but more attention was given to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings in Federal and Greek Revival style.  While many of our local historical societies have information on their Italianate houses, these have not been collated.  there are probably several hundred Italian houses still extant throughout Onondaga County.  While most of these houses are not designated either local or National Register protected sites, a good number are well preserved.  In areas like the Northside of Syracuse where the largest number of urban Italian houses survive, these are mostly owned by absentee landlords, and many (like the Catherine Murray House) are not well maintained.

On the Eastside, where we find Italianate houses on East Genesee Street, Salt Springs Road and South Beech Street - all old roads - the buildings (or at least their exteriors) have fared better, though the landscapes over which they once presided have been very much compromised.  Streets have been widened and so the houses sit closer to the road than originally intended.  In some cases (1924 East Genesee) there are now paved parking areas instead of front lawns or walkways, and the Italianate at 309 Columbus is hardly recognizable beneath its recent vinyl siding.  Many of the Eastside Italianate houses still have their distinctive square cupolas.  Additions to buildings, however, have changed appearances somewhat.  But even early on many Italianate houses were enlarged, usually with front porches and rear additions, as can be seen on the Scott House at 2686 East Genesee Street.

What we now call the Italianate Style evolved from the earlier Italian Villa Style, a widespread  American rural and suburban residential architecture popularized by Alexander Jackson Downing. A popular residential style, it was the most common architectural “high” style for a well-designed house in the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the 1850s and 1860s.  Urban versions more closely copied Italian Renaissance palazzi while rural and farm versions were loosely based on Italian (mostly Tuscan) villa forms. 

Italianate houses could be built of wood, brick and even stone, and are easily recognizable by their distinctive cube-like shape, and their overall formal regularity of fenestration and applied architectural ornament. Italianate houses are usually two and occasionally three stories high, square or rectangular in plan, with low-pitched hip, gable, or shed (roof with one slope) roofs. Ornamentation can be of pressed metal, stone, or wood ornamentation, or wood with wood ornamentation. The most distinctive feature of nearly all Italianate houses is a cornice supported by brackets ("bracketed cornice") and decorative, projecting window "heads" (above openings). Ornamentation of more elaborate brick or stone houses, sometimes includes quoins and window decoration that varies from floor to floor. A recessed doorway is common.

Later versions of Italian houses could be more rectangular in plan (with the shorter side facing the street), and these could also be slightly taller, and often included projecting side window bays - all elements that lessened the geometric purity of the cube, and added some variety and a hint of dynamism to the plan and exterior elevation. In some cities (but only rarely in Syracuse) these were built in rows creating blocks of urban multi-story connected town houses. 

Italianate houses are especially common in Central New York, since so much of the region underwent rapid and prosperous development during just those decades when the style was most popular.  These houses once filled the downtown residential streets of Syracuse, and fine examples can still found on many of the roads leading into the city and on the main routes between towns and villages. Italianate farmhouses stood close to the road (though not as close as they often seem today, since so many old highways have been widened). They opened onto lawns, gardens on the sides and farm fields and pastures in the rear.   Carriage houses were often in the rear of more urban Italianate residences, while barns and other buildings were in the vicinity of the rural houses.

Italianate houses exuded a sense of solidity and dignity typical of the pre-Civil war era that emphasized civic-minded striving and persona modesty and family thrift. This regularity of form – some would same predictability – would be upset in the economic boom period of the next generation with the often exuberant experimentation of the Queen Anne style when asymmetrical forms, varied roof lines and mixed siding material and colors created a dizzying array of houses forms. 

Italianate was also favored for commercial buildings in the late 19th Century.

Syracuse, NY.  Scott House, 2686 East Genesee Street, ca. 1860. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.

 Syracuse, NY.  Scott House, 2686 East Genesee Street, ca. 1860.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2012.

The Italianate style Scott family farmhouse, built ca. 1860, is located at 2686 East Genesee Street at the southwest corner of the intersection of Scott Avenue and East Genesee Street.  The homestead was owned throughout much of the 19th century by Benjamin Scott, and he lived in this house until his death in 1910.  Amon Sanderson of the East Genesee Extension Corporation bought the entire tract and developed it as “Scottholm Estates.” The house is what is left of the farmstead for which the subdivision was named. 

According to a 1916 newspaper article, the Scotts used the house as an inn for travelers on the Genesee Turnpike (now East Genesee Street). The house was sold to Amon Sanderson in 1914, and then sold to and remodeled by E. A. O'Hara in 1915. O'Hara's father was publisher of the Syracuse Herald and the younger O'Hara eventually became publisher of the Herald-Journal. O'Hara electrified and “modernized” the house, which stayed in the family until 1969.

Syracuse, NY. 1924 East Genesee St. The original lawn of this house has been paved over for parking. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2013

Syracuse, NY.  726 South Beech Street. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse NY.  309 Columbus Ave.  This Italianate house lost most of its original look in an unfortunate "remuddling." . Photo: Samuel D. Gruber
Syracuse NY. 1124 East Genesee St. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse NY. 1106 East Genesee St. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 


  1. Very nice article and pictures. Italianate is my favorite 19th century style. Thanks.

  2. I'm obsessed with these Italianates too. By far my favorite of the nineteenth century--and they always get overshadowed by the Greek and Gothic. Has anyone written a good article about them?