Early Montclair and the Italianates

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Without a doubt, it was the lovely architecture that originally lured me, like many others, into the area of Montclair. Like many homes in the area, mine is an old, yet beautiful, cash suck. My house is an Italianate built most likely in 1840, according to my friend Frank Godlewski, aka the House Whisperer, aka Frank GG, as a second and or third country home to a wealthy NYC family. Yes–an Italianate not a Victorian.  A lesser known style usually characterized by its low pitched roofs, deep eaves and long rounded windows mimicking Italian villas of the day.

Victorian may the most misused stylistic-buzzword that most architecture buffs find maddening. A blanket term thrown over everything from the 19th century and a bit after. Look, a curly Q — it must be Victorian. Flocked wallpaper — must be Victorian. Flock of Seagulls—while probably never referred to as Victorian, having popped out a century later, they are a perfect example of British style, that with new and improved technology (hair gel), took the States by storm.

You may be asking yourself, “What in the Sam Hill is this woman talking about?” Let me break down a huge chunk of history and condense it into a few simple sentences that will most likely set the “Well actually…” folks into a tailspin.

Montclair and the Italianates
Four of the Seven Sisters

While the Victorian era in England was from 1837-1901 during Queen Victoria’s reign, classic Victorian American architectural style came about much later from about 1860-1900. During the mid 19th century new technology, see Flock of Seagulls reference above, such as the use of  steel, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, had a profound effect on architecture. The ornate styles of large scale buildings in England combined with the availability of inexpensively manufactured materials fueled the fire onto the growing middle class in America. Simply put, it was fancy time.

1857 West Bloomfield, now part of Montclair
1857 West Bloomfield, now part of Montclair

Italianates came about before the stylistic Victorian era and remained the most popular home style on the East coast from the 1840s- 1860s. They were still popular through the end of the century, hence being often wrongly categorized. Dirty crime-ridden cities became unfriendly places to raise  families while the countryside became a more fashionable alternative for those who could afford a country home. These homes did not cry out for of 17 layers of wallpaper or windows flanked by thick red drapes and ridiculous looking tassels—NO! With large open rooms, flexible floor plans, tall windows and doors that would open to a porch or balcony, these homes welcomed the country inside.

My favorite local examples of this style are known as the Seven Sisters (formally the Eight Sisters before one was lost in a fire) on Chestnut Street in Montclair. Over the decades some have lost their arched windows due to the high cost of custom storm windows while other have gained adornments these lovely homes showcase the style from this period well. Most of the homes still have their  lovely floor length windows that open up to a front porch.

The first Italianate Villa in Montclair "Bloomfield Villa" by Alexander Jackson Davis
The first Italianate Villa in Montclair “Bloomfield Villa” by Alexander Jackson Davis

In my quest to find out more about my home and this era in Essex County I searched through books and maps at Montclair Historical Society. What I found was fascinating. While many of the streets have been renamed and many streets were un-named dirt roads or country driveways I could more or less pinpoint my block on the large map from 1865 hanging on the second floor of the library. Searching through the huge 3′ x 4′ Montclair Tax Record Book from 1900, I  was able to find my lot, block and the owner of my home.

More Architectural/Historical local resources:

Do you have a favorite architectural style in the area? What would you like to see more of and what would you like to disappear from the history books?

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Grazie! What a pleasure to see this article! The Seven Sisters is a unique feature in town. They are truly beautiful and you house is a rare jewel, Holly!

    Italianate houses were originally conceived to be built of stone but an economic resession of the day translated the style into wood construction. The wood construction allowed more creativity with craftsmanship and lead to a taste for gingerbread. Thats how the italianates evolved into the more ecclectic victorians.

  2. Thanks Mr. GG.

    To be clear the open shot is not my house but an early Italianate in Monclair. The gingerbread was added later in the the 1880’s and in the 1980’s. Classic early Italianate homes were rather clean and simple.

    Very much like you Mr. GG!

  3. As the owner of a 1904 shingle style home in the Boston area that’s eternally being called a Victorian, I’m glad to read this more accurate definition of the style.

  4. Jensph-Oh the possibilities. Just because something was built during the time of Victorian style in America does not make it Victorian. What does you house look like?

    I call Mr.GG the “House Whisperer” He can walk around your home tell you the type of family that built the house etc. I’m considering renting him out.

  5. The styles always confuse me. The Chestnut St house is actually listed as a Vernacular/Carpenter Gothic cottage, yet the Llewellyn Haskell House is Italianate. frankgg, why the difference?

  6. The Seven Sisters are seven houses, four of which are pictured above. They are between Valley and Midland ave.

    JG Thanks and no 🙂

    Frank R-What listing are you looking at? The Junior League on Montclair wrote up many of these houses but many times the write ups were incorrect. You didn’t have to have a degree in Historical Architecture to write up the style of a home. I think the fancy trimmings that were added later confused people.

    We have 3 sets of listing for the Chestnut street house some say 1880, one says 1876 and yet another says 1840.

  7. Holly,
    Yes, the JLMN survey.
    Price, Eleanor M. “Individual Structure Survey: Site #0713307.” Preservation Montclair. May 29, 1981
    Built c. 1875

  8. Yep I read the same but other sources, perhaps sources that were not available at the time say 1840.

    Have you been to the Newark Hall of Records?

  9. Great post. Thanks for writing this! Would love to see more of this in the future – there’s so much history in this town to discover.

  10. Holly’s house has more italianate details than other influences….like the neo rennaissance arched double windows….but especially in the interior details like the neo rennaissance mantlepieces…doors and the ornamental stair.

    Locally, besides Italianate, you can find Second Empire French that usually has Mansard rooflines, but Italianate windows and details… and then another important style, Neo Gothic. Things around here became extremely ecclectic… especially towards the end of the century when the indrustrial revolution offered products from catalogues that offered an array of different styles.

    A J Davis, who hails from Bloomfield, is considered the father of American Gothic architecture. Davis’s Grandfather Decon Joseph Davis had the task of setting up Presbertyrian Churches in NJ and his first wife, Anna Crane’s family owned most of our local Brownstone mines. Thats how I think this shift from Italianate and Neo Gothic and back and forth came about… Architecture became even more ecclectic for Davis when he was asked to do the illustrations for America’s first house plan pattern books commissioned in the 1850s by A J Downing.

    There were crossovers in styles at this moment and especially in A J Davis career…. He studied Classical Architecture and designed the US Customs House in NYC (the stock exchange) You can see the classical influence in the image above of Bloomfield Villa…but we can also see his grandparent’s 1600s vernacular homestead… now the Bloomfield Steak House. I see this…does anyone else? (By the way Bloomfield Villa is still standing on Llewellyn Road in montclair)

    There were many styles being mixed together to create houses from the mid 1800s on and even more hybrid styles when Victorian evolved into the Shingle Style at the end of the 1800s.

  11. Oh Holly…. Grazie!!! …and as you know, I housewhisper all the time…even when I’m sound asleep!I LOVE your article ox

  12. Thank you for a great article. I find this stuff interesting as heck. . . Although now I can’t get the song I Ran out of my head.

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