According to The Architectural Review of 1870, an Italianate home was a friendly structure, an anti-castle of sorts: “The Italian style is well adapted to many parts of our country, and is known by the absence of acute gables, buttresses, embattlements, and clustered columns. Instead of these are found: the hip-roof; in place of the gable or pediment; the pilaster, instead of the buttress; the balustrade instead of the battlement; the semicircular arch instead of the square head.”
The Italianate style proliferated throughout West Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, and other Philadelphia streetcar suburban communities in the 1850s. It was romantic and whimsical, yet at the same time practical for family use, especially in the hot summer months. An Italianate villa was little more than a big box, with walls of stone or stucco-covered brick, and topped with projecting eaves and often a wood-and-glass cupola perched atop of the hipped roof. Twin houses often had a tower at the middle of the facade.
Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect and protégé of influential designer Andrew Jackson Downing, had a hand in many developments on the eve of the Civil War. Like Downing, Sloan had an entrepreneurial, even self-promotional streak. He supplemented his architecture practice by writing articles and creating designs for publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book. His influence can be seen on Baring Street in Powelton Village and on Woodland Terrace near the intersection of Baltimore Avenue and 40th Street. For Sloan, homeownership was a Republican virtue, one that strengthened not just the city, but the nation as a whole:
The man who has a home feels a love for it, a thankfulness for its possession and a proportionate determination to uphold and defend it against all invading influences. Such a man is, of necessity . . . a good citizen; for he has a stake in society.
The detached or semi-detached suburban home — as opposed to the urban townhouse (for the rich) and the rowhouse (for the middle and working classes) — not only gave its owners a sense of privacy, but also the architects a chance to experiment with stylistic variety. Rowhouses, no matter how big, had uniform facades, with only a dash of Greek Revival or Roman-inspired trim around the front door or windows. During the 1850s and early 1860s, the American suburban home came into its own as a distinct type, neither townhouse nor country retreat nor farmhouse. Thanks to the horse-drawn streetcar, an office worker could live several miles away from his place of business in the city center. Any hints of commerce were banished as soon as he crossed the threshhold. There were also supposed health benefits — anyone who could afford it could move away from the disease and congestion of Center City, especially during the summer months.
And what better style to evoke a bucolic getaway than an Italianate villa, inspired by the ancient stone castles of sunny Tuscany? Some Italianate homes grew to mansion proportions, such as the Allison home at 42nd and Walnut (now home to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College) and the now-vanished Anthony J. Drexel compound at 38th and Locust. But most were built on speculation for middle-class Philadelphians seeking an upgrade from a cramped rowhouse: lawyers, doctors, and small business owners. Much of the ornamentation was hackwork by historical standards, but faithfulness to Italian Renaissance models was less important than charm. By the 1850s, the classically inspired Federal style had given way to a “picturesque” romanticism. Homes were supposed to fit into their natural settings rather than be imposed upon them.
The Civil War changed drastically changed the Philadelphia streetscape. Samuel Sloan’s architecture practice collapsed. His most ambitious project, Longwood mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, was halted in mid-construction. Gone were the simple, the sincere, and the picturesque. Philadelphia’s prosperous citizens, many of whom had grown rich from supplying the Union Army, demanded more ornate, impoosing residential architecture, with stricter reliance on European models, and adorned with more glitter and gold than mere stucco and wood could offer.
A tour of the “Loch Aerie” mansion in Chester County, PA, built in 1865 by Philadelphia architect Addison Hutton for businessman William E. Lockwood.
 The Architecture Review, 1870, as quoted in Willard S. Detweiler, Jr., Chestnut Hill: An Architectural History (Philadelphia: Chestnut Hill Historical Society, 1969), p. 26.
Alexander von Hoffman, “Home Values Are Down, and Not Just at the Bank, The Washington Post, July 20, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/18/AR2008071802559.html