St. Louis’ Italianate Country Houses: A Tour

As I mentioned a month ago, the vast majority of St. Louis’ modern City was once rural before and immediately following the Civil War. The unique quality of the houses in the country, but within St. Louis’ boundaries, was something that would be a surprise to current residents. Compton and Dry’s 1876 pictorial St. Louis and historical photos show that large country houses used to grace many of the farms and pastures now used for housing, such as Tower Grove. One relic from this rural phase is the Carpenter Gothic homes, which are only a few west of Jefferson Avenue.

It is worth mentioning the rich legacy of the Italianate Villas, which were built by prominent St. Louis landowners and industrialists. Named after the Italian peninsula, this style draws its inspiration from England through an English lens. Although this style borrows heavily from the Italianate Renaissance and especially Andrea Palladio’s designs, it is difficult to categorize. Other styles such as the Neoclassical or later Beaux-Arts also draw on the same source of inspiration, but with different results.

The Italianate is a borrowing from an idealized Italy, which may have never existed except in the minds of English speakers of Great Britain or the United States. For centuries, noblemen from Northern Europe had been making the Grand Tour, visiting the great ruins and -ironically since they were Protestants – the great works of Renaissance and Roman Catholic artists in Florence and Venice. Americans began to take the Grand Tour, and Mark Twain immortalized his own experience in Innocents Afar.

Italy was not exactly a pristine country in the 19th century. Romantics have immortalized the Villa d’Este, a famous villa located outside Rome in Tivoli. Problem is? The problem? Modern visitors will find a better-tended Villa d’Este. It is free from the tangle of overgrown leaves and vastly different from what Turner depicted in Turner’s paintings.

The American idealized view of an idyllic Italian countryside was translated into the Italianate style. Italie villas have low-pitched pyramid roofs with cupolas and thickly bracketed cornices. They are very similar to their counterparts in bucolic Italy. Think of the Vito Corleone villain’s villa in the Godfather part II. In the summer heat, the windows are open and hot air is drawn up through a cupola to cool these city mansions. In real life, the landed gentlemen would have gone to their country homes in the summer. The Italian term for this season is an estate.

The villas in Italy are made from stone or brick. However, American builders built these houses, especially in the country, in wood frames. The flat roofs of the porches, which are often missing entirely, feature classical columns and slender roofs. Open gabled roofs eventually replace the pyramid roofs, shifting the towers to one side.

Pictorial St. Louis shows numerous Italianate villas in the surrounding countryside to the west of St. Louis. The Tower Grove House, Missouri Botanical Garden’s most well-preserved house, is perhaps the most notable survivor. It was Henry Shaw’s country home. His “city house”, which was relocated from downtown, is in an entirely different style. The 19th century saw architectural styles being chosen based on the building’s function and location. They also followed carefully defined rules. Shaw’s city home is still heavily influenced by Italian architecture, but it follows the Palazzo style. This is a nod to the Florentine influence on Venetian city palaces from four centuries ago.

Although a clear photo of the villa is not possible, it does show us an interesting example of the Italianate style. Lemp’s villa had a one-and-a-half-story layout, rather than the two-story traditional style. This allowed for a massive front doorway that faces the primary elevation. The main house was accompanied by a two-story servants’ wing. A cupola was built above the low-rise roof. However, there appears to have been a “widow’s walk” around the tower, which would have allowed for unobstructed views over the Mississippi River. Lillian Handlan, Lavender Lady, later lived in this villa along with her husband, William Lemp, Jr.

Compton Hill, James B. Eads’ estate house, is a good example of how the Italianate style started to fade and adapt over the 1870s. Eads’ villa, while not typical Italianate in its 1860s sense is a good example of how the style was adopted as the Queen Anne Style and Romanesque Revival grew in popularity after the Civil War. Compton Hill retains the low-pitched roof but the cupola has been removed. The house’s massing is also more solid and royal than it was before. The Renaissance influence can still be seen in the front porch’s slender, paired columns and half-lenser lintels above the front doors and windows.

Unfortunately, the large amount of land that Italianate houses like those owned by the Lemps and Eads took up was too much for the city’s rapid growth in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. When one compares Pictorial St. Louis with the modern streetscape, it is clear that large areas of land that once housed a single house have been replaced by several apartment buildings, or sadly, a lot for a nearby shop. Grand Boulevard became a commercial corridor and many mansions, including villas, were demolished. A few years ago, West Belle Place was demolished as a masterpiece in the Italianate style. Tower Grove East is still home to another example.

The preservation of what is left behind makes it all the more important to repair and rebuild.