The Italian Style
in Historic Chatham, Virginia

By Henry, Patricia, Sarah, David, and Jonathan Mitchell

Following the Greek and Gothic Revivals, the Italian Style was chronologically the third Romantic architectural genre of Victorian America. It came into vogue partially as a result of the fascination with Italy of the Romantic poets (Byron and Shelley, for example) and Luminist painters (Cole, Church, and others). Italian-inspired design offered relief from both the formal symmetrical rigidity of Greek Revival and the frenetic vertical "churchiness" of Gothic Revival. (See also The Victorian Villa Architectural Style.)

The Italian Style assumed three general types — Italian villa, Renaissance Revival, and Italianate — only the first and last of which are seen locally.

First came the large, charmingly asymmetrical Italian villas, patterned after Italy's rambling ancient multi-generational country estates. These new-but-seemingly-old designs lent an aura of stability, dignity, tradition, and environmental consciousness to the suburban or rural homes of America's Industrial-Age nouveau riche. The Italian villas typically had extensive park-like naturalistically-landscaped grounds, a floor plan convenient to a life involving entertainment and a staff of house servants, a liberal use of brackets, bays, cornices (often arched), and in many cases a tower.

The second Italian type, the Renaissance Revival, is not seen locally. The Renaissance Revival was derived from Italy's urban palaces, and was therefore more often used for city mansions and townhouses, and commercial and institutional buildings. In contrast to the informal, landscaped Italian villas, the Renasissance Revival streetfront buildings were typically of heavy mass, symmetry, and formality.

The third Italian type, and the last to appear, is called “Italianate.” It involves the adaptation of Italian-style ornamentation — brackets, bays, and cornices — to all types of buildings, not just the prestigious and imposing. Thus the signature Italian-style embellishments are often found on Italianate cottages, farmhouses, churches, and even otherwise-Greek-Revival or Federal structures, all the way up to the early 1900's.

Locally, during the 1800's Italianate details were added to buildings new and old. Then, during the 1900's, many of those decorative items were stripped away again, first in response to Arts-and-Crafts and Neoclassical simplification, then later to avoid the labor and expense of maintaining these now-aging forms.

(See also architectural pattern books from the period, containing Italian Villa, Italian Renaissance, and Italianate examples.)

Sims-Mitchell House

Sims-Mitchell House

James Whittle had this house built in 1875 for his daughter Matoaka, her husband William E. Sims, and their two sons James and John. R. C. Saunders was contractor for the project (see memorandum), and he was also simultaneously involved in the construction of Chatham's first railroad station.

Over a period of several decades James Whittle had bought up numerous small pieces of land to create a large tract in west Chatham. The house for William and Matoaka Sims was positioned on this tract at the point of a ridge overlooking the Cherrystone Creek. The front slope of the house was landscaped as a terraced garden facing downtown Chatham across one of Cherrystone Creek's spring-fed tributary valleys.

The design chosen was an Italian villa, resembling some of Philadelphia/Raleigh architect Samuel Sloan's pattern-book offerings of two decades prior, possibly with adjustments made to accommodate the abilities of local tradesman and the careful financing of James Whittle. Its first level was an English basement containing the warming kitchen, dining room, and a family sitting room. Its second level included a master bedroom suite and a double parlor. On the third level was a ballroom and the boys' bedroom suite. The fourth level, a finished half-story, is thought to have housed a servants' quarter. Eleven fireplaces served the main rooms, and at least that many additional halls, alcoves, and anterooms made service and family living more convenient. The formal entry hall and parlors on the second level have plaster cornices and ceiling medallions. Plaster throughout the house is heavily fortified with horsehair and hog bristle. A two-story banister rail is of walnut.

To emulate the flat surface of Italian stone or stucco, tongue-and-groove siding made of tightly-grained shortleaf pine was chosen. Deeply overhanging eaves with brackets sheltered the exterior wall. Flat cornices covered asymmetrically-arranged windows and doors. Originally, the square-columned portico had brackets and flat-sawn fleur-de-lis balusters on two levels. The porch balusters and brackets were lost to decay during the 1900's, and the balusters have been replaced with a fleur-de-lis pattern of wrought iron. A story-and-a-half bay generously allows outdoor light into the basement dining room and the front parlor on the first level. Of typical Italian villa features, only the tower is missing, a deletion which would have caused a significant reduction in cost with little loss of comfort or convenience.

After the Whittle and Sims family, the house has been owned by Walker, Overbey, Coles, and Grubb families. Since 1975 it has been the residence of Henry and Patricia Mitchell and family. (Their Mitchells Publications hosts this cyberguide to Chatham's architecture.) The Sims-Mitchell House is located at 242 Whittle Street.

Boswell House

Boswell House

The Boswell House at 9 Ridge Street, overlooking Depot Street, is Chatham's best-preserved Italianate house. Likely built during the 1880's, its facade is a study in symmetry, with two identical gables above matching bay windows, and a columned and bracketed porch between. Brackets also grace the bays and the eaves.

The house has been owned and meticulously maintained by two generations of the Boswell family for over sixty years.

Not Far Away

Sutherlin House

Sutherlin House

At 975 Main Street in nearby Danville is seen a remarkable Italian villa, designed by Frank B. Clopton of Richmond and built for Maj. William T. Sutherlin in 1857-58.

The Sutherlin House's exterior is of stuccoed brick, and it boasts arched windows and cornices and a belvedere. The original interior floor plan is quite similar to that of the Sims-Mitchell House (above), but on a larger scale. Its stunning plaster cornices in the formal rooms include freestanding design elements. The service area in the basement was added after its original construction.

The Sutherlin House became known as the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy” in the early 1900's, because of its association with Jefferson Davis and the last meetings of his cabinet during the final days of the Civil War. It was saved from demolition by a community preservation effort in 1912, and served first as the city library, and now as the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.

It is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.



At 447 West Washington Street in Greensboro, North Carolina, is Blandwood, designed and built by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1846 for former North Carolina Governor John Motley Morehead. Blandwood is considered to be the prototype of the Italian Villa style. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, VA.