Italians, In a Classical Mood

By on 15 March, 2011 in Elizabeth Ann Brown with 8 Comments

The influences of historic architectural styles in the early part of the twentieth century make a for a rich body of work to discover in Midtown Montgomery. We can see the influence of broader architectural education everywhere. Dear Old A.P.I. (now more popularly known as Auburn University) opened their Architecture program in 1905 and, if the early student watercolors displayed on the walls of the Dean’s office are any indication, they were studying the classical influences. It was a time of prosperity in our country, and burgeoning American influence worldwide. Still, we borrowed from European styles with abandon, although whether to emulate them or subsume them by copying them to death, I am not sure! No matter what the impulse, the Italian Renaissance made it to our shores, a few hundred years in the trip.

“Didn’t we read in these pages about Italianate houses before?”, you might be saying to yourself as you click back through the archives. Yes, but those Italianate buildings seem more like notions of Italian architecture, and these more like the real thing.

The Italian Renaissance-styled buildings for the early decades of the 20th century turned out to be more faithful copies of the originals than the ones discussed in the previous post on the Italian influence on Montgomery buildings. Perhaps this is because Montgomery residents (and the architects they hired) were better traveled and more likely to be familiar with the real thing, or because books and increased access to formal education made images of Italy more available. Actually, our American fascination with all things Italian dates back to the founding of our country, as Thomas Jefferson and others found inspiration in the villas of Italian renaissance architect Andrea Palladio for houses like Monticello.

Character-defining features for these Italian Renaissance styled buildings include hipped roofs with terra-cotta tiles, especially barrel tiles, overhanging eaves with heavy brackets, and often a largely symmetrical composition. Walls were often stucco, but also stone and brick, and details like tri-part arches and French doors on the ground floors opened the houses to pleasant weather. Rather than using double-hung sash windows, in these homes, windows lean towards casements. Renaissance-inspired moulding, door and window surrounds abound, rusticated stones, and quoins (those short-and-long stones on the corners), are all typical.


Originally built in 1938 as the Federal courthouse and main Post Office, the style of architecture was meant to assure people of the power and stability of our government.

The foremost example of this style, and a building which could hold its own with any similarly styled building in the country, is the Frank Johnson Federal Courthouse on Montgomery and Court Streets. Designed by Montgomery’s favorite architect of the early 20th century, Frank Lockwood, it embodies the heart the Florentine Renaissance, with a highly articulated stone base and stones which become smooth and flat above the ground floor, although the joints are still very pronounced. Notice the pedimented window surrounds on the second floor, a very Renaissance characteristic. Note the way that the much larger new addition (by local architect Bargainer Davis Sims) sweeps away from the original building, leaving it to stand in splendor on the corner. When working with GSA during the plans for the addition, I was surprised to see that the entire Lockwood building was constructed with a few sheets of drawings and a couple of pages of notes. Gone are the days when the architect and contractor collaborated and worked so much out in the field! The plans and specs for the new building ran to hundreds of pages.

On to the northwest corner of Perry and Felder to see an Italian house which, like the courthouse, is perfect in its detail. This house, also by Frank Lockwood, has a front portico of limestone and three arches, with French windows flanking. The hipped roof of rare green tiles rests on a cornice which looks lifted from a architecture text, with wide eaves showing exposed rafter tails and heavy paired brackets supporting the eaves. Don’t miss the rear entrance on Felder, where no design detail was spared to make sure the owners of the house entered the back door as handsomely as the visitor entered the front. Can Gatsby be far behind? The house is featured in the Field Guide to American Houses (McAlester), where the photo shows the house clearly, made possible by a very bare landscape. Current owners have developed a formal garden in the front which screens them from busy Perry Street. We may have lost a clear view, but the lush landscaping adds immeasurably to the livability of the house.

This is the end (Felder Avenue) façade of the house, showing the limestone sunroom. Note the swag carved in relief about the French windows, and the balustrade on the roof. Is that an Italian cypress planted to the left?

I usually try to talk about buildings in a logical order so that if you drive around to look at things you can don’t have to double back. Not this time, you’ll have to go around the block and start Perry Street again from Fairview (Note to self: Why do we have one-way streets in a residential neighborhood? To annoy the residents? Waste gas? Encourage people to drive our streets at 55 MPH? Just asking…). There are several houses in these early blocks starting on the west side. On the corner, and almost hidden by an immense hedge, is an example with a projecting bay and beautifully proportioned tri-part entry with arched center. These responsible homeowners completely reworked their tile roof a few years ago – It will last another hundred years. Further down on the other side of the street is a one-story example, very unusual, and one of my favorite houses in Montgomery. This house lacks the heavy cornice work one might expect to find under the hipped roof, but oh, that portico! The three-part Palladian-inspired opening makes a graceful statement, and the center of the main facade has a frontispiece of limestone as well.

The scale of the limestone portico and frontispiece (a fancy name for the stuff around the doorway) makes this otherwise simple house rise above the ordinary.

You might want to continue down the block and take a left on Felder and go east for a quick look at several other fine houses. On the northwest corner of Felder and Gilmer is the historic home of builder Algernon Blair, the builder who partnered with Frank Lockwood on many of the houses we’re looking at. This house, which has very fine grounds, was a frame house which was remodeled in the Italian mode. Keep going and take a right on Hull, and pause a minute at the corner of Hull and Rose Lane to see a stucco example, with wonderful rusticated stone work and a somewhat less symmetrical facade. Two houses down and on the other side of the street is an example one might take for a Georgian example, until you consider the cornice and the French windows with striped awnings. One almost expects to turn around and see the Mediterranean.

The jewel of Fairview Avenue, St. Jude has a richly detailed interior probably unknown to most Montgomerians. The whole campus is well-designed, with all the buildings showing the same hand.

If you continue on to Fairview and turn right again, you can visit the campus of St. Jude, wholly Italian in concept, and visit the Church of St. Jude. The church is not based on the Italian Renaissance, but on earlier Romanesque architecture from a couple of hundred years before. It is specifically the Roman church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, designed to honor Mary, who was especially inspirational to Father Purcell, the founder of St. Jude. It’s hard to miss the spectacular tower as you come up the central drive. It rises to an open belfry with three arched openings, and then a beautiful blue glazed (very expensive, and the only one I’ve ever seen) terracotta tile roof. The church is the traditional pattern of a tall nave in the center, with clerestory windows above, and lower side aisles on either side. Like St. John’s downtown, this is a church you must go in. The interior is richly embellished with text and symbols. The windows on the west are embellished with the seven sacraments, and on the east, the Apostle’s Creed. Horizontal beams above are carved with the Ten Commandments. If your mind wandered during the service, it didn’t wander far with so much to ponder.

Finally, if you work downtown, come home one afternoon on less-traveled Lawrence Street, and take a good look at the American take on a Paladian villa which crowns the street on Clanton. A simple but strong facade with a classical portico and a red tile roof, its sited on what could be an Italian hilltop. This house is best seen in the late afternoon when the western sun turns the yellow brick into golden stone, the view of which may partially explain the 1920’s fascination with yellow brick. Unfortunately, our desire to drive too fast and hit the large retaining wall has left our traffic engineering department little recourse but to obscure the front with reflective signs. Go, and look yourself so your eye can edit these ugly things out.

Architects might call this house a “temple with wings” because of its central portico flanked by hipped roof wings.

Further reading? If you want to see the Italian influence, the neo-classical, and other of the eclectic influences at their best, you would probably enjoy The Houses of McKim, Mead, and White, by Samuel G. White. The author, a grandson of the architect, has written an interesting text, and with photographs by Jonathan Wallen, one of the best architectural photographers in the country, this book is hard to beat. Get Capitol Book and News to order you a fresh copy, or search out a bargain from one of the used book sites.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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  1. Around the Mediterranean | 11 May, 2011
  1. Sandra Nickel says:

    Elizabeth, I so envy you your education and your erudition!

  2. David Braly says:

    Thank you Elizabeth for a fine and interesting article. A note: Frank Lockwood may have been inspired by architectural reconstructions of the Basilica Emilia in the Roman Forum for the colossal columns on the courthouse; they are the exact same Roman Doric order and size. So, ancient Rome does indeed live on in Montgomery!

    • Elizabeth Brown says:

      Thanks, David. I would never have known about the Basilica Emilia, but am not surprised that you and Frank Lockwood knew! Elizabeth

  3. Charles Barnette says:

    A marvelous trip. What insight you shared. I would enjoy your comment on the First Baptist Church at 305 S. Perry, which is based on an Italian design for Il Duomo in Florence, Italy. There is a brochure on its architectural beauty and function available at the church.

    • Elizabeth Brown says:

      Charles, you are so right! After every article, I see things and think, “Oh, I should have included that!” And First Baptist is one of those things I should have included. I especially appreciate what good care First Baptist takes of their historic building, and the care taken over the years to make sure their editions respect the historic buildings. For example, the new sanctuary is HUGE, but the way the connection is stepped back, and the change to more subdued materials in the new construction means the old building still reads to the eye as a separate building. I love the way the dome rises into view as I come up Perry Street to work.

  4. What a great article. Thank you Elizabeth for taking the time to highlight some of our Montgomery treasures.

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