By the time the transcontinental railroad pulled into Alameda on Sept. 6, 1869, Italianate was the most popular house style in the United States.
In 1870, when Franklin Pancoast hired builder George Severance to build his home in Alameda, about 400 families lived in the township. According to local historian J. Monro- Fraser, Alameda had made “prodigious strides toward prosperity.” Most of the township’s residents “owned their own premises,” Monro-Fraser informed the readers of M. W. Wood’s 1883 History of Alameda County.
The Central Pacific Railroad’s first transcontinental train had crossed the peninsula less than a year before Pancoast hired Severance. And George Lewis had just announced he had started a stagecoach line from Alameda by way of the towns of San Antonio and Brooklyn (in present-day East Oakland) for the less-daring not willing to take advantage of a newfangled mode of transportation.
Town fathers were also seriously talking about making Oakland more accessible by way of a bridge at Webster Street. Monro-Fraser called the 1870 alternative of reaching the city across the estuary a “weary, plodding journey to the slimy banks of the San Antonio Creek and across it to Oakland.”
Pancoast hired Severance to build a home in the Italianate style and the Pancoast residence has many of the style’s features. These include a low-pitched roof, a balanced, symmetrical rectangular shape — disturbed by an addition of a wing on the south side of the home and tall windows.
The Italianate style began in England in the 1840s, influenced by the late 18th-century Picturesque Movement. Since the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, homes tended to be formal and classical in style. With the Picturesque Movement, however, builders began to design fanciful recreations of Italian Renaissance villas.
Alexander Jackson Davis introduced Italianate as an alternative to the Gothic or Greek Revival styles. When Italianate moved to the United States, builders and designers reinterpreted it, creating a uniquely American style. “Blandwood,” the governor’s mansion in North Carolina, completed in 1846, claims to be the oldest example of Italianate architecture in the United States.
By the time the transcontinental railroad pulled into Alameda on Sept. 6, 1869, Italianate was the most popular house style in the United States. Just a year earlier in 1868, prominent Oakland physician Enoch Pardee chose this style for his home. The home still exists at 11th and Castro streets in Oakland.
Perhaps Pancoast and Severance drew inspiration from the Pardee home. Pardee, however, chose to take a step that Pancoast decided against: Pardee added the square tower, a cupola, that characterizes the Italian villa. Although Pancoast chose to dispense with the cupola, he did add a porch and wide balcony to give his family’s home a personality of its own.
Other families built homes in the Italianate style in the neighborhood around the Pancoast home. In 1875, D. L. Munson chose this style for his family’s home on Eagle Avenue. The Munson home is a taller, more rectangular home, reminiscent of Italianate homes found in larger cities.
Munson was a mining superintendent; he lived in the home with his wife, Mary, and son, Harry. A third Italianate-style home in the neighborhood gives a taller, more massive appearance than the Pancoast or Munson home.
The Munson and Bishop homes have distinctive Italianate features not seen in the plainer Pancoast home: a bay window, taller windows with hood moldings and brackets that define the cornice line.