Have you ever thought that some older buildings seem to be oddly proportioned — perhaps a bit top-heavy? Often there is nothing wrong with their proportions; the problem may instead be with our modern perception of what a building’s exterior should look like (and how its interior should function). While today the most important rooms of a modern house are typically near grade level, at various times in the past (and increasingly in the present) these same spaces were elevated well above grade.
The piano nobile (“noble floor” in Italian) is the principal floor of a substantial house. It is typically located on what Americans refer to as the second or third floor (the ground floor was reserved for more utilitarian, service-oriented, purposes and not entertaining). The practice of elevating the principal living areas began during the Italian Renaissance — and was thereafter employed by architects everywhere with a penchant for Classical Renaissance architecture.
The concept impacted exteriors in a tangible way; the piano nobile, with its higher ceilings and taller windows, is evident from the exterior and easily distinguished from the ground floor which reads as a base with its smaller windows and sometimes coarser finish.
Why did the affluent build in this way? While the exteriors of such houses are very attractive (and were meant to impress), the real reason was far more practical: elevating the most important and refined spaces above the street level offered these rooms better views, some isolation from the numerous distractions of the street and, no doubt, better security. The original concept, frequently incorporating a central courtyard, made much more sense in the Mediterranean climate where it originated but that has not diminished its subsequent popularity elsewhere.
As with many other architectural concepts, this one eventually migrated to America. More commonly found in large, older, cities in the South and on either coast, examples do appear in more obscure places. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the concept was sometimes more implied on the exterior of modest houses than actually realized in functional interior hierarchy. Exteriors such as these were often merely a form of pretense (much like nailing boards onto a house and calling it “half timbered” or “Tudor”). The well-to-do, however, continued to embrace the concept fully well into the 20th century. First we’ll look at some European examples before getting to American interpretations.
Now let’s see how this concept has been applied in some American structures…
The last examples appear to be merely pretentious in that they emulate the look on the exterior but fail to follow through in actual interior hierarchy: