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.

Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, Italy, c. 1450. Like many early examples, this façade is comprised of three tiers which emphasize horizontality. The piano nobile is the center tier.

Palazzo Loredan Dell’Ambasciatore, Venice, Italy. A 15th century example with a Gothic façade. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice, Italy, 18th century. A landmark structure of baroque and rococo design. Note the oval windows below the cornice; this detail would later be emulated in many mid-19th century American houses built in the then-fashionable Italianate style. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, England, 17th and 18th centuries. South façade. This landmark Neoclassical design uses external stairs to connect directly to the piano nobile rather than requiring passage through the lower level — a feature found in many Italian and English examples. Photo Credit: Tony Messenger

Now let’s see how this concept has been applied in some American structures…

Decatur House, Washington, D.C., c. 1818. The tallest windows clearly indicate the piano nobile of this Federal style townhouse. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Row houses, Baltimore, Maryland. Early 19th century examples with tripartite windows.
These houses are quite modest for the genre. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Boonville, Missouri, c. 1844. This Greek Revival house may have originally had an exterior staircase leading up to the porch of the piano nobile. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Tiffany-Fisher house, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1842. The piano nobile of this handsome Greek Revival overlooks one of four small parks flanking Baltimore’s Washington Monument. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Patterson House, 15 Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., 1901-1903. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Embassy of Mexico (MacVeagh House), Washington, D.C., 1911. Many substantial Washington houses such as this one built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style are today utilized as embassies. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Townhouses, Houston, Texas, 2011. Because the concept behind the piano nobile plan is practical in many ways, it is no surprise that it is making a comeback — particularly in the construction of townhouses. Here it allows for garages on narrow city lots. Photo source: zillow.com

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:

Delphi, Indiana, c. 1860. In this Italianate example, despite the emphasis of the upper level with its tall, arched, windows, the formal rooms are on the lower level; the look is purely superficial. The porch appears to be a c. 1880 update. Image courtesy Google Street View.

Row house, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, c. 1848. While the window openings of the second floor are taller, it is doubtful that this level ever served as the main floor. The taller windows are likely a later an Italianate “update” as adjacent houses (built at the same time) have shorter window openings on the second floor. Photo source: zillow via oldhousedreams.com
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