January 15, 2015 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
The spare lines of General Crook’s frontier military home at Fort Omaha (Metro Community College) don’t quite do justice to the Italianate form. The most regal Italianate homes in Nebraska’s early days were built to send a message: It’s possible to thrive in the “Great American Desert” and, dangit, we’re here to stay.

The list of Nebraska homes on the National Register of Historic Places is peppered with these tall, stately boxes with flat roofs topped with square cupolas. Most famous, perhaps, are the Butler, Gillespie, and Kennard houses near the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. In photos from around 1870, the three homes tower over empty prairie and a mostly paper town. “They were built by promoters of Lincoln to say to people, ‘We have confidence in this new town, you should, too,’” says Jim Potter, author and senior research historian for the Nebraska State Historical Society. “All across the state, you see town boosters using that big, bold style to send a message about their town.”

Just to the west of Omaha, on a hill southeast of Ashland not far from Mahoney State Park, sits a long-silent relic of the early days of statehood. The Bettison Mansion, built in 1874 from limestone quarried near South Bend, Neb., has been in decline for decades and abandoned since the late 1990s. Still, preservationists continue to hope that someone will buy and restore the fortress-like structure. “It’s a special place, not one that anyone would want to see lost,” Potter says.

(For more information on the house, visit ashlandhistoricalsociety.org.)

An Italianate field Guide

  • Low-pitched or flat roof
  • Balanced, symmetrical rectangular shape
  • Tall appearance, with two, three, or four stories
  • Wide, overhanging eaves with brackets and cornices
  • Square cupola
  • Porch topped with balustraded balconies
  • Tall, narrow, double-paned windows with hood moldings
  • Side bay window
  • Heavily molded double doors
  • Roman or segmented arches above windows and doors

The Italianate style began in England in the 1840s. For the previous two centuries, English homes tended to be formal and classical in style. Builders began to mimic the more fanciful design elements of Italian Renaissance villas. Like Queen Anne and other architecture styles, when the Italianate movement came to the United States, it was reinterpreted again to create a uniquely American style.

Italianate forms were fading from fashion along the coasts of the United States by the early 1870s. But, styles tended to arrive and stay later on the frontier. Italianate houses were being built in Nebraska well into the 1880s.

20141204_bs_2045