The Greek Revival, or Grecian, style (at its height from 1820 to 1840) parallels a period of geographic expansion and growing national identity in America. Part fashion, part conscious aesthetic, the Greek Revival is defined by its inventive use of ancient Greek forms. Publications such as Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens drove a fashion for the Grecian style first in Europe and then in America. But in America, it was more than fashion, it was political. As a young country emerging from the shadow of our British colonial past, we sought new paradigms. Viewing ourselves as inheritors of the Greek democratic tradition, we saw ourselves as the new Athens.
From the East to the Midwest we find towns named for Greek ones such as Corinth, Athens, or Ithaca. In these towns we built city halls, banks, churches, houses, even outhouses, with orders borrowed from the Parthenon or the Tower of the Winds, for example, and ornamented with palmettes, fretwork, and friezes. The Grecian influence even extended to the decorative arts and dress. In many ways it represents our first, and perhaps only, national style.
Its rapid and consistent spread as a style was due in part to the publication of numerous builder’s books such as the sixth edition of The American Builder’s Companion (1827) or the Practical House Carpenter (1830), both by Asher Benjamin. From these and others, builders learned the Greek orders and used them to create buildings that while Greek in inspiration were wholly American in spirit.
A typical Greek Revival house might be one to two-and-a-half stories with a low-pitched roof oriented with its ridge perpendicular to the street so its end gable formed the pediment of a classical temple. To further the temple front motif a full entablature (cornice, frieze, and architrave) wrapped the entire house or returned deeply under the gable end. Sometimes this gable end extended out over a porch with columns, sometimes only wide pilasters were used to achieve the image of a temple front. Side hall plans were typical as the house was turned so its plan was narrow and deep, but it was challenging to fit the normal house functions within the pure temple form so one story wings were commonly added to one or both sides.
The Greek Revival period nurtured both the birth of a national style of architecture and the architectural profession in America. During this time architects such as Latrobe, Mills, and Strickland approached their training and work professionally, though most houses were still built by craftsmen. What better captures the spirit of America than everyman having a little bit of Athens? An illuminating book about this period is Greek Revival Architecture in America by Talbot Hamlin. Practice of Architecture (1833) and The Builders Guide (1839), both by Asher Benjamin have been brought together in a most useful manner by Thomas Gordon Smith and published by Da Capo Press in 1994. These books and more on America’s traditional domestic architecture and classical architecture may be found at my online bookshop.
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