The Greek Revival style, at its height from 1820 to 1840 in America, parallels a period of geographic expansion and growing national identity. Part fashion, part conscious aesthetic, the Greek Revival, or Grecian, style is defined by the adaptation of ancient Greek forms of architecture and decorative motifs to new uses. Publications such as James “Athenian” Stuart’s and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens—the first accurate survey of Greek architecture ever undertaken—originally published in four volumes from 1762 through 1816, sparked a fashion for the Grecian style first in Europe and then in America. In America, though, 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 and found parallels in the Greek War for Independence of 1821-1828, during which time, after nearly four hundred years of Turkish rule, Greeks fought their own revolution. Viewing ourselves as inheritors of the Greek democratic tradition forging a new democratic state, seeing parallels with another people fighting for their own freedom, we imagined ourselves as a new Athens. Our classically educated politicians and landowners were also familiar with the myths and history of Greece and the classical world.
From the east coast to the mid-western United States we find towns named for Greek ones such as Corinth, Athens, or Ithaca where industrious Americans 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 urns. 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 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 were Greek in in spirit and wholly American, not copies, but creations.
A typical Greek Revival style 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, since 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 carpenters. 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.
Enjoy below this gallery of selected Greek Revival houses built throughout America.
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