Greek Revival

Peak Popularity ~ 1820 - 1850

 

During the early 19th century, there was good deal of hostility toward England after the burning of Washington in the war of 1812, which had substantially hurt American pride.  Though architectural imports from England continued, they had to be Greek.  To make matters even more emotional, the Greeks were fighting a desperate war for independence from the Turks, and Americans were sympathetic.

Greek Revival style became an intricate part of everyday life.  Women wore their hair up in Greek style. Houses and buildings were erected as little temples in small frontier towns.  Visitors to our young nation were amazed - and amused to find Greek temples in clearings where only months before Indians had lived.   The visitors were also entertained by the fact that our little temple houses were made of wood instead of the traditional marble.  Towns themselves were named Athens, Syracuse, Troy, and Rome.  Everything from silverware to furniture were all inspired with Greek design.  So what is with all this Greek stuff?  Because Greeks invented democracy.  For the first time American democracy was looked upon desirably.  However, to Americans of this period, democracy was a Greek concept and the rule of the common man was democracy.

The Greek Revival house is America's first Romantic configuration.  The Federal houses immediately preceding these Greek Revivals used Classical forms, but only as restrained and delicate relief.  The Federal style was part of a long and sensible evolution that provided shelter with a touch of style.  The Greek Revivals were monuments to a mood. 

Ironic Fact:

Even with the all of the anti-English sentiment pervading the day, the first Greek Revival architecture was introduced to America by an English-born, English-trained architect Benjamin Latrobe.  In 1798 he designed  and supervised the building of the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  That building was the first in a long line of public and domestic buildings whose style would come close to creating a new national style, although not for another thirty years later.

 

Defining Features

  • Temple-front entryway - Entry door surrounded by rectangular transom and sidelights (never rounded like federal).
  • Gable front floor plan
  • Almost always painted white - To resemble the white marble greek temples they were designed after
  • Front and back of the home are nearly identical -  This applies mainly to Greek Revival Mansions
  • Columns supporting a Pediment - On common home these were usually square.  More elaborate homes, they were round.  Craftsmen of the period sometimes tacked strips of wood to the columns to make the appear fluted.
  • Wide decorative band between the pediment and the columns called an Entablature.
  • Larger type Dentil moldings along the eaves and pediment
  • Flat or low pitched roofs - Standing seam metal roofs - usually painted red or green were used to help relieve the weight of snow. 

        **There is a Greek building on the campus of Drew University in       Madison, New jersey that has an ingenious mechanical bracing system for the roof that allows it to settle under the pressure of heavy snow.  Pretty cool eh?

 

Examples

Simple farm houses were built to look like Greek Temples by simply adding a pediment and some columns.  The passerby wouldn't even notice the false front covering the small shed.

 

Classic Greek Revival with fluted columns

 

Exception to the rule

In Virginia and further south, the transition from British-inspired architecture to the Greek Revival was a bit blurred by the influences of designs by Thomas Jefferson.  Jeffersonian homes used Federal elements such as semicircular fanlights over principal doorways.  These structures also employed domes rather than arches, which are not Greek, but Roman.  While the pediment, frieze, columns, and balustrades were painted white, the body of the building was red brick.  Mr. Jefferson's designs were essentially Roman rather than Greek and were said to be inspired to his exposure to ancient Roman buildings in southern France during his time as the ambassador to that country in the 1780's.  Monticello and similar buildings are samples of Jeffersonian Classicism.

 

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