Greek Revival - Table of Contents
An excerpt from "The American House," by Mary Mix Foley. 1980
The Greek Revival occurred at one of those moments in time which later generations tend to think of as golden. There was peace, prosperity, freedom - and a future which opened with all the promise of the beckoning mountains, woods, and prairie to the west. After two hundred years of Indian raids, of battles with the French, of two wars for independence from England, of the trials of forming their own government, Americans had emerged from the struggle to find that the day was sunny and the land their own.
When the Greek Revival took hold in America around the year 1820, the entire culture which welcomed it had been classically oriented for over two centuries. Latin and Greek (sometimes taught at home by clergymen fathers) were the basics of instruction beyond the three "Rs." Roman and Greek mythology, while not perhaps so thoroughly familiar as the Bible, was widely known. A contemporary novel or poem was scarcely understandable without a working knowledge of classical myth.
The vocabulary of classical architecture - column, pediment, portico, entablature, cornice, frieze, architrave, modillion, dentil, and so on and on - had thus become the common property alike of the classical scholar, the merchant, the plantation owner, and the village carpenter. The one might have this knowledge in his head and the other in his fingers, but it was there.
The Greek Revival was thus not the superficial fashion we have come to see it looking back through the subsequent revival styles of the nineteenth century. Greek architecture was a new and exciting story told, if not in the native tongue, at least in a thoroughly familiar second language, at precisely the moment when all other tales had grown stale and old.
Thomas Jefferson has proposed the Roman classic as a suitable architecture for his vision of America. But it was the Greek which proved to be the popular choice. Roman sources were indelibly associated with England. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte's fondness for Roman architecture had rubbed off what remained of its bloom. By contrast, Greek architecture symbolized the earliest democracy in the history of mankind. If further impetus were needed, in 1821, the Greek war for independence from Turkey supplied it, engaging American sympathies and making all things Greek a national fashion.
Perhaps most important of all, the Greek Revival resolved what was left of conflict between the native English medieval traditional and the imported Renaissance. In Chapters 7 and 8, we have shown almost exclusively the hipped-roof (and, later, flat roofed) house which was the carrier of the formal Georgian style. But an engraving of Boston by Paul Revere , drawn in 1760, shows scarcely a house of that type. At the height of the Georgian period in America, prosperous Boston consisted of row after row of neat, rectangular, gable-roofed houses - the old, medieval type - Georgian only in their sash windows, balanced symmetry, and classical treatment at the doorway.
The Greek Revival fitted this house like the glass slipper when placed on the proper foot. The temple shape was ideally suited to the traditional gable-roofed house. America's most popular dwelling need only be turned gable end to street for proper attachment of the portico. With this new orientation, and its accompanying colonnade., a modest everyday dwelling gained new dignity, quite in keeping with the changed mood of its occupants.
If a portico was beyond the owner's means, pilasters, or merely a frieze beneath the eaves, and Greek enframement at the doorways could serve the purpose. If nothing more, an existing house might become a reasonable facsimile of Greek marble by the simple expedient of painting it white. Old houses were easily brought into fashion; new houses were not beyond the ken of existing building practice
Nor was there anything finicky or precious about the style. A Greek portico, especially in the Doric order, was bold, strong, and simple, yet far more impressive with its great two-story columns than the restrained Georgian facade. Gone were the curves and delicate traceries of the Adam fashion, its elliptical fanlights, oval attic windows, bowed rooms. Windows and doorways, even including glass transom and sidelights, were now straight, square, sturdy, and on the level - the self-image of a newly confident and independent America.
Though in style the Greek Revival was a culmination of the classical tradition, technologically it presided over the beginning of America's industrial age. The entire period was one of invention and change. The years between 1820 and the Civil War - the approximate dates of the Greek Revival - saw steamboats on the Mississippi, packet service on the Erie canal, locomotive-powered trains whizzing by at 20 miles an hour, iron plows and mechanical reapers on the farm, and a cast-iron cook stove in at least some fortunate kitchens. If contemporary advertisements are to be believed, a few houses even had complete bathrooms with a tub, mechanical shower bath, and water closet. The Greek Revival dwelling, like no house before it, was entirely up-to-date.
At the same time, it was a pioneer homestead. As Americans pushed beyond the Allegheny Mountains, the log cabin was their first frontier home; but as permanent settlements took shape or prosperity came to struggling plantation owners, the Greek Revival house became the fashionable choice.
In the hands of leading architects, the Greek Revival underwent a surprising "modernization" of both form and detail, resulting in stripped-down designs not unlike the English Regency. A sense of freedom is evident even in builders' handbooks. Minard Lafever entitled his most famous Greek revival pattern book "The Beauties of Modern Architecture." That, of course, is exactly what the Greek style was to the architects and home builders of the early nineteenth century. Architecture was, by definition, classic. This was modern architecture, i.e., the new Greek classic modified and made usable for a contemporary house.