Greek Revival - Table of Contents
Greek Revival in Erie County - 1820-1860
By Austin Fox
An excerpt from "Erie County's Architectural Legacy," Austin Fox, ed. Pub. by the Erie County Preservation Board, 1983.
Reprinted with permission from the Austin Fox estate.
The origins of the Greek Revival style in Erie County (New York) can be traced back to the mid-eighteen century when groups of young English aristocrats, called Dilettanti, began systematically to explore the architecture of the past and to publish books of engravings of the long forgotten buildings of ancient Greece and Rome.
The decorative subtleties and richness of the Roman style made it readily adaptable to American use by the late 1780s, but Grecian architecture, with its preoccupation with the Doric temple, was less easily assimilated.
How, then, did Americans determine during the 1820s and '30s that their homes, churches, and civic buildings should resemble Greek temples? The reasons are political, cultural, and artistic.
The Greek Revival was pioneered in America by a few enlightened architects who recognized in its solid geometric forms a primal, absolute quality that would negate America's architectural debt to eighteenth-century England and provide a clean slate for the future. To the popular mind the Greek temple was associated with the origins of American democracy in ancient Greece. The recent conformation with the British in the war of 1812 reaffirmed America's belief in its democracy, and the Greek war of independence from the Turks in the 1820s continued to feed the growing enthusiasm for Greece among Americans.
The adaptation of the Greek temple to domestic use and its diffusion westward from America's major cities was brought about by the authors of architectural handbooks :
- Asher Benjamin, whose "American Builder's Companion" and "Practical House Carpenter" of 1830 introduced Greek details;
- Minard Lafever, whose "Modern Builder's Guide" of 1833 carried the first temple-formed houses, and
- the lesser-known Chester Hills, whose books provided more modest, pilaster-bearing Grecian houses.
It is characteristic of the individualism of American builders that none of the Greek Revival buildings in Erie County are taken directly from an architectural book, yet several of the houses have details that are clearly book-derived. As a group, the buildings are striking in their temple-like solidity and fine proportion, simulating on one hand the performance of stone and yet retaining the American craftsman's love of finely wrought wooden detail.