Greek Revival - Table of Contents

Greek Revival in America
1820-1860
An excerpt from Carole Rifkind, "A Field Guide to American Architecture," 1980

In the 1820's, American admiration for Greece reached a burning intensity - sparked by her valiant struggle against the Turks and fueled by a new understanding of the vigor of her ancient culture. In the spirit of Greek architecture Jacksonian America found its aesthetic ideal.

Minard Lafever (in his "Young Builder's General Instructor," published in Newark in 1829 and one of the most of the many builder's guides that popularized ornament and construction details for Greek Revival architecture) extolled a temple in Athens - known to him only through books - for the "elegant base of the columns," the "grand" proportions of the entablature, the "spacious surface of the frieze," and the "strength" of its appearance.

To a nation that was optimistic, expansive, idealistic, and mindful of posterity, the Greek Revival brought an architecture of beauty, breadth, simplicity, and permanence.

Greek Revival architecture offered a Classical vocabulary that was versatile enough to express both regional vernacular and urbane design concepts, and a mood that was romantic as well as rational.

Above all, Greek Revival was the language of a nation that welcomed innovation and aspired to greatness. "Must man progress in goodness and wisdom? Then, must architecture also!" a Baltimore architect declared. "Architecture must manifest the changes that are taking place in society, the greater ones, we hope and believe, that are yet to come."

In these years, Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota were opened to settlement. The nation's population grew from 10 million to 31 million; her western boundary met at the Pacific. The Greek Revival style was written across the face of a continent.

Materials

The frame dwelling - painted white - is ubiquitous. The "better" house is brick, trimmed with wood or ashlar (square cut) granite, sandstone, or marble.

Columns are almost invariably wood, usually hollow. Decorative cast iron appears in porch and stair railings.

Masonry craftsmanship is at a high level; surfaces are smooth, joints are fine and even. Masonry materials and techniques contribute to the character of regional types such as the cobblestone dwellings of western New York and the old Northwest, the stuccoed stone of German Texas, the cut limestone of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the fieldstone of Pennsylvania, and the ashlar granite of Massachusetts and Maine.

Plan

Whether high-style vernacular, the detached dwelling exhibits ingenious solutions to the problem of containing differentiated interior spaces within a plan that appears geometrically regular on the exterior.

The basic house plan - freestanding or in a row joined by party walls - is a rectangle, typically set short side to the street. The corner unit in a row may be larger and have a side ell.

The freestanding two-story townhouse may be flanked by one-story wings. When the plan is of the four-room five-bay type, entry is through the central stair hall, whether the dwelling faces the front or the side of its lot. Rear wings create an L, T, or irregular plan. A porch is often integrated into the plan.

Forms perpetuating ethnic traditions and all but ignoring Greek Revival style include the Texas German plan with two rooms side by side, the Monterey type with laterally disposed rooms having individual entries and a second-story gallery, and the New Orleans courtyard-oriented house.

Elevation

The Greek Revival dwelling is bold in silhouette, broad in proportions, and simplified in details. The paradigm is the monumental two-story temple front with pedimented gable (trimmed by moldings along the base and sloping sides) or flat entablature. Columns may be freestanding or applied to the facade. Alternatively, when the eaves face the street, they are finished with a cornice and the gable side is embellished with a cornice return.

A portico may also be employed to frame the entry or the door may be framed by pilasters and an entablature. Pilasters may also be applied to the facade.

Greek orders are modified to accord with American taste and carpenter skill free rather than mechanical interpretations of their prototypes.

Doorways and windows are boldly delineated. Door openings are generally flanked by side lights and headed by an oblong transom light. Window openings set in masonry are marked by emphatic lintels, sometimes with carved keystones or Wooden window surrounds are heavily molded and may also emphasize a corner block or a heavy pediment. Windows are approximately the same size as in the Federal period and are typically six-over-six lights. Attic windows may be in a frieze beneath the eaves or in the triangular pediment. Dormers are not usual.

The roof, whether pitched or hipped, is lower than in earlier years; roof height is also minimized by a parapet at the eaves or a flattened deck at the ridge.

As a row house, the Greek Revival dwelling is differentiated from its Federal predecessor mainly in the character of its ornament at door and window and in a certain vigor of proportion and simplicity of mien.

A smooth wall surface provides an ideal background for robust ornamentation in wood, appearing as Greek-inspired foliate and geometric motifs and applied to portico, door surrounds, and eaves. Particularly fine examples of Greek Revival ornament are found in western New York State, Ohio, and Michigan.

Most impressive of all are the Greek Revival plantation houses that symbolized the Ante-bellum South and the border area.


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