What is ‘GREEK REVIVAL’ ? (part I)

A series discussion of architectural styles in the U.S.
Rendering courtesy of D. Tracy Ward 1986 – Columbus, Mississippi ca. 1852

Well, certainly it must have something to do with a resurgence of all things from ancient Greece, right?  Grecian precedent yes … but Greek Revival is not ALL things from the historic Mediterranean world.  Like most things “reborn” or “revived”, the new creation is different from the original in at least some capacities, as is the case herein.  Academic historians state the American Greek Revival style falls into the wider category called the “Romantic” period, which encompasses the era 1820-1880 and includes Exotic, Greek and Gothic Revivals, Italianate, and Octagon styles.  It should be noted that at the end of this period as defined, sometimes more elaborate versions appeared – now labeled as High Victorian Gothic or High Victorian Italianate.  Many instances blended multiple details from varying styles, so identification isn’t always easy or obvious!

Although, relatively easy to identify and diagnose is the Greek Revival (GR) style specifically in America.  At least visually, the GR was largely a specific acknowledgement to the unique “temple” form that is so recognizable in the examples of the Temple of Hephaestos, Temple of Aphaia, the Parthenon, Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and others.  As historians like to do with perfect hindsight, we now put this American style period in a box branded with the label: 1820-1860; although as you might imagine, it didn’t exactly  (and still doesn’t) quite fit within those precise confines.

Image courtesy of http://teachersites.schoolworld.com – Temple of Hephaestos – Athens, Greece built ca. 400s BCE

The fascination with ancient Greek architecture began in the mid-1700s when British architect James Stuart visited the country and began incorporating the elements of the Grecian style into his own design projects … even publishing the multi-volume The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece in 1762.  The style had declined in Britain and Europe by the 1820s.  But, in America, the style’s recognizable forms reigned for several decades as the primary choice for church houses, court houses, school houses, bird houses, and even out-houses!

Kennedy’s ‘Greek Revival America’ excerpt page 199:    . . . John William Ward spied the paradox in the relationship of Old Hickory to Cincinnatus.   Americans “rejected Europe” in the Jacksonian period, but their imagery, verbal and architectural, was “saturated” with classical references implying “an obeisance to European tradition rather than alienation from it.  Americans were so fond of classical imagery because they imagined themselves to constitute a return to the uncorrupted state of the past, before the fall, so to speak, while contemporary Europe seemed a corruption of the virtues of its own past.  It was logically possible for Americans in their rejection of Europe as degenerate to have become antiquarians and to have exemplified Europe’s present fall from grace by reference to a golden past.”   Ward summed up with a line written by a Jacksonian dramatist and put into the mouth of one of the victors at New Orleans in 1815:   “Our western wilds preserve the ancient glory”.

Politically and ideologically, the popularity and prolific use of the style perhaps is owed to the successful model of Democracy that the Greeks offered.  Following the War of 1812, America naturally rejected its traditional ties to England.  While the Federal Style faded in popularity, the Greek Revival imagery offered a new, potentially nationalized, style that could be customized to be . . . Uniquely AMERICAN.  As stated earlier, by the 1820-40s American architects (almost all of them self-trained) and builders were waist-deep in new building designs, pattern book publications, and a general fascination entrenched in the new Greek classical stylistic language.  In fact, it was often called the National Style and made popular by such famous architects as Benjamin Latrobe (1806-1878), William Strickland (1788-1854), Robert Mills (1781-1855), and Ithiel Town (1784-1844).

HABS drawing courtesy of Library of Congress – Huntsville, Alabama courthouse built ca.1835; demolished 1914

The best-selling book by Virginia and Lee McAlester (A Field Guide to American Houses – 2013 edition) describes the style’s identifying features thusly:  “Gabled or hip roof of low pitch; cornice line of main roof and porch roofs emphasized with wide band of trim (this represents the classical entablature and is usually divided into two parts: the frieze above and the architrave below); most have porches (either entry or full width) supported by prominent square or rounded columns, typically of Doric style; front door surrounded by narrow sidelights and a rectangular line of transom lights above, door and lights usually incorporated into more elaborate door surround.”

One of the most familiar architectural typologies in America is the colonnaded Greek Revival mansions of the southern states.  The Civil War basically concluded the wide use of Greek Revival, and subsequently the latter Romantic Styles (mentioned previously) occupied its place for the remainder of the 19th century.  If one judges today the sins of America’s past, we might be tempted to divorce ourselves from a style and bravura that may represent (for some) the evil treatment of human beings by other human beings.  But instead, I suggest the forms, details, proportions, visual geometries, etc. of Grecian architecture were developed 1,000’s of years ago, based on those same qualities found in God-created nature, and therefore are not inherently wicked.  On the contrary – aesthetically speaking, let’s acknowledge together – Greek Revival in the United States is simple, stunning, stately and splendid architecture to be appreciated and enjoyed in all its wonder and beauty … by all.

Girod_12-12-17 15

Contemporary, or present-day, projects can still blend the bold elements of Greek Revival into a strikingly handsome estate, even for smaller massing forms and/or when guided by a constrained budget.  This project illustrated above – a private and modest residential estate – is soon to be under construction in Madison County, Mississippi.  Its design was inspired and guided by the vernacular and regional historical derivatives (dogtrot for example) of the Greek Revival found all around the state…as well as the Southeast in general.

My personal favorite example of the southern Greek Revival style embodies more than the tangible characteristics discussed and identified above.  This place (in Columbus, Mississippi) has a personal and profound position along my path to becoming a registered architect.  This is a place that first impacted my understanding and fascination of architecture and history.  This Greek Revival gem embodies all the dramatic triumph and tragedy of the pioneer South.  This is . . . A Place we call RIVENDELL.

“Rivendell” ca. 1850 – Natalee Ward in 2009



D. Tracy Ward, Architect

Uploaded November 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0033

Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC.  God bless America!  Treasure Liberty always and pass it on!   “Architecture aims at Eternity.  [CHRISTOPHER WREN, Parentalia]

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