A series discussion of architectural styles in the U.S.
(Note: this article gathers my notes and talking points for a presentation at Green Leaves during the upcoming Natchez Fall Pilgrimage tentatively scheduled for Friday evening September 27th , 2019)
We’ve written previously a short piece about Benjamin Henry Latrobe (https://dtracywardarchitect.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/father-of-american-architecture/). Latrobe (1806-1878) was one of the foremost architects of the early 19th century in America, and his architectural practice featured the Grecian influence almost entirely. He said:
“My principles of good taste are rigid in Grecian architecture”.
Within another previous piece we began a multi-part (https://dtracywardarchitect.wordpress.com/2018/11/16/what-is-greek-revival/) discussion about the first style in America that was recognized, understood and accepted nationwide. The Greek Revival architectural style or typology is uniquely and readily found typically on the Eastern half of the U.S. In simplest descriptive terms, Greek Revival was (and still is) a design effort to reuse/reinvent/re-purpose the pleasant shape and form of an ancient classical Greek Temple into modern day buildings and usages – not just the colonnaded Southern mansion “house” – but town-houses, church-houses, court-houses, jail-houses, school-houses, bird-houses, boat-houses, green-houses and even out-houses!
Our ‘Part I’ post studying Greek Revival considered a broader national overview, but for this investigation let’s focus on (1) the Old Deep South … (2) the Mississippi Territory … (3) the 300-year-old town of Natchez, Mississippi … and (4) a specific early Greek Revival family home (in-town vs. on the farm) known as “Green Leaves” ca. 1838, pictured below.
As an architect working across the Southeast for 30 years, I”m probably in the prime of my career as I write this. But looking back, if only I’d paid more attention as a child growing up in NE Mississippi. Apparently, I was indeed affected by the distinctly classical architecture all around me – undoubtedly, and yet subconsciously, it befell within my soul. I became a registered architect … but more specifically a fan of southern architectural history, which is of course a vital and inseparable part of America’s larger story. I spent my early years ages 2-15 in (https://dtracywardarchitect.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/25-years-already/) Columbus, Mississippi – very similar to Natchez in its extraordinary architectural assemblage and also on a navigable river, the Tombigbee. Columbus’s impressive historical record begins about 200 years ago somewhere around 1817, the year Mississippi was accepted into the Union. But Natchez?
Natchez, named for the Native American Indians that inhabited this area AD 700-1730, goes back over 300 years of European history to around 1717, and back thousands of years with Native history! (http://www.mdah.ms.gov/new/visit/grand-village-of-natchez-indians/) Impressive to consider – the Jaketown Mounds (about 2.5 hours north of Natchez and just above Belzoni) features ongoing archaeological digs, and is the site of some of the earliest Indian earthworks dating back to the Archaic/Poverty Point Period ca. 1500-1350 BC. (http://trails.mdah.ms.gov/mmt/ the MS Mound Trail)
Although our focus today is specifically Green Leaves and its early Greek Revival architectural history, let us keep in mind the remarkable aspects of the town of Natchez that nurtured all that would produce this house: (1) the nationally popular architectural style and design, (2) the available builders and talented craftsmen, (3) the access to materials and international suppliers, (4) the sub-tropical weather and climactic impacts on daily life, and (5) the extraordinary financial resources to make it all happen.
Obviously the architecture is more than fascinating, but here it’s always about the mighty river … and the access paths to it. The oldest and most famous trailway is the “Natchez Trace” – of great interest to amateur historians as well as professionals in OTHER fields of anthropology (the literal “civilization” of early America happened here); geology (one of the planet’s largest natural features is the Mississippi River); sociology (Natchez experienced an extraordinary amalgamation of multiple worldwide nationalities in one region); archaeology (prehistoric human activity is being recovered and explored here dating back thousands of years) … and of course all their related associative and derivative studies of nature, human history, as well as ancient extinct creatures. Just last year, two boys playing in a Mississippi field uncovered remains of an Ice Age mastodon perhaps 100,000 years old! (eternity note: a friend reminded me that some of us believe God created the world only 6,000 years ago – a congenial conversation for another post :))
This unique town’s majestic setting high on a bluff overlooking the Old Man River makes for a beautiful background photograph. But the excessive span of the mighty river currents and flood height variations makes it difficult (and very expensive) to provide modern vehicular roads and bridges that would link Natchez to all points west. Unfortunate from a viewpoint of “prosperous progress”, but lucky for us – no modern interstates bulldozed their way into the city during the 1960’s period of urban renewal. By the way, many destructive urban highways of the 1950-60’s around the country are literally being deconstructed now. Natchez was virtually ignored by real estate developers – thank the Lord! Most updates, renovations, restorations or alterations were appropriately small-scale, organic and piecemeal … developed locally which is extraordinary in this age of franchise monotony: https://dtracywardarchitect.wordpress.com/2018/01/26/indigenous-vernacular/
Therefore most of the original town grid and character remains unspoiled as it was in mid-19th century Natchez, which for 5 decades held more millionaires than any other city in America! Consequently Natchez still relies on a prehistoric pathway for its primary (and most famous) vehicular access from the north.
The Natchez Trace is that 444-mile long primeval trail (first created by migrating animals such as buffalo and used later by Native Indians) that today is a beautiful national parkway connecting Natchez with Nashville, Tennessee. In earlier days, it was also called the Devil’s Backbone because of its rough and dangerous wilderness as well as its criminal inhabitants and highway bandits. Andrew Jackson gained his nickname of “Old Hickory” on his travels along the Trace during the War of 1812 between New Orleans and Nashville. And at least one famous Kaintuck, a young Abraham Lincoln, made two trips down the Mississippi River, and like many others he walked home via the Natchez Trace.
Such a lengthy history can be confusing – here’s an abbreviated timeline of the Natchez District using circa year designations:
● 1200 – archaeology shows the presence of native Mississippian culture
●1600 – Grand Village south of Natchez became the centerpiece of native Natchez people reaching possibly 200,000 population
● 1700– French Jesuit priests makes contact with the native peoples
● 1716 – Bienville builds fort Rosalie here on the bluffs
● 1763 – Britain takes control of French territories
● 1776 – the Natchez District is established
● 1788 – the Natchez District totals a population of 2,679
● 1791 – an official town plan is drawn. And Andrew Jackson marries Rachel Donelson just north of town. “It is not unreasonable to believe the Natchez tradition at Linden became associated in Jackson’s mind with his beloved Rachel and their honeymoon in Natchez. Though it did not affect the first house they built together nor the second Hermitage of 1819-1820, after Rachel’s death and his own election to the presidency, Jackson returned to the past, to the memory of Natchez and of Charleston. The third Hermitage, of 1831, incorporating the first and second, included a biloggial portico, designed by David Morrison under Jackson’s supervision. Together, they created two memorials to Rachel; the first was the house itself, a close representation of Linden… ” (Greek Revival America)
● 1798 – Natchez becomes the first capitol of the Mississippi Territory
● 1800 – Natchez District population reaches 4,500 including estimated 2,400 slaves
● 1817 – Mississippi becomes 20th state
● 1820 – John Audubon visits – “there is much romantic scenery around Natchez. . . I took a very rude causeway in order to reach the summit, and was relieved to come upon an avenue of those beautiful trees called, here, the Pride of China. The streets of the upper town lay at right angles and were quite well lined with buildings of painted brick or board. Heaps of cotton bales and produce that congested the streets were a reminder of the agricultural richness of the country.” (Classic Natchez)
● 1820’s – “Until the middle 1820’s, aged heroes still teetered about, chiding and remonstrating, themselves a remonstrance. When they were gone, Americans became comfortable with themselves and were free to embark upon a Greek Revival. The ‘classic’ in America, had until then still carried some inhibiting association with republican simplicity and with austerity.” (Greek Revival America)
● 1833 – Natchez’s first Greek Revival building … The Agricultural Bank; later known as Britton and Koontz First National Bank. Also significant because George Washington Koontz purchased Green Leaves in 1849 and his family descendants still own and maintain the property today.
● 1835 – the Mississippi Free Trader newspaper writes: “Buildings are going up in every part of the city, carpenters and joiners, painters, etc. have more work than they can accomplish (and) are realizing fortunes.”
● 1836/38 – the Koontz house, or Green Leaves, is constructed.
The whole of Natchez is certainly greater than its parts, but one significant part … is a house called Green Leaves rendered above. Since it’s groundbreaking classical design and construction in 1838, its evolution over the past generations tells us uniquely American stories of joy and pain … success and failure … lost and found … decay and rebirth … invention and implementation … wartime and peacetime. This 180+year-old family home is an invaluable suburban prototype of contemporary privacy, security, comfort … and a neighborhood showpiece of academic Greek Revival formality, as well as a living testimony to early American frontier efforts for intellectual achievement in the decorative arts.
Greek Revival was bold, psychological and cerebral. And yet it was attainable (and constructible) by both the wealthy and the commoner. The proverbial and colossal columned house on a plantation has become the visual representation of slave society, with all the modern-day negative baggage it rightly carries. While we can’t deny the social wrongs of America’s past, there is a scholarly and esoteric beauty that I prefer to study today. And our focal point of conversation is a house in an urban setting … not on the plantation or farm … featuring breezy porches perfect for a favorite libation, majestic landscaping with huge evergreen shade trees, large and lushly furnished rooms for dining and regular social interactions with neighbors and traveling visitors – the core beginnings of what we now affectionately refer to as “Southern Hospitality”.
The grand, and hospitable, home we today know as ‘Green Leaves‘ (plan diagram below) was conceived and constructed in the late 1830’s – a part of a new style, a new movement in the arts world, a statement of personal achievement in a new society of agrarian businessmen working within international market capitalism.
“The American Greek Revival was seldom very Greek and never used exact antique models.” (Greek Revival America)
So perhaps a better term is ‘Free Classicism‘. But good, proper, creative, and academic Classicism requires the involvement of talented professionals, and Greek Revival made an intellectual statement therein.
… “because they were built by clients who knew a great deal about architecture and deserve credit for knowing enough to choose some very gifted architects…” (Greek Revival America)
Among those “gifted architects” of the day were celebrated names such as Robert Mills, William Strickland, George Hadfield, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis.
“Something extraordinary was needed to bring Americans into a long campaign to conquer the region above the fall line and to bring it within the international market system. Whitney provided that something, and the Greek Revival belt of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi was the result. None can compete with the true architect of the Southern Greek Revival: Eli Whitney.” (Greek Revival America)
“As one travels from Savannah all the way to Natchez, one can observe that however ugly an economy may be, it does not always produce ugly buildings. And … Georgia ‘Greek Revival’ is unlike any other except for that of the Mississippi Delta between New Orleans and Natchez …, from which and to which there was traffic in architects and carpenters.” (Greek Revival America)
Summarized from the 1979 NPS form:
“Built ca. 1836, during the initial popularity of the Greek Revival style in Natchez during the 1830s, the Koontz House is significant for architectural excellence and integrity of interior design, which have, along with the grounds and the house contents, been carefully preserved by the family occupying it since 1849. The rich architectural detailing lavished on both interior and exterior transform the relatively simple structure into an encyclopaedic array of stylish motifs and correct re-creations of various Greek orders. In addition to its main architectural significance, the house retains an impressive collection of period decorative treatments and objects, which makes it . . .
. . . one of the most valuable national documents of mid-nineteenth-century taste.”
References & Recommended Resources:
- DTW company website: http://www.dtracywardarchitect.com
- Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/collections/historic-american-buildings-landscapes-and-engineering-records/
- National Archives Catalog: https://www.archives.gov/research/catalog
- Classic Natchez; Randolph Delehanty and Van Jones Martin; 1996
- National Register of Historic Places – Green Leaves 1979 inventory form
- Greek Revival America; Roger G. Kennedy; 1989
- Natchez Style, Architecture-Decorative Arts-Entertaining; Regina Charboneau; 2018
- The Devil’s Backbone; Jonathan Daniels; 1962
- A Way Through The Wilderness; William C. Davis; 1995
- The Most Beautiful House in the World; Witold Rybczynski; 1989
- The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture; George L. Hersey; 1988
Uploaded July 2019 – DTW’s Blog #0045
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2019 by D. Tracy Ward, Architect and Benchmark Design, PC. “By wisdom a house is built, And by understanding it is established; And by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” (Proverbs 24:3-4)