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House of Beauty Arts & Letters

House of Beauty: Why the Greek Revival Style Became a Hit During 19th-Century America

In this series, master woodworker Brent Hull will introduce readers to the different architectural styles that were popularized throughout American history, explaining their significance and unique design features.

No architectural style has captured the imagination of an American era like Greek Revival. Lasting from 1820 to 1860, it was more than just a style; it was an ideal that expressed itself in the architecture of our young nation and as an ideological assurance that the democracy could and would survive. We forget that 200 years ago, the concept of a democratic rule, by the people and for the people, was a radical model and still an experiment. The American Revolution, and our breaking from European molds of government, was itself revolutionary. The popularity of the Greek Revival style coincided with the rise of America into a nation. This is a style that projects permanence and strength, traits our young country desired.

Front page of “The Antiquities of Athens” by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, 1762. (Public Domain)

The Greek Revival style is most identifiable by its temple front, which is inspired by the Parthenon in Greece. This famous temple sits on the Acropolis in Athens—the tall rock formation that stands proudly over the city and was a place of worship to Athena, patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon has been studied and revered for centuries because of its mathematical purity and design integrity. Though the Greek Revival era in America lasted from 1820 to 1860, the interest in Greek culture had been developing for some time in Europe. By 1750 in England, the ancient Roman world had been studied and extensively explored. It had been almost two centuries since Andrea Palladio, 16th-century Italian architect, wrote “I quattro libri dell’architettura” (“The Four Books of Architecture”) in 1570. This book was on the shelves of many prominent builders and architects and became the blueprint for design and construction based upon the classical characteristics.

Interestingly, Palladio had only ever studied ancient Rome. By 1750, it was well known that Greece had been the key influence on Roman architecture. The Romans had appropriated and adopted the ideas that the Greeks had perfected. Greece and ancient Greek culture were hidden and veiled by the Ottoman Turkish Empire (mid 15th century to early 19th century), which refused to let travelers into the country for fear of spying.

The ruins of a Greek temple at Paestum, Italy. (Antonio Sessa / Unsplash)

Travel to Greece in the 18th century was dangerous; thus, a secret mission was hatched by a spirited group of thinkers. Two Englishmen by the names of James Stuart (archaeologist, architect, and artist) and Nicholas Revett (architect) traveled to Athens in 1751, funded and organized by the Society of Dilettanti of London. Disguised as native Turks, they secretly drew and chronicled the ancient Greek ruins, making accurate measurements of the Acropolis of Athens and the Parthenon. This mission resulted in the seminal book, “The Antiquities of Athens,” which was written in three volumes over a 40-year period. After these discoveries were published in 1758, the work became a source book on ancient Greek architecture.

“The Antiquities of Athens” spurred great interest and encouraged architects to build in new forms and with fresh inspiration. The book highlighted how Greek designs were different from Roman temples and buildings. For instance, Greek architects did not use arches in their designs; the arch was a Roman improvement. Greek temples like the Parthenon were beautiful and admired for their near-mathematical perfection and symmetry. The proportions of the Parthenon match the proportions of the human body; the columns to beams have a proportional relationship much like the human form, where head to hand are proportional.

An engraving of the Greek temples at Paestum by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1778. (Public Domain)
“William Strickland” by John Neagle, circa 1829. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven. (Public Domain)

The interest in Greek culture continued to grow through the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The rediscovery of the Greek temples at Paestum (550 to 450 B.C.) in southern Italy, during the 18th century, was a marvel. The presence of the three well-preserved Greek temples, in the region of Italy (present day Calabria), reinforced the idea of original Greek dominance of the world under Alexander (356–323 B.C.). This temple was made more popular in 1778 after the well-known engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi drew the temple and prints became readily accessible to the public.

Americans’ interest in the Greek Revival style benefited from the War of 1812 between Britain and America. These battles soured the nation’s interest in British design and culture. Naturally looking for inspiration from more remote places, the story of Greece as an original democracy was contagious. In the early 1820s, the war for Greek independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire began, and it reminded Americans of their fight for independence. The Greek war for independence was front-page news, and it became more compelling as Lord Byron, the famous English poet, died in 1824 from a fever contracted while training Greek troops after the First and Second Siege of Missolonghi.

How much did all this excite the imagination of the American people? Maybe we need to look no further than the naming of many of our towns and cities from this period. Athens, Georgia, the college town famous for the Georgia Bulldogs, was given the name Athens in honor of Plato and Aristotle’s school of thought. The actual number of towns named after Greek cities and citizens is profound. Consider these names: Sparta, Athens, Ithaca, Syracuse, Alexandria, Akron, and Atlanta, from the Greek god Atlas. It is clear Greek culture and thinking inspired not just architecture but how Americans thought of themselves as a people.

A hand-drawn capital of the Doric order. (Marina Gorskaya/Adobestock)

Greek Revival architecture today is readily identifiable by several key attributes: a temple front, large Doric columns with no bases, and simple and bold stone-like ornamentation with a triangular pediment. The Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, is a wonderful example of the Greek Revival style. Now part of Independence Park in Philadelphia, the bank was built between 1818 and 1824 by William Strickland, noted Philadelphia architect and civil engineer. With strong fluted Doric columns that sit directly on the raised stylobate (raised platform), the Second Bank of the United States was clearly inspired by the Parthenon in Greece. The bank’s eight columns have no base, which is a unique style of ancient Greek detail. The building’s presence is commanding and bold in character with its wide, thick columns crowned by the signature Greek triangular pediment and simple ornaments and moldings around doors and windows.

Strickland was a former student of Benjamin Latrobe, the man who is regarded as the first professionally trained American architect. Both Latrobe and Strickland were disciples of the Greek Revival style and were credited with having helped establish the Greek Revival movement in America. Some of Strickland’s most accomplished building designs were in this style. During the 19th century, the Greek Revival style extended itself into the construction of newer small towns, banks, courthouses, and other civic buildings looking to establish an air of permanence and significance.

The Second Bank of the United States, in Philadelphia. (Matt/Adobe stock)
The mansion at Belle Meade Plantation in Tennessee.

Another prominent Strickland design was the Belle Meade plantation in Nashville, Tennessee. Formerly, the two-story plantation was built in the Federal style, but after William Giles Harding took over operations at Belle Meade in 1839, he employed Strickland to construct a two-story, 24-by-55-foot addition to the home. In keeping with the Greek Revival style, the new home was “bold in silhouette, broad in proportions, and simplified in detail,” with its six limestone, Doric pillars supporting the front porch and pedimented attic.

The Greek Revival era ended when the Civil War began in the 1860s. After the war, this style was forgotten and replaced by the decorative frills of the industrialized Victorian architecture. The style is still revered today for its simple, honest character and charm. These historic buildings with strong stoic porches still remind us of a simpler time when America, as a young nation, hoped to grow and prosper.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

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Arts & Letters House of Beauty

House of Beauty: Colonial Revival Style

A series exploring America’s traditional architectural styles

In a series, master woodworker Brent Hull will introduce readers to the different architectural styles that were popularized throughout American history, explaining their significance and unique design features.

In the early 1920s, two men of great wealth were investing their time and money into large restoration and preservation projects. These two men, H. F. DuPont and John D. Rockefeller Jr., both heirs to great fortunes, felt a nostalgic and patriotic pull to the architecture and ideals of colonial America.

Many things were happening in the 1920s culturally. The United States was fresh out of World War I, a war that established the United States for the first time as a major world power. This newfound status caused Americans to reflect deeper on their history. Also, 1926 was the 150th year anniversary of America’s founding in 1776—a milestone many were eager to celebrate. It was a glorious time.

DuPont, in his fervor, began to collect historic rooms of all ages from across the country. Today, his collection, totaling over 175 rooms, is open to the public via a museum converted from his estate, called Winterthur. These rooms represent a tremendous cross-section of American style and taste from 1640 to 1860, from high-style Philadelphia mansions to simple New Hampshire taverns. They demonstrate a level of craft and skill that are amazing, considering that there were no power tools or Pinterest boards for inspiration at the time.

hampton room
The Hampton Room in the Winterthur museum. It was used as a guest room for DuPont’s visiting friends. (Courtesy of Brent Hull)

Meanwhile, Rockefeller poured his focus into rebuilding the early capital of Williamsburg, Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg, as it is known today, is a national treasure. I was there a couple of years ago on a sketching tour and was blown away by the charming and beautiful architecture. These buildings stand with a wonderful confidence. There’s no attempt to be showy, but rather, with humble elements and simple decoration, these buildings inspire.

It’s been nearly 100 years since DuPont and Rockefeller invested in and were enraptured by the Colonial Revival style. The Colonial Revival era spans from 1920 to 1940, an architectural style that takes the best of Georgian and Federal-era homes and blends them into a successful aggregate. When strolling through the cobblestoned streets of Colonial Williamsburg or the halls of Winterthur, it’s hard not to long again for the wonderful detail and simple beauty of these homes and rooms. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to build homes with the same level of execution, and our faster and cheaper homes appear disposable and no longer timeless.

colonial williamsburg
Colonial Revival-style houses in Williamsburg. (Brent Hull)

I was consulting with a client recently who was building a new home and had hoped to capture the spirit of her 1920s neighborhood. She shared her current plans with me and wondered what was missing. They had attempted to capture the past but had missed. “What is it about these houses?” she asked me. Why are we not able to capture it today in our home? I find this is a common sentiment among homeowners, and yet there is a fix.

When my company builds period houses, we’re focused on authentic details and subtle elements. Sometimes doing less is more impactful. It requires breaking habits of the last 50 years of building.

In truth, there are dozens of important decisions that need to be made when building a house. However, these decisions are much easier to make if you have a clear focus of what you’re building. I often ask our clients, is this home from 1760, 1820, or 1850? I’m asking for specific dates because that will help determine the styling, the hardware, the moldings, and a myriad of other details.

A recent home we built was inspired by Drayton Hall, the great Southern home built outside of Charleston, South Carolina in the 1740s. By tethering our client’s house to this historic home, we were able to determine many details such as the brick, the windows, the entryway, and the aesthetic of the home. There was no intention of a direct copy, but rather a desire to capture the spirit of this home and its authentic details.

Attention to historical detail allowed us to enliven the character of the home:

The windows are scaled and sized very carefully. Windows are the eyes of the home and the most important element to get right. We used graduated fenestration (the arrangement, proportioning, and design of windows and doors in a building) here, meaning the first floor windows are slightly bigger than second-floor windows. This establishes hierarchy and helps proportion the home with a heavier base and a lighter top.

Historically, houses made from brick were solid masonry, meaning the exterior walls were made of bricks two to three layers thick. The layers were tied together with bonding bricks, meaning bricks that tied the layers together. The layers were essentially woven together, unlike today, where the brick is a single layer or veneer in front of a wood framing. On our client’s house, we used this historic knowledge and introduced a historical bonding pattern. This means that every 5th course was laid up with header bricks. This breaks up the running bond of the brick face (brick that faces the outside world) by creating a subtle coursing pattern.

We also made sure the windows and doors were capped with a brick arch. A brick arch is a historic structural trick that physically spans an opening. While today, a steel lintel is used, historically the brick arch kept the brick above from collapsing. True brick arches are rare today and require a custom order from the brick manufacturer.

Louvers (window shutters with horizontal slats) used to be a working part of home air circulation systems. Closed in the morning to block sun and heat, they would be opened to allow light and air movement. With the arrival of air conditioning in the 1950s, windows gradually become non-operable, and large picture windows were introduced. Shutters were turned into a decorative feature, and on many homes, they’re screwed or nailed to the wall. Working shutters is a small thing that makes a big difference, because the authentic hardware and shadow lines add depth to the face of the home.

These are just a few of the examples of what makes for charming Colonial Revival homes. Remembering and practicing these historic building elements makes for a more beautiful home. In order to build great Colonial Revival homes today, we must be students of the past. We live in an age where the art of building has been lost. With careful work and attention to details, we can build better again.

Brent Hull is the owner and founder of Hull Works, a workshop dedicated to building period millwork, crafting houses, and restoring historic buildings. He consults and works all over the country. To continue studying traditional building practices, follow Brent on his Instagram @hullmillwork_hullhomes, his YouTube page, or www.BuildShowNetwork.com/go/brenthull.