Why Was the Greek Revival Style a Hit in 19th Century America?

The architectural style that became representative of American democracy in the 19th century

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

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

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

The Greek Revival style is most identifiable by the temple façade inspired by the Parthenon in Greece. This famous temple is located on the Acropolis in Athens – a tall rock formation that stands proudly above the city and is the place of worship of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon has been studied and respected for centuries for its mathematical purity and design integrity. Although the Greek Revival period in America lasted from 1820 to 1860, interest in Greek culture had been developing in Europe for some time. By 1750, the ancient Roman world had been studied and extensively explored in England. Almost two centuries had passed since the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio wrote “I quattro libri dell’architettura” (“Four Books of Architecture”) in 1570. This book was on the shelves of many leading builders and architects and became the blueprint for design and construction based on classic features.

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

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Ruins of a Greek temple in Paestum, Italy. (Antonio Sessa / Unsplash)

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

The “Athens Antiquities” attracted great attention and encouraged architects to build in new forms and with fresh inspiration. The book highlighted how Greek designs differ from Roman temples and buildings. For example, Greek architects did not use arches in their designs; The arch was a Roman improvement. Greek temples such as the Parthenon were beautiful and almost admired for their mathematical perfection and symmetry. The proportions of the Parthenon match the proportions of the human body; there is a proportional relationship between columns and beams, much like the human form, here it is proportional from head to hand.

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

Interest in Greek culture continued to increase in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The rediscovery of Greek temples at Paestum (550 to 450 BC) in southern Italy in the 18th century was a miracle. The presence of three well-preserved Greek temples in the region of Italy (present-day Calabria) reinforced the idea of ​​the original Greek domination of the world under Alexander (356–323 BC). This temple was made more popular after the famous engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi painted the temple in 1778 and the prints became easily accessible to the public.

Americans’ interest in the Greek Revival style benefited from the War of 1812 between England and America. These wars increased the nation’s interest in British design and culture. Naturally, the story of Greece as an original democracy, seeking inspiration from further afield, was contagious. In the early 1820s, the war for Greek independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire began, reminding Americans of their struggle for independence. The Greek war of independence was front-page news, made even more believable when the famous English poet Lord Byron died of fever in 1824 while training Greek troops after the First and Second Siege of Missolonghi.

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

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

Greek Revival architecture today is easily identifiable by a few key features: a temple front, large Doric columns without pedestals, and simple and bold stone-like decorations with triangular pediments. The Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia is a great example of the Greek Revival style. Now part of Independence Park in Philadelphia, the bank was built between 1818 and 1824 by Philadelphia architect and civil engineer William Strickland. With its mighty fluted Doric columns sitting directly on the raised stylobate (raised platform), the Second Bank of the United States was clearly inspired by the Parthenon in Greece. The eight columns of the bank have no pedestals, a unique style of ancient Greek detailing. The building’s presence is commanding and bold in character, with its signature Greek triangular pediment and wide, thick columns crowned with simple ornaments and moldings around doors and windows.

Strickland was a former student of Benjamin Latrobe, who is considered the first professionally trained American architect. Both Latrobe and Strickland were followers of the Greek Revival style and were credited with helping to found the Greek Revival movement in America. Some of Strickland’s most successful building designs were in this style. During the 19th century, the Greek Revival style extended itself to the construction of newer small towns, banks, courthouses, and other civic buildings that sought to create an air of permanence and importance.

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Second Bank of the United States of America in Philadelphia. (Matte/Adobe stock)

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The mansion at Belle Meade Ranch 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 used Strickland to build a 24 x 55-foot two-story addition to the house. In keeping with the Greek Revival style, the new home was “bold in silhouette, large in proportions and simplified in details”, with six limestone, Doric columns supporting the front porch, and a pedimented loft.

The Greek Revival period ended when the Civil War began in the 1860s. After the war, this style was forgotten and replaced by the decorative frills of industrial Victorian architecture. The style is still respected today for its simple, honest character and appeal. These historic buildings with their mighty patios still remind us of a simpler time when America hoped to grow and develop as a young nation.

This article was originally published in American Essence.

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