Greek Revival Home in Saratoga Springs, NY
The truly interesting thing about the Greek Revival style of architecture in America is that the style and its popularity was driven by an IDEA rather than a fashion. This was an intellectual exercise, and was meant to announce to all, who and what we were as Americans.
A little history lesson here to remind you where America was philosophically – The American Revolution ended with Great Britain, creating the United States in 1783, but the new nation still looked to Europe for trade and diplomatic relationships. The young government was creating its OWN version of democracy to govern and unite the former colonies. A VERY SHORT 20 years later, Thomas Jefferson made a HUGE land deal called the Louisiana Purchase in 1803….it was a landmark property purchase from France (at the time, France was governed by Napoleon). The purchase essentially DOUBLED the size of America.
Map of Louisiana Purchase and other Territories prior to 1860
There were questions, objections and various concerns over the legality or constitutionality of the deal, but the purchase went ahead and a vast area of the country was opened up to settling (and governing!).
The energy of the new country and its citizens was intense, and hugely important to our vision of ourselves as Americans. A strong sense of civic pride and NATIONAL pride was everywhere.
At this same time in our history, the craze of Roman and Greek “style” was everywhere in Europe and America. Fueled by the recent discovery of Pompeii and a desire for the romanticized ideals of Ancient Rome and Greece, all the old fashions of dress, furniture and architecture was swept away in favor of this new ideal. The citizens of this new country, recently emerged from war, wanted a new style that represented their highest ideals as a country. Strong, prosperous, and most of all, NOT European!
Everywhere in America, from Boston to the newest territory, people began to build houses and public buildings that represented this new attitude. This is a New Republic…founded on the ideals of Ancient Rome and Greece…everything was designed to say that America was the inheritor of all the best of the ancient idea of Democracy.
First Federal Bank, Philadelphia, PA – 1791 – Federal style building with Greek Revival facade and details, columns and decoration
While the earlier forms of a “classical” house/building style (Georgian and Federal) referenced the classical architecture of Greece and Rome with pediments and symmetry, it did so with respect to the ornament applied such as garlands and frieze decoration, it was not generally trying to replicate an exact building.
First Bank of the United States, or The First Federal Bank – from the side it is shown that it is a Federal style building with a Greek Revival or Classical facade.
The most common way that the Greek Revival style is identified is the resemblance to or replication of an actual Greek or Roman temple, with columns and the simple rectangular shape of that building. Early on, the strictest interpretation would have the simplest of columns, Doric, representing the idea that this is the “purest” form of the style.
The First Bank of Pennsylvania – 1799 – Benjamin Latrobe – considered the first major Greek Revival building in America (demolished 1867)
But it not just the presence of columns that identify the style, it is also the general temple form of the building. A simple, rectangular box with a low gabled roof creating a low pediment on each end. The proportions of this shape were also important. The materials were often intended to mimic stone, especially in the public buildings of this style.
Second National Bank, Philadelphia, PA 1818 – The oldest major Greek Revival building still standing in USA
Mechanics’ Bank and Merchants’ Bank, New Bedford, MA 1834
Congregational Church, Crawford, PA 1836
Founder’s Hall, Girard College – 1833
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue Charleston, SC 1840
Saint Peter’s Church, Lower Manhattan NYC – 1834
Otsego Bank, Cooperstown, NY 1831
Sailor’s Snug Harbor Dormitory Row – Staten Island, NY 1833-1880
Custom House, New Bedford, MA 1836
Unitarian Church, Portsmouth, NH 1824
Not only did we want to proclaim our stature as the “New Rome”, or the “New Athens” in our public buildings – banks, Customs Houses, libraries, and churches, but our domestic architecture wanted to announce our stature as citizens of a new democracy. Everyone could inherit this notion of democratic equality and build a house to show it. From Mystic, Connecticut to Minnesota, from Detroit, Michigan to Huntsville, Alabama – houses were built by the simplest farmer to the wealthy merchants.
Cannonball House, Macon GA 1853
Mystic, CT 1840
Mystic, CT 1840
Minnesota 1865 – forgive the paint color, but it does make the Greek Revival details stand out!
Hervey-Ely House, Rochester, NY 1837
Harpursville, NY 1840
Sibley House, Detroit, MI 1848 The oldest remaining wood building in Detroit
Saxton Hall, Cornwall-on-Hudson 1830
Brick Greek Revival, NY
Grahamsville, NY originally built as a chapel
C. Burton Hotel, Grahamsville, NY 1851
Webb-Bonds House, Greensboro, AL 1855
New Orleans “Shotgun” house
Oak Place, Huntsville, AL 1840
Architectural Elements and Details
Basic Temple Architectural Elements
Greek Revival Architectural Elements
The most identifiable element of the Greek Revival style are the freestanding columns, but look for the applied columns, or pilasters as well. At the top of the pilasters and just under the roof line will be a wide band detail or frieze, and the roof will be a low pitched, gable roof. A distinctive feature of the style is to have the gable end of the building facing the street. The structural details will be strong and simple, with simple ornamentation, rather than the delicate garlands and tracery of earlier styles.
The Greek Revival style is the embodiment of the IDEA that America is the inheritor of the virtues and ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. While Europe was also in a classical revival of these ideals, nowhere did it take greater hold than during the early decades of America’s existence.
As Americans forged westward we took the idea that we were the “New Republic”, the “New Rome”, the “New Athens” and built buildings to match this ideal. We named towns Utica, Syracuse, Athens, Cincinnati, and Ithaca, and created public and private buildings to show these ideal virtues. We created something new that matched our idea of ourselves as strong, sturdy citizens of a new, proud nation.