Old-House Journal Online Navigation Bar





In rural areas and later years, reduced expression of the Greek Revival often looked like the Captain Charles Wordin House in Belfast, Maine: two-or four-column entry porch, less than the full height or width of the house, pilastered corners, and a pronounced cornice.

Photo Courtesy of Brian Vanden Brink

By James C. Massey and Shirley Maxwell

Okay, here's a test: Close your eyes and say "Greek Revival." What comes to mind? Tara from Gone With the Wind, maybe? A Deep-South vision of towering columns and broad verandahs set amidst Spanish moss and green lawns?

Or how about this: A small white farmhouse in Ohio with a front-facing gable, attached pilasters at the front corners, a deep, unornamented fascia board, and a rectangular transom and sidelights at the front door? Or a tall and narrow brick town house in New York with a tiny, columned porch, a side-hall plan, and a parade of small rectangular windows just below the cornice?

You couldn't go wrong with any of these options—they're all good examples of Greek Revival architecture in America—but there's no question that the less ostentatious second and third versions far outnumber the Taras. From the 1820s until the Civil War, Greek Revival was a one-style-fits-all building design choice of rich and poor, in town and country, North and South, from the Atlantic Ocean to the new Midwest and around the Cape to California. There were regional variations, to be sure, and these help to make house-gazing a continuing pleasure in all these regions.

Ancient Architecture Reinvented
Americans of the early 19th century saw several good reasons for adapting at least some aspects of Greek classicism to their own houses, churches, and public buildings. For starters, Greece's struggle for independence from Turkey was at its height in the 1820s, reminding Americans of their own hard-won sovereignty. Greece, the world's first democracy, seemed an appropriate philosophical reference point for a self-confident new republic. Plus, with its air of antiquity, Greek Revival architecture brought a sense of permanence and solidity to the spanking-new American landscape. Its very austerity proclaimed the sturdy self-reliance of a nation that was pushing westward with all its might, conquering new frontiers at the same time it was trying to establish its cultural credentials with the Old World.

Not that Americans were interested in re-creating an archeologically "pure" form of Greek architecture. While they admired the austere beauty of Greece's post-and-lintel buildings, their practical minds insisted on buildings that used 19th-century technology and accommodated 19th-century lifestyles. They were in search of a "National Style" of architecture reflecting their own time and place—one that would represent America's abundance and energy as well as its political and cultural ideals. They wanted a style that betokened a glorious future as well as a glorious past. The Greek example, properly modified, seemed to fit their needs.

Although the details varied from region to region and from one economic stratum to another, the general characteristics of this new-old style include simplicity, as well as an emphatic rectilinear geometry and insistent symmetry of form.

Vernacular Variations
In the South, the two-storey portico (which might be called the "Tara" model) was often used even on rather small houses. At the other end of the spectrum was the charming, small temple-form house in 1 or 1 1/2 storeys, basically a cottage hiding behind a pedimented porch with columns. In New England, Upstate New York, and the Northwest Territory (Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, which were just then being settled by a wave of New Englanders), the most common form was a blocky farmhouse, often sans porch and full columns but with handsome pilasters or attached square columns at the corners of a pedimented gable front.

The style evolved over time as well as across geographic areas, settlement patterns, and economic strata. First, in the 1820s and 1830s, came the rich man's high-style Greek Revival "temple" with its impressive four-columned two-storey portico and prominent pediment. Then, as the middle class picked up the idea in the 1830s and 1840s, the portico was scaled down. It became a porch, with plain columns or square posts and a simplified pediment. This economy version might have four columns and three bays stretching across the entire front of the house, or it might have only a single bay at the entrance. It was more often one storey high than two storeys. In freestanding houses, the temple form required a gable front, but practicality or preference very often called for end gables instead, with the entrance on a long side. Either way, the pediment might be formed by a full-length frieze or it might be merely suggested by bold cornice returns that extended only part way in from the corners.

Roof pitches, which had been flattening noticeably from the colonial through the federal period, became even flatter with the advent of the Greek Revival style. In fact, some roofs seemed to have no slope at all, because they were hidden behind straight parapets and balustrades, paneled or ornamented with upstanding palmettes. Other buildings had broad gables and heavy full or partial cornice returns, representing the classical Greek temple form. The cornice might display a row of tooth-like dentil moulding.

The most familiar characteristic of the Greek Revival roofline, however, was a deep frieze, often undecorated except perhaps for a row of the distinctive Greek triglyph and metope ornament. This was usually enough for all but the most fashionable mansions. Even simpler dwellings might have nothing beyond a wide board frieze, minus dentils, triglyphs, or metopes, to suggest their Greek connections.

Windows became much larger in the Greek Revival period, as factory-made glass, transported to growing towns and prosperous farms by rail or canal, became easier to come by. Tall six-over-six double-hung windows brought light to graciously proportioned interiors with high ceilings. Sometimes the windows extended from near the ceiling to the floor, making it possible to step through to the porch beyond. Floor plans featured center or side halls.

Although Greek-derived wooden ornament was generally simple in form, the intricate decorative ironwork of the period was another story altogether. Magnificent cast- or wrought-iron designs appeared on fences, balconies, and roof-top acroteria, providing a fanciful finishing touch for the rather stiff architecture. As the Industrial Revolution matured and foundry technology improved, cast iron almost entirely replaced the earlier wrought iron.

A transcontinental Style
By 1850 railroads and canals carried machine-made wooden ornament to even remote outposts, doing away with much of the painstaking handwork once required for fluted column shafts, elaborate capitals, and other ornament. Generally, ornate Corinthian column capitals of the Georgian era were seen less frequently than simpler Ionic scrolled capitals and plain Doric columns, fluted or unfluted, without platforms, or bases. Rectangular transoms above the doorways were more common than semi-elliptical fanlights in Greek Revival houses, and while fancy tracery in wood or iron often appeared in transoms or sidelights, these were more often undecorated rectangles. Flat, wide trim surrounded doors and windows. Molded panels were often set into the walls below windows, both inside and outside the house.

The Greek Revival was, as its early proponents claimed, America's first truly national style, and it dominated the era of Manifest Destiny. It easily outdistanced the picturesque Gothic Revival, its closest competitor in the early 19th-century "War of the Styles." A very different kind of conflict brought an end to the elegance of the Greek Revival period, however. After the Civil War, Victorian eclecticism reigned on the home front. In a fast-moving industrialized country, the stark symmetry of the Greek Revival house seemed hopelessly stiff and even boring. Although the style kept its appeal for public buildings and churches, Greek Revival houses soon became relics of a simpler time, the time Before the War.




 
 

Restore Media, LLC, is the producer of the
Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference and the publisher of Old-House Journal, Old-House Journal's New Old House, Old-House Journal's Restoration Directory, Old-House Journal's Traditional Products, Clem Labine's Traditional Building, Clem Labine's Period Homes, and tradweb—the Directory of Custom Building and Restoration Services.
Copyright 2007. Restore Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.