GREEK REVIVAL: Introduction
The Greek Revival recalls the glory of Greece, the grandeur of Athens, the wisdom of Socrates, the artistry of Phidias, the literature of Homer, the statesmanship of Pericles and all that is beautiful, good, true. Athens, the world’s first democracy, is charmingly remembered in each little Greek temple-house that dots the plain, that ennobles the farm, that dignifies the town, Athens, Georgia to Olympia, Washington.* Foremost of ancient Greek temples, the house of Athena Parthenos, the “Parthenon”, a temple-home recalled in the modern Lincoln Memorial and in other houses, monuments and memorials in the land of Athena’s grandniece, Columbia, tutelary goddess of these United States.
Columbia’s home, Washington, The District of Columbia, was born of the sentiment that America is spiritual heir of Greek philosophy, drama and art, inheritor of the Athenian democracy, though a democracy mediated by stabilizing republican restraints. To honor our Classive patrimony, many American towns boast Greek names, Sparta, Athens, Ithaca, et cetera. As likely you know, Greek temple architecture is a most chosen form of American civic, sacred, and domestic architecture, because most appropriate. You will find some rich variation of Greek precedent in practically every town and city of these United States.
Many famous Greek temples inspired Americans to emulation: the Doric temple to Athena (the Parthenon) and Delphi’s Doric temple to Aphrodite; the Ionic Erechtheion of Athens’ Acropolis; the Corinthian Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.
Foreign visitors to early 19th-Century America sometimes thought themselves to be in little Greek villages, so much had the Greek influenced domestic architecture in the United States. This was especially true in the mid-Western states, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, where entire towns were built in the Greek Revival style. Must say, ours is not a Greek domestic architecture, ramshackle and haphazard, a door here, a window there, as suits whim, alike the modern. Ours is a Greek of the Gods, of the temple, yet a domestic temple that glorifies the family and all the good that family suggests. When young, the United States carved from tangled forests a Classive urbanity, a classical civility that formed gentlemen and ladies alike Biblical saints and Classive heroes (remember the young republic’s citizen names, Alexander, Enoch, Ester, et cetera). There is something Pico-like in America’s culturally ascending ladder, an expectation that by merit in democratic liberty we might ascend beyond the Greeks to achieve some great purpose.
As the pattern books of the Bible and the McGuffy Reader formed ideal persons, there were pattern books to form ideal architecture; the books of Minard Lafever and Asher Benjamin come first to mind. Alike the moral and ethical books that patterned citizens, the architecture pattern books provided best models for building. Our Greek Revival architects of the pattern book include Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764 – 1820) and William Strickland ( 1788 – 1854), architects who created buildings that are models of excellence. Though your town is not likely to boast a house by Strickland or Latrobe, likely you have some excellent house by a builder architect who was improved by the pattern books of Benjamin and Lefever.
In this month’s Beautiful Home there are Greek Revival house plans for farm and town, there is a small, almost tiny house, a “Honeymoon Cottage”, and there is a great, great big house for a new planned city, AEGEA. Those houses continue the American, Greek Revival tradition. Also this month there are houses in the Grecian “Neo-Grec”, the national style of modern Greece begun in 1870 and periodically reprised in and around Athens, and soon, I hope, a style variation that will grow a new American Greek Revival.
* The names “Georgia” for our king, George II, “Washington” for our president, George Washington, “Athens” for Athena, “Olympia” for Zeus … there is a power in names, as in “Salamis” where a small Athenian navy defeated the Great King Xerxes, the massive, overwhelming forces of Persia’s axis of power, a victory for Classive Civilization that allowed the realization of what is beautiful, good, and true.
Greek Revival, FEATURES
The Greek Revival was and yet is a national, architectural style because it suits an opinion about what we are: beings created in the image of God, citizens suited to self-government, excellent persons of a more-or-less good family. The Greek Revival recalls the home of a god, Athena or Zeus or some other, recalls the democracy of Athens, recalls the America of “Home Sweet Home”. Notice the majestic columns, the friendly, regular windows who greet the street, notice the door reasonably, predictably centered and you will notice that the Greek Revival has much in common with the typical American person, well-measured and well-balanced. True, these days few of us can read the features of houses the way we read people, because we have become progressively forgetful of architectural language, a language common to our grand, great parents, and to their parents, et cetera.
Well read, alike a good, predictable neighbor, Greek Revival domestic architecture presents an honest, sparsely appointed façade, a face bilaterally symmetrical and tripartite (of three parts, “middle and two sides”, “bottom, middle, top” … et cetera). The Greek Revival is often respectfully dressed in ordered columns, “Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian”. Seldom does the Greek Revival scream in flashing colors; instead it will show itself to be dependable in a clean white that reveals structural geometries to best advantage … though occasionally a Greek Revival will respectfully tip its hat to antique, polychromatic precedent. Alike ourselves, the Greek Revival is body-based, symmetrical, and the Greek Revival is friendly, commodious to the human body, faithful to human habits, delightful and pleasing to the mind.
Then too, the Greek Revival is firm, both in the fact of its structure, and in our belief that it is firm, historically and civically, and this friendly firmness is why our most popular and respected buildings are Classive, often Greek Revival – picture here your local bank or city hall, not the progressive one you might distrust or despise, but the traditional building that you believe in. For polled opinion on the subject, you might visit The National Civic Art Society’s Public Art Survey.
Greek Revival architecture is ordered by Orders. The “Orders” refer to the organizing principle of a Classive building, and there are three: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. You might think of the Doric as manly, its stout columns firmly grounded, heavy and bold, its simple features stating plainly structure and use. You might consider the Ionic, gentlemanly, strong, yet eloquent in refinement, its strength shown in the potential rather than in the employment of force. Notice the implied energy of the volute, alike Bernini’s David tightened to spring. Yes, the Ionic can sometimes be female, when dressed in details that adorn, that charm, that delight the wearer. The Corinthian might be thought the lady of the Orders, ornate, verdant, sumptuous, her capital is alike Nature’s coronet, her column, alike a gown.
Each order determines the decorative elements of architrave, cornice and frieze, the doors and windows, and the minor elements of lamps and knockers. The interior rooms remember the Order of the exterior, though in lighter, scaled ornaments and features, alike the fireplace, an opportunity for extravagant beauty. Sometimes, there will be a superposition of Orders, or a room that in Order differs from the exterior – most often an Ionic parlor answers a Doric façade. The ceilings tend to height, the windows to generosity, the spaces to expansiveness, to fuller, richer color than the exterior. In recent decades, the Greek Revival has enjoyed a revival, despite the animadversion of school-taught mods who hold catholic beliefs about aesthetic evolution.
Confusion has dizzied opinion on aesthetic evolution in architectural style, a dizzying inspired by Hegel and popularized through Marx in the antique notion that some “Ghost of the Time”, some zeitgeist, creates from itself a “personage of fashion” compassed in years and not capable of rebirth. You might remember, if sufficiently old, the recent “decade mongering”, the supercilious notion that political expediency progresses decade-to-decade, id est, “after all, we are living in the 80s” … all such notions paused in the 0s – reasonable persons did not accept a 0s’ fashion that progressed from a 90s fashion, et cetera. “Style” is not time based, style is principle based. Architects who share principles share style, as in the classical Iktinos and the modern T.G. Smith, Classives both, or in the old-fashioned Mies and the new-fangled Gehry, Progressives both.
GREEK REVIVAL, CHARACTERISTICS
A rectangular block, temple-formed and true to each Order (Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian), sometimes plain, sometimes eloquent and refined. Occasionally, in homes sans Order, a harmony of parts achieves the Classive effect.
A low pitched, simple gable (front or sided) alike the temple pediment, though sometimes hipped, occasionally featuring antefix and acroterion.
Trabeated, most often with flat lintels over six-by-six windows. Ground floor windows are taller than second floor windows; attic windows sometimes mimic triglyphs and metopes. The surrounds can be heavy or light, and the pure examples approximate the ancient Athenian. The doors and windows are sometimes shuttered.
Structure and Materials
Walls and columns can be of masonry, brick, or wood; wood being most common.
Space and Floor Plan
A temple-form of one or two stories, though a third, attic story is common in townhouses. The gable might be sided, showing an almost Georgian façade; or, the front elevation will be gabled alike a pediment. High-style examples will be fully articulated, columned in a particular Order. Palladianesque examples feature wings upon a central block (hen-and-chickens). Seldom does the plan mimic the classical temple, instead drawing its precedent from the Federal or Georgian.
An entry porch with prominent Greek pilasters or columns: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. An entablature appropriate to an Order, sometimes articulated, sometimes in plain, broad bands. Door surrounds are often transomed, occasionally recessed.
In simple homes, ornament might be stripped to bare essentials; in grand homes, ornament is fully articulated.
Most often pure white, though color is sometimes employed, and the rare example will mimic the polychromy of classical temples.
Formal, unless of the farmhouse variety. In the South, porches are often large, sometimes enwrapping the house.
The days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America, and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.
Henry Benjamin Latrobe
Greek architecture is the flowering of geometry.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are but two truths in the world: The Bible and Greek Architecture.
Modern architects and engineers are still trying to understand how the ancient Greeks were able to build the Parthenon in ten years when the restoration of the monument has continued for more than six decades and is still not complete.
The Greeks had the most architectonic gifts. Every art has its climax at some point, and here architecture had its high point. Modeling and painting reached a climax elsewhere. Despite the gigantic pyramids, the most wonderful architecture appears in the Greek temple.
Greek Revival, INSPIRATIONS
Stuart and Revett, The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece, London, 1762.
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Greek Revival house-plans
will be found in this month’s Beautiful Home,
Featured image: “The Mansion at Belle Meade Plantation”.