Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Greek Revival

Most architectural historians recognize the Greek Revival or Grecian Style as the first “national” building style in America.  Although based upon classical Greek designs, many aspects of the new Grecian Style were peculiar to America and so is thought of as a truly indigenous, American creation. 

Interest in Greek art and design grew following an expedition to Greece in 1751 led by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett.  Stuart and Revett began publishing a multi-volume work The Antiquities of Athens in 1762 which contained hundreds of engravings depicting the ancient monuments in Athens.  Antiquities of Athens stimulated interest in Greek architecture and influenced the first generation of American architects, including Benjamin Latrobe, whose designs included the Bank of Philadelphia, and Alexander Jackson Davis, who designed the New York customs house .

Greek designs were later popularized by pattern books and carpenter’s guides, including The Modern Builder’s Guide by Minard Lafever and The Practical House Carpenter by Asher Benjamin.  The new style began to be applied to more commonplace buildings such as middle class homes and farmhouses.  Interest in the Grecian Style was further heightened by the Greek War of Independence fought againt the Ottoman Empire. Many Americans, who associated earlier Georgian style and Roman classicism with England, saw much in the Greek’s struggle against the Ottomans that reminded them of their own fight for independence.  As settlers moved west  in the 1840s and 1850s they brought the new style with them and it became the predominant building style through the Civil War.

This ca. 1865 house in Mantorville, MN is a classic example of the Greek Revival.  Builders sought to mimic a Greek temple (think of the Parthenon in Athens) by using rectangular floor plans and presenting the gable end towards the front.   Classical pediments and eave returns were common and exteriors were decorated with details including Doric or Ionic columns or pilasters, wide frieze boards and ogee moulding. 

The gabled front of the house.  Please ignore the horrific paint colors! 
The front of the house features four fluted pilasters with stylized capitals resembling Greek urns.  Wide boards are applied under the eaves of the gable end and eave returns rest upon frieze blocks at each corner.  Like a Greek temple, the arrangement of windows, doors and decoration is symmetrical, proportional and ordered.  The affect of the house is strong and square which seems to reflect the confidence and determination of the new republic.

Close-up of the front entrance.
Greek Revival entrances often resembled miniature temple fronts.  Doors were framed by pilasters or sidelights and topped by  entablatures.   In this case the door is flanked by fluted pilasters with stylized urn-shaped capitals identical to those found on the corners of the building facade.  These pilasters support a squarish entablature with a wide frieze and a molded cornice.    

Detail of a pilaster, capital and frieze.
Detail of the front door.
Greek Revival doors often have four raised panels.  The upper panels are sometimes elongated with wide lock rails and squat lower panels.  High style examples often featured molded sticking on the rails and stiles surrounding the panels.  In this case, as was common on the frontier, there is no sticking and the borders around the raised panel fields is flat rather than beveled.   

Mantorville, MN is located a few miles west of Rochester, MN just off of US Highway 14.  The town is well worth a visit as it has numerous, well-preserved examples of commercial and domestic architecture from the first decades of Minnesota's founding as a state.  

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