Many iconic American buildings, like the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and vernacular homes borrow architectural elements and ideologies associated with both ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Classical architecture has remained popular from the turn of the 19th century to present day. The transition into more classically inspired buildings started with the Federalist Style, which we discussed in a previous piece about popular home styles. However, American mentality and conflicts on the other side of the globe inspired a reconnection to ancient roots and ideas.
Early Classical Revival or Roman Classical Revival
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson pushed the importance of adopting aspects of Roman architecture. During Jefferson’s time, Rome commonly received credit for the creation of democracy. He believed that modeling buildings after ones found in the once powerful Roman Republic would inspire our newly independent nation to grow and become powerful – like the Roman Empire. If you’ve ever visited Washington D.C., you probably noticed most of the buildings incorporate elements of the ancient Roman style.
Many American builders followed suit and used ancient Roman elements, most notably domes and arches, in their building plans. Jefferson designed his home, Monticello, around the style he loved.
Other Key Features:
From the early 1820s to the beginning of the Civil War, the architectural style of ancient Greece dominated American architecture. Three events caused the boom in Greek Revival architecture.
First, the Roman Classical Revival migrated from England. Once the War of 1812 concluded, Americans wanted to separate themselves from English influence once and for all. Second, more research proved that the idea of democracy developed in Greece, not Rome.
Third, and possibly most important, the Greek Revival Style gained even more steam when the Greek War of Independence broke out. Americans felt a kinship with the Greeks fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Only a few decades earlier we fought for our own independence against England. As a form of support for Greece, many people latched on to Greek architecture.
When looking at an old Greek temple and an 1830s Greek Revival home, it’s pretty easy to point out the common elements in both, and which features Americans mimicked. For instance, both structures emphasize balance and symmetry.
Architects in ancient Greece realized that proportions change as they get further from the eye. To compensate for this, many columns on Greek temples bow out or have bulges at the top to fool the eye into making things look proportionally correct. Most vernacular buildings aren’t large enough to have to deal with this issue, but larger high-style buildings, like the U.S. Capitol, incorporate this technique.
Due to westward expansion during the early 19th century, Greek Revival was the one of the first architectural styles to span coast to coast in the U.S.
Different areas of the county have different housing needs, and therefore regional architectural styles developed out of the popular era style. One of the most notable sub-styles to come from the American Greek Revival Style was the Greek Revival Antebellum style. A large majority of the style consists of Greek Revival elements, but incorporates functionality like their French Colonial predecessors. French Colonial homes (think stereotypical southern plantation) in the south featured large galleries, or covered porches, wrapping around the home. These galleries helped shade the house to cool, much like modern passive solar homes and were incorporated into Antebellum style homes. The Belle Meade Plantation in Tennessee provides an early example of an Antebellum Greek Revival home.