In the first half of the 19th Century, Greek Revival was at its peak in the United States. And the Kilbourntown House (also known as the Benjamin Church House) is a peak example of this simple and powerful architectural style.
Built by Benjamin Church, a carpenter who moved to Milwaukee from Buffalo with a one-year stop in Chicago, it features “fluted Doric columns and the finely proportioned moldings and window and door casings that give the house true distinction,” wrote Russell Zimmermann in “The Heritage Guidebook.”
The inside furnishings are equally as distinctive. They’ve been painstaking chosen to create an intimate museum of an American family in the Midwest in the middle of the 19th Century. (Church and his wife had six children, five of whom survived until adulthood)
It’s called Kilbourntown House because it was built at the corner of 4th and Cort in Kilbourntown, one of the three townships that eventually became Milwaukee. In 1938, it was moved to Estabrook Park and restored (revived, if you will) as part of the WPA project. It is the oldest surviving house in Milwaukee.
Like many Greek Revival homes, it features a symmetrical floor plan. The front door opens into the living room, with the dining room and kitchen directly behind. The bedrooms are in each wing of the house. While we typically call it Greek Revival, it was also known as Greek Temple or national style.
So why was Greek Revival such a powerful movement in the early 19th Century? There’s never a single explanation for such things, but it’s helpful to remember that in 1800 we were only 12 years into being a democracy. So many Americans were still getting comfortable with the idea. But as they did, the appeal of ancient Greece—the original democracy—grew as well. The style was seen as an expression of nationalism and virtue, and an escape from the laziness and frivolity of other European powers.
Just as the North and South differed on other issues, they also had different reactions to Greek Revival. For the North, Greek architecture symbolized the freedom of the Greeks. In the South it recalled the cultural glories enabled by a slave society. Ironic…and foreboding.