Ever wonder why so many structures in the United States, from homes and banks to museums and city halls, look like Greek temples? Think strong, white columns holding up a pediment, a triangular upper front form. Some of the most ubiquitous examples are our national monuments and federal buildings in Washington, D.C., many of which feature this noble, temple-like style in bright white marble. They exude classical grace and power – and that’s exactly the point. This architectural style, seen across the country, is appropriately known as Greek Revival, or Grecian, style. In the mid-1800s, this form of architecture swept the country like nowhere else in the world. It became so closely associated with the country that it was called the National Style.
How did this now ubiquitous style come to dominate town squares and streets across the nation? The answer lies in the re-discovery of the rich artistic heritage of the Ancient Greeks, and America’s self-identification with the democratic ancients. Much as national architecture is dominated by Greek Revival, so, too, were many Great American Treasures houses built in it. Read on to learn more about 19th-century America’s love affair with the Ancient Greeks’ powerful buildings and which Great American Treasures you can visit to learn more.
All Roads Lead to… Greece
Ancient Greek temples were the inspiration for buildings in the Greek Revival style, but the style had some modern modifications. There were regional variations, but most included the same base elements. These include columns holding up an entablature, which is the horizontal portion between the column roof and the top, crowned by a triangular pediment. Columns were in one of the three ancient orders (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, in increasing order of their level of ornamentation) or were square pillars.
Most American Greek revival buildings took the temple form, meaning they had four, six or eight columns creating a portico. Sometimes the buildings simply had a colonnade, or series of columns, across the front. Other distinguishing elements include square openings to windows and doors, instead of arches, which the Greeks did not use, a pair of columns and an entablature over openings like windows and fireplaces, and carved or cast ornamentation that took after Greek styles.
The materials used in this style in America reflected 19th-century conceptions of the look of the Greek temple. In Ancient times, the temples were painted in bright, even gaudy colors by today’s standards. However, over the many thousands of years, these colors wore off and left the base white marble for which they are still so known. Therefore, Americans made their versions of temples in white, usually whitewashed brick or painted wood instead of marble, which was very expensive.
So why did Greek architecture become such a craze to begin with? It goes back to the 1750s, when British architects visited Greece and wrote about what they saw in several books. The style became fashionable in Britain and the rest of Europe before sweeping the United States and dominating architecture in the post War of 1812, pre-Civil War era.
There were reasons beyond aesthetics that the style became so popular in the United States. For one thing, the country was young and new, and many viewed it as the descendent of Grecian democracy at a time when many other Western countries still had a monarchy in place. They sought to identify themselves with the flourishing intellectual and democratic spirit of the Ancient Greeks. Furthermore, modern Greece was fighting Turkey for its independence in the 1820s. Americans, who themselves had recently thrown off their colonial masters and fought them back again in 1812, were sympathetic to the Greek cause.
Among the first major Greek Revival buildings built in America was the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its designer, William Strickland, is one of America’s first major professional architects and an evangelist of the Greek Revival style. Modeled on the Parthenon, the Second Bank is a large building with a series of Doric columns, built between 1818 and 1824. Today, it is part of Independence National Historical Park. The style spread across America through books and apprenticeship training, which is how young architects were trained.
Greek Revival and Great American Treasures
Due to its ubiquity during the first half of the 19th-century, a large number of Great American Treasures feature Greek Revival elements—hence, the Greek Revival Everywhere collection of sites.
The elegant Neill-Cochran House Museum in Austin, Texas, was built in 1855 when Greek Revival’s popularity was starting to fade in the East. However, due to rapid growth along the frontier, the style persisted strongly in the West. Neill-Cochran also features a large two-story portico with fluted Doric columns, meaning the columns have a series of shallow grooves along their surface. While the immense portico spread across the facades at NCHM, the portico at the Craik-Patton House in Charleston, West Virginia, spans only the door and its two flanking windows. A more modest structure, its columns rise only one-story, but its triangular pediment is impressively tall.
Some of these Greek Revival homes contain interesting and unusual elements. Visitors to the Clarke House Museum in Chicago, Illinois, the oldest house in the original city limits, can see that the home is crowned with a cupola and finial from the Italianate style. If it seems plunked on top of what is a traditional Grecian design, that is because it is – the cupola was added in the 1850s as a means of keeping up with the latest architectural trends. This cupola features arched windows and no triangular pediment, making it at odds with the rest of this Greek-inspired house.
Check out these three houses and other Greek Revival homes on our website and see how many Greek architectural details you can spot!