My father bought me this book this summer when we were out looking for furniture at the local antique /used furniture shops in the area. To Grandfathers House we Go – A Roadside Tour of American Homes By Harry Devlin is a beautiful children primer on architecture and although simply written- I actually learned bits I did not know. I did know that Greek revival at the time was referred to as the ‘national style’ because it was associated with the Greek, democratic ideals of our nation. And that the movement in America was was inspired by Thomas Jefferson. But what I did not know that one of the reasons that the ‘greek look’ was so popular was that we as a nation were mad at England for the war of 1812 and were sympathetic to the Greeks who were fighting for their own independence from the Turks. Greek revival style was the first time Americans applied an aesthetic style to architecture defiantly not modeled on the English precedent. It was style of independence and of ‘modernity’. Imagine these rural new towns with log cabins and bare-wood clapboard colonial style houses being replaced by houses that were made to look like shining white stone temples. I can imagine that statuesque pride encapsulated in these new generous proportions must have been very exciting to the nations psyche.
The book also talks about how towns (esp here in New York)were NAMED in Greek revival style – for example Rome, Utica, Athens, Palmyra, Troy, Homer, Syracuse etc.
The appreciation and enthusiasm for the ‘classics’ of ancient Greek culture became viewed as pretentious and mundane as it was applied willy nilly to all aspects of life. It must have seemed silly to some as the ‘magnificence’ of Greek temple design which was first seen in grand public buildings was watered down and applied to the most rural and incongruous of architectural uses. The greek revival era is often quoted as stretching 30 years from 1820 to 1850’s – which I guess when you think that the average life span was 30-45 years in that age – the style was present for almost a life time. in 1850 Greek revival style was starting to be considered archaic, ‘costly and lavish’ especially because buildings were being designed to mimic an already designed style instead of being created to address new architectural needs.
I guess this is why I find rural Greek revival architecture (and rural architecture in general) so interesting. Rural architecture was most always designed by need. Resources of the farms being few, and houses needing to withstand the fierceness of climate led to rural architecture to be far less decorative and more of a direct, unfettered answer to the use and environment. So I guess what some would find absurd – applying a temple design to the farmhouse vernacular, I actually find the most interesting – farm houses demand that they be designed for use above decoration – and the resultant style is a unique and valid group of venacutlar architecture. Around the time of Greek Revival farmhouses was also the Progressive Farmhouse movement – which I plan to discuss in another post.
For further reading on American Architecture : Architecture in the United States, 1800-1850 By William Barksdale Maynard.