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.
Our house seems to be a hodgepodge of Greek Revival styles. It has the accentuated pediment of the earlier Greek Revival New England design but has the layout and window placement of the later ‘Midwestern Greek Revival farmhouse’. I don’t know if this means that our house was a a pre-courser to the midwest farm house (dating between the two) or a modified version after the Midwestern house became popular.
A book I really enjoyed using to look up specifics is Greek Revival Architecture in America by Talbot Hamlin. It isn’t a field guide, or a even a picture book (although it does have 322 black and white photos as illustrated on its cover) – but it does have very detailed descriptive passages about period details and I recommend the book to anyone who wants names and specifics of popular architects and their works of the era.
Below are two quotes that apply to our area of Upstate NY;
It was in the newer centers that the Greek Revival most clearly set the character – in the towns growing up in the Susquehanna and Delaware valleys, like Green, Unadilla, Otego, Oneonta and the Finger Lakes region… This triumphant Greek Revival work of the 1830’s in up-state New York was definite and polished, quite different from the tentative earlier approaches. It made much of the monumental types of house with a two-story central body fronted with a pedimented portico and flanked by one story wings, as well as of bolder and more original if less ostentatious types – cottages with nearly flat roofs and low frieze windows with decorative cast–iron grilles for the upper floors, or story –and a half gabled cottages. In all of these, freedom of planning and creative modifications of Greek precedent are outstanding and in many there is evidence of the use of the Lafever books. page-266
Western New York in those days was a country of experiment, of striving for the new – a restless, Utopian country. It was the home of religious cults of all kinds, the birthplace of Mormonism. It was a serious, idealistic, perhaps at times even a little ‘touched’ and something of this quality seems to have permeated its architecture, given it vitality, made it eager to seize and to use the new Greek forms and to use them and modify them in a new an experimental ways so that even in the experiments there seems to be little that is tentative – on the contrary they indicate a strong affirmation. There is an enormous variety of house types; many of the different schemes found further west in Ohio and Michigan had their seeds sown in New York State. page 269
This is just a little ‘illustration’ I did of the house facade in Photoshop to help me envision what the house would look like without the extended enclosed porch. I just couldn’t help but post it along with the floor plans. The proportions read better right? as you can see there would still be the original ‘inverted’ porch which is a classic Greek Revival farmhouse element.
p.s this is the facade of the front of the house , from the top of the floor plans
This is the floor plan of the house when we got it – 3 separate apartments,each shaded in a different color. For a sense of scale you can see the 10′ square I included in the illustration
This is the house with the changes we have made in red – most of the changes we have made are the unsexy ones, like replacing the collapsed septic – patching the roof leaks, removing moldy drywall and insulation from said roof leaks, and just opening up old doorways that were turned into closets. I have pages and pages of lists of all the little annoying things we had to fix (some of them accomplished others not) but mostly we wanted to get a feel of what the house was like at different times of year, how it sat in the site etc, etc before we made any major permant changes.
This is the floor plan drawn up by the previous, previous owners who actually did the renovations in the 60’s. I almost cried when my realtor dug it out of her papers – the things I learned about how the house was orignally constructed and used is invaluable. As you can probably tell I am a bit of a historic nut – and there are lots of details here I just wouldn’t have been able to know without this plan.
One of the most interesting details in this plan is how part of the house used to be a woodshed – the back el of this house actually has huge hand hewn beams – which I cant wait to uncover. This summer during a particularly grueling demo day I was rewarded by realizing that the ceiling is hung off on (rather new) 2x4s running parallel to the length of the structure – which means structurally that they aren’t holding up the roof. The roof Which I have a feeling is also pretty new (the proportions feel kind prefab / mobile home-ish) is being held up by a few massive and barn-like beams. So the hope is to strip down this back area to the barn-like core and have it as a great room for the eventual kitchen, dining and living and studio area. You can sort of see the beams in this picture of the converted wood shed below- they are hidden by the dropped ceiling in the rest of the building.
p.s -Ignore the Bavarian beer hall decor of this back room – we will be making it a far simpler and more appropriate choices – although every guy I have shown this house LOVES this room in particular. I personally love the scale – but think the decor is insane. The ‘chandelier’ is actually an old yoke with red glass lanterns. The creepy red light it throws totally freaks me out.
Here is the story – I grew up on a farm in upstate NY and when I am in city I invariably miss the country. So my siblings and I often end up back at our parents farm – so much so that during the summer it is a bit like living at home again (that is, if your version of home involves a working farm). So my sisters and I bought a dilapidated little farmhouse in the town over from our parents place and we are hoping to fix it up into an elegant little number.
This is the Greek revival farmhouse that we bought. My photographer sister took this series of photos the day after the closing when we hadn’t touched anything. It looks a lot cleaner in these pictures than it is right now – plaster, sawdust and moldy drywall have a way of working themselves everywhere.
The original house was probably built in the 1850’s- 1870’s and has expanded along the kitchen el to incorporate what used to be a woodshed. In the 60’s the new owners built a new house to the north of the property and converted our house into three apartments. Eventually the land was subdivided leaving 4 acres with our house.
There are three extremely small outdated kitchens, three small bathrooms, three mudrooms and when we bought the house there were 4 small bedrooms. In order to turn the three units into one unit we had to remove two of the bedrooms so that we could access the back apartment. Being that the house is about 150 or so years old – and has had three separate units for almost 50 years there have been various ‘updates’ in each apartment over time that have signs of each era. One of my favorite touches is the brick floor linoleum in the back apartments dining area. An upside to renovating an apartment house is that most of the changes were cosmetic, and because the layout isn’t original, it gives us the opportunity to choose a modern floor plan without being afraid to ruin any historical details. Let us hope the process proves interesting and not disastrous! And now to work.