Classical Revival Architecture 1790-1830

20 Jun

Although Georgian and Federal style buildings featured some classical elements, the full replication of classical Greek and Roman buildings began only in the late 18th century, largely through the influence of Thomas Jefferson. While serving as Minister to France he became enamored with the Maison Carrée at Nimes in southern France. He copied the prototype for his design for the Virginia State Capitol building at Richmond, completed in 1792. As the first public building in Neo-Classical temple form, it had a significant influence on the design of other public structures. Soon the Classical style, with its association with the Greek city-states and republicanism, was accepted as the style most fitting to represent the new American republic. Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia in 1817, one of this country’s best pieces of architecture, was a tour-de-force in this Classical Revival style.

The Classical Revival style, more commonly referred to as Greek Revival, is most distinguishable by two features-a pediment and free-standing Doric or Tuscan columns. Although the main structure can be white stucco, board siding or red brick, the front elevation is typically enhanced with a white portico (porch) with full-width pediment and columns. The building form is rectilinear, and the spatial arrangement of the interior is defined by height and width proportions and window arrangements that satisfy the design needs of the temple form.


Kempf House-Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1852-53

The style owed its decline to the inherent restrictiveness and inflexibility of its plan. This was a special concern in an increasingly urban society, with buildings closely placed along busy streets being viewed as more appropriate and feasible than buildings situated temple-like on selected hilltops. This change in thinking was described by John Maass in his book, The Gingerbread Age:

The Victorians, of course, moralized on every possible occasion and they attacked the Greek style upon moral grounds. Actually, the Greek Revival had run its course in the forties because it was no longer adequate. This beautiful, serene style is essentially an architecture of facades. Fenestration was always a problem in a porticoed building; even such a lover of the antique as Goethe had recognized that ‘columns and windows are a contradiction’. The Greek temples had of course been windowless and the dwellings of the ancient Greeks and Romans were without columns. The ground plan of a Greek Revival building had to conform to the symmetrical elevation. This could be made to work in formal designs like royal palaces, state capitols and even town halls but it was a straitjacket for builders who were called upon to solve the everyday problems of an increasingly complex industrial civilization.

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