Many iconic American buildings, like the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and vernacular homes borrow architectural elements and ideologies associated with both ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Classical architecture has remained popular from the turn of the 19th century to present day. The transition into more classically inspired buildings started with the Federalist Style, which we discussed in a previous piece about popular home styles. However, American mentality and conflicts on the other side of the globe inspired a reconnection to ancient roots and ideas.
Early Classical Revival or Roman Classical Revival
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson pushed the importance of adopting aspects of Roman architecture. During Jefferson’s time, Rome commonly received credit for the creation of democracy. He believed that modeling buildings after ones found in the once powerful Roman Republic would inspire our newly independent nation to grow and become powerful – like the Roman Empire. If you’ve ever visited Washington D.C., you probably noticed most of the buildings incorporate elements of the ancient Roman style.
Many American builders followed suit and used ancient Roman elements, most notably domes and arches, in their building plans. Jefferson designed his home, Monticello, around the style he loved.
Other Key Features:
- Arched Windows
- Domed Roofs
- Mostly found in the southern U.S.
- Fanlight or elliptical window above the entry way
- Low pitched hipped roofs
- Large windows and doors
- Porches, or porticos, that span the height and length of the front of the home
From the early 1820s to the beginning of the Civil War, the architectural style of ancient Greece dominated American architecture. Three events caused the boom in Greek Revival architecture.
First, the Roman Classical Revival migrated from England. Once the War of 1812 concluded, Americans wanted to separate themselves from English influence once and for all. Second, more research proved that the idea of democracy developed in Greece, not Rome.
Third, and possibly most important, the Greek Revival Style gained even more steam when the Greek War of Independence broke out. Americans felt a kinship with the Greeks fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Only a few decades earlier we fought for our own independence against England. As a form of support for Greece, many people latched on to Greek architecture.
When looking at an old Greek temple and an 1830s Greek Revival home, it’s pretty easy to point out the common elements in both, and which features Americans mimicked. For instance, both structures emphasize balance and symmetry.
Architects in ancient Greece realized that proportions change as they get further from the eye. To compensate for this, many columns on Greek temples bow out or have bulges at the top to fool the eye into making things look proportionally correct. Most vernacular buildings aren’t large enough to have to deal with this issue, but larger high-style buildings, like the U.S. Capitol, incorporate this technique.
Due to westward expansion during the early 19th century, Greek Revival was the one of the first architectural styles to span coast to coast in the U.S.
Other Key Features:
- Most buildings are white or have little color
- Fun Fact! Most classical style buildings are white to mimic the white marble statues and structures of the ancient world. At the time we weren’t aware the Greeks and Romans painted statues, but now we know better.
- Front gable with door centered under peak of roof
- Most structure footprints are rectangular in shape
- Entry porch with equally spaced columns
- Decorative simple columns – either square or cylindrical in shape
Different areas of the county have different housing needs, and therefore regional architectural styles developed out of the popular era style. One of the most notable sub-styles to come from the American Greek Revival Style was the Greek Revival Antebellum style. A large majority of the style consists of Greek Revival elements, but incorporates functionality like their French Colonial predecessors. French Colonial homes (think stereotypical southern plantation) in the south featured large galleries, or covered porches, wrapping around the home. These galleries helped shade the house to cool, much like modern passive solar homes and were incorporated into Antebellum style homes. The Belle Meade Plantation in Tennessee provides an early example of an Antebellum Greek Revival home.
Other Key Features:
- Found mostly in the deep southern states, like Louisiana
- Outside gallery area functions as hallway (no interior halls)
- Simple wood columns evenly spaced around the gallery
- Symmetrical placement of windows and columns
- Square, boxy shape
- Low pitched roof
- Main living areas are on the second floor or above to protect from flooding
Classical Revival or Neo-Classical
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. Prominent architects of the time again meshed together ancient Greek and Roman architecture and breathed new life into classically inspired architecture. Also, further information from archeological digs taught us more about these ancient societies and reignited people’s interests. Builders combined the decorative columns and arches or domes with the iconic temple-like façade seen on many Greek temples. This architectural style remained extremely popular all the way to the 1950s.
Other Key Features:
- Symmetrical in design
- Columns spanning the height of the structure
- Covered portico or entryway porch
- Elaborate decorations around entry door
- Decorative molding below the roof line
- Some have domed roofs
- Arches above windows or entryways
Classical homes and buildings represented far more than just a place to live. Their style embodied how Americans admired ancient societies and their ideological and architectural developments.
Now you’re an expert on classical home styles, their history, and the characteristics that make them unique. Stay tuned for more on the history and characteristics of popular American Home styles featured in the series That’s an Interesting Looking Home!