Inspired by the symmetry, simplicity, and proportions of ancient Athens temples, Greek Revival architecture became a dominant design style in the United States and Northern Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Strong columns, gently sloping roofs, and gracefully proportioned interiors characterized the classical style, which continues to be seen in a variety of contemporary structures from churches and courthouses to office buildings and homes. The information that follows explores a brief overview of origins and elements of the Greek Revival style.
Origins and Overview
While the style was modified to suit modern usage, the temples of ancient Greece, from the 5th century B.C., served as the inspiration for the Greek Revival style. Its introduction can be traced back to the 1750s when British architect James Stuart visited Greece. Documenting his discoveries in a detailed reference book titled Antiquities of Athens, Stuart is credited with helping to spread the style outside of its country of origin, despite the fact that the style did not reach its peak popularity until decades after the book’s release in 1762.
The Greek Revival style briefly emerged in England and other European countries during the 1800s before dominating the design scene in the United States for nearly three decades. Though its forms were first derived from Europe, the style was eagerly embraced in the United States. Living in a country in the midst of defining itself during the 19th century, Americans were inspired by the culture, art, and philosophies of Greece and its role as the birthplace of democracy. It is considered to be amongst the most prolific style to gain favor in the United States prior to the Civil War, in regard to both numbers and geographical spread. Greek Revival buildings continue to define the architectural heritage of many structures west of the Appalachians. The intricacies of the style and its influence were spread primarily through architectural pattern books that were ideal for use by local developers and builders, who often acted as their own architects at the time.
Distinguishing Design Elements
Inspired by the designs that defined the birthplace of democracy, American architects of the 19th century implemented the Greek Revival style’s sophisticated and classical elements in a variety of ways. The Greek temple form facade—with four, six, or eight columns supporting an entablature and a pediment—serves as an essential architectural aspect of the style. Evoking the ancient Greek orders, rounded columns became an essential exterior element of the style, and featured Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian details with an entablature above. These columns were also often rendered in square or octagonal shapes.
Additional character-defining features included interiors with simple and open layouts and elegant proportions, Greek temple style doors with two tall vertical inset panels, ornate plasterwork ceilings, plain plaster walls, wide plank floors, and soaring windows. Buildings were often rendered in wood, stucco, and brick, while front porches or covered portico entrances were frequently included. In an effort to emulate the marble used in ancient Greece, white paint also played a critical role in characterizing the style. The Greek Revival style was preceded by the neoclassical Federal Style—featuring details inspired by classical Greek Ionic architecture—and followed by the Italianate style.