Louisiana Architecture: A Handbook on Styles
The Greek Revival Style
by Jonathan Fricker
Click the pictures above for 10 examples of Greek Revival Architectural styles
Some of the most interesting literature concerning the Greek Revival was written by its detractors. Andrew Jackson Downing, an advocate of “carpenter Gothic,” decried what he termed the “tasteless temples” of the Grecian style. To him, “a dwelling house should look like a dwelling house,” and a house designed to resemble a Greek temple was an aesthetic and moral lie.1eager and searching adolescence—a young democracy yearning for identity. It was truly a national style that swept all before it. And whatever its merits, the Greek Revival was pivotal to the South, providing Southerners an enduring architectural symbol, the white-columned mansion.
Surprisingly, Greek architecture was not discovered until comparatively late. Although the Renaissance in its various phases had sought for centuries to emulate the architecture and civilization of ancient Rome, Greek architecture (as apart from Roman) only became known in the West about 1760. James Stuart, a British architect, made a pilgrimage to Greece with Nicholas Revett in 1751. Stuart and Revett subsequently published Antiquities of Athens, a multi-volume work which had little immediate impact. “Athenian Stuart,” as he was sometimes styled, designed a few small buildings in the Grecian taste. He never received many commissions and finally died in obscurity in 1788.2 Being perhaps the father of the Greek Revival is his one footnote in history.
Brought up on Roman forms, architects first dismissed the ancient Greek style as too primitive. But increasingly its gravity and simplicity began to be admired. It dovetailed well with the rationalist, stripped-down school of classicism that prevailed among advanced architects around the turn of the nineteenth century. In Britain the Greek Revival culminated in the 1820s and 1830s, competing mainly with Gothic as the preferred style for churches and gentlemen’s residences. Indeed, the architectural practice of the day can be summed up as a contest between the Greeks and the Goths. Ultimately, the Goths won.3
But this was not the case in America where the Greek Revival attained a nationwide popularity it enjoyed nowhere else. Indeed, it has been said that in America “the country was studded with ‘temples’ from courthouses down to bird boxes.4 The reasons for this are various. There was the Greek war for independence from Turkey in the 1820s which became a cause célèbre. There was also a tendency in the young republic to identify with the Greek democracies of old, as was seen not only in Greek buildings, but in new towns with Greek names on the expanding western frontier. Names spring to mind such as Ithaca, New York; Demopolis, Alabama; and Athens and Homer, Louisiana.
The rage for Greek culture may have climaxed in 1832 when Congress commissioned the eminent sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a monumental statue of George Washington. In the executed work, the father of our country is not the tall distinguished figure in colonial garb we remember; rather he is a muscular colossus sporting the flowing robes of a Greek god.5
A final reason for the Greek Revival’s popularity is that for a long time there was no serious competition from other historic styles. As Nicholas Biddle, long-time political foe of President Andrew Jackson, wrote: “The two great truths in the world are the Bible and Grecian architecture.6
In the South, Grecian architecture appeared in various forms, some of which differed significantly from the national norm. In its purest form, the Greek Revival attempted to mimic the look of real Greek temples, with a huge pedimented portico spanning the entire front of a building. Such buildings featured massive round columns more or less correctly styled to the various Greek orders. Relatively heavy and blocky, temple houses such as Madewood near Napoleonville feature rich details such as Greek scroll volutes atop the columns. Of course, one has to allow that real Greek temples did not have windows or balconies. Nonetheless, Madewood’s Grecian effect is pronounced and striking. A superb smaller example is the beautifully detailed Brame-Bennett House in Clinton. The temple form is also found in Louisiana in various non-residential forms, ranging from grand Gallier Hall in New Orleans to a country store in Keatchie. An adaptation of the classical temple form was a pedimented portico attached to a larger building.
Although the temple was the most popular form for houses and other buildings in the United States as a whole, it was not as common in Louisiana. Here the local French Creole style evolved over about fifty years into what became a distinctive Southern subspecies of the Greek Revival. Known to architectural historians as the “peripteral mode,” it consists of a squarish house surrounded by massive columns and lacking porticoes. Columns are usually surmounted by a heavy horizontal member known as an entablature. Peripteral plantation houses include Houmas House, Ashland-Belle Hélène, Oak Alley, and the Hermitage, all on the River Road. Two courthouses in the style are the East Feliciana Parish Courthouse in Clinton and the Claiborne Parish Courthouse in Homer.
In Louisiana, as in other states, Greek Revival buildings are marked by the use of square head openings both for windows and doors. There were no round or elliptical arches, that is unless the architect erred. The keystone arch, with made round-head openings and archways possible, was a Roman invention and was unknown to the earlier Greek civilization. Hence true Grecian style buildings do no have them.
Often builders would simplify buildings by, for example, omitting the reed like fluting from the shafts of Ionic columns or by substituting a plain molded column capital for an authentic Grecian one. A very common treatment was to look but at lesser expense. It was also better suited to wood construction, which, of especially in Louisiana. (real Greek temples were of marble.) Interestingly enough, the white-column looked, so prized in the Greek Revival South, was in fact an architectural mistake. Real Greek temples were painted red, yellow, and blue. But by the eighteenth century the paint had long since faded away, revealing the white marble underneath. When at last these temples were discovered, their white appearance was taken for an authentic Grecian look.
By the 1840's white columns or simplified square pillars were becoming commonplace in Louisiana. There were many buildings that made no pretense of being Greek in shape or form but which adopted Grecian details. For example, when the standard Louisiana Creole cottage was fitted with substantial square pillars and a heavy entablature it became Greek, at least in spirit. Such a house might also have Grecian pediment-shaped tops on the windows and mantels with a heavy entablature on pillars. this type of residence became the standard for small to medium-sized plantation houses as well as for town residences on large lots. In the cities Greek details were applied to the standard three-story brick row house. Many fine examples still stand in the New Orleans Central Business District.
In much of America the Greek Revival gave way to other styles in the decade or so prior to the Civil War. But in Louisiana the style was remarkable tenacious, with full-blown examples from the 1870's and even later. Emilie Plantation House near Garyville is a case in point. It looks for all the world like a handsome substantial Greek Revival house built circa 1850. However, it dates from 1882. The moldings and corner fireplaces built for burning coal give it away. this not so ancient piece of Grecian architecture speaks volumes for the state's architectural conservatism.
Louisiana is one of a limited number of states where the Greek Revival exhibited its most spectacular flowering. Fortunately, some of these jewels are open to the public, providing an excellent opportunity to study first-hand the style that swept America.