- Historic Sites
From The Greek
In its majesty and in its simplicity, the Greek Revival house seemed to echo America’s belief in the past and hopes for the future
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
The two great truths in the world are the Bible and Grecian architecture.” This is what Nicholas Biddle believed and what he published in his magazine, Portfolio , in 1814. Although we remember him today as the director of the Second Bank of the United States who fought with President Andrew Jackson over the role of a central bank, Biddle deserves to be best known as the evangelist for Greek Revival architecture in America. In this endeavor he was far more successful; the evidence is his impeccable estate, Andalusia on the Delaware River just above Philadelphia, which still survives.
Biddle was able to observe the architecture he came to love in 1806, as one of the first citizens of the new American nation to visit Greece. The trio clearly influenced the design of his bank’s branch in Philadelphia, as well as its offshoots in Savannah, New York, and Boston. But it wasn’t until 1835 that he took time from his battles with President Jackson to renovate his family seat, an eighteenth-century farmhouse, in the same style. By then, thanks to enthusiastic patrons like Biddle and a corps of professional architects such as Benjamin Latrobe, William Strickland, Minard Lafever, Robert Mills, and Thomas U. Walter, there was scarcely a city or town in America without a church, a courthouse, a bank, a library, or a house in the shape of a columned Greek temple.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Americans turned to ancient Greece for inspiration in the early nineteenth century. Both peoples had established political democracies based on the ideals of harmony and moderation, and both embraced an architectural tradition that appeared to embody those principles. In Athens, Greece, no less than in towns called Athens in New York, Ohio, or Georgia, abstract theories were revealed in the massive timbers and shapes that protected Man from the furies of Nature and his own passions.
The harmonies implicit in Greek architecture seemed to express at once American qualities of simplicity and exuberance, moderation and monumental ism, self-restraint and self-glorification, rationalism and romanticism. Consequently, the Greek Revival style flourished on American soil as it had nowhere else in the world, as a physical expression of a national memory of what Americans once were and might yet become.
But the interaction of parts that the Greek Revival seemed to promise was sometimes elusive. When he first arrived in America, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised “to perceive along shore … a number of little palaces of white marble several of which were of classic architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely one which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. AH the edifices that I had admired the night before were of the same kind.”
Although the Greek Revival facade was frequently an afterthought, awkwardly attached to an older structure, with Andalusia Biddle and Thomas U. Walter were marvelously successful in their transformation of an eighteenth-century brick farmhouse into the image of a Greek temple. Rooms and wings were added and rebuilt, the bricks and wood painted white in imitation of marble, and a massive portico and entablature were constructed to look serenely down upon the Delaware River.
At Andalusia, as in most Greek Revival houses, the exterior and the interior seem to have been created by two completely different hands to reflect opposing philosophies of design. An austere, rectilinear, stark white Greek edifice typically encloses a profusion of highly colored and multitextured curvilinear furniture, decorative trim, and Victorian bric-a-brac. In the houses of America’s early style setters, these furnishings were termed Empire in honor of Napoleon; soon almost any middle-class home in America in the nineteenth century would have a “klismos chair” or a pedestaled table in the style of Duncan Phyfe. A Greek lyre would likely decorate the back splats of chairs, gilt paint would embellish the curves of wood trim, animals might grow out of the legs of tables, and the sinuous forms of anthemia and acanthus leaves would sprout from any corner. Even in the houses of the less well-to-do, floors, walls, and ceilings frequently were painted in an ensemble of strong, deep colors, surprising to the present-day eye.
It is easy to be so distracted by these embellishments that one overlooks the great transformation in American society reflected in the Greek Revival style. In the colonial period, houses almost universally had their entrances on the longest side, giving onto the room where the family generally cooked, ate, worked, and relaxed. An individual entering a Greek Revival house, on the other hand, comes in through a door in the narrow gable end of the house, directly into a formal space designed specifically for entertaining visitors. Dayto-day duties in the household and the people who were engaged in them—women, children, servants, and slaves—were pushed out of sight to the rear of the house.