- 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
Even so, the Greek Revival may be seen as representing the democratization of high style, its restrained facade a revolt against the subtler rhythms of the Federal style. Even the builders’ tools testify to these architectural changes. Intricately patterned planes with which carpenters shaped delicate Adam-type moldings during the turn of the century were no longer needed; woodworkers could form the details of Greek Revival style with just a few wide-edged planes. In its purest form the Greek Revival style gave householders an inexpensive and widely available classicism.
Still, Greek Revival didn’t become the architectural style for Everyman. It was most often adapted for the homes of New England millowners, Southern planters, and the newly rich merchants and professionals drawn to fast-growing cities on the Western frontier. Workers, North and South, East and West, most often lived in houses that belonged to no particular style, built out of whatever materials were locally available, with spatial plans more functional than formal.
Unlike those vernacular dwellings, the Greek Revival house provided a philosophy as well as a shelter, just as Andalusia reflected its owner’s political and economic beliefs. The mansion was the center of a large farm that Biddle, in contrast to many gentlemen farmers, operated at a profit. There he raised corn and a wide variety of vegetables and fruit and experimented (less profitably) with breeding cattle and horses and with the cultivation of grapes and silkworms. A member of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Biddle prescribed his methods as a model for others. His Andalusia represented the perfect marriage of Jeffersonian agrarianism and Hamiltonian financial policy, and the same system of improvements that he supported for the country as a whole he put into effect at his home. Biddle’s one hundred acres spread out from his Greek Revival house on the Delaware River, just as the branches of his bank spread out from his Parthenon on Chestnut Street.
To many observers this apparently rational formula didn’t hold up. The Era of Good Feelings, which earlier had seemed to bind Federalists and Republicans, Northerners and Southerners, in a harmonious “golden age,” was fading, and Biddle’s defeat at the hands of Jackson was just one of the more obvious signs of its passing. The United States Bank, pictured in the newspapers of the day as a miniature Greek temple, began to symbolize in many people’s eyes a more sinister Temple of Mammon.
In the years just before the Civil War, how one perceived the Greek Revival depended in large part on where one was standing. To many Southerners Greek architecture had become symbolic of their region and what they saw as its special affinity with the world’s first democracy (which had, after all, been founded on slavery). To Northerners the association of the style with greed and bondage was just as clear, and they began to build in the asymmetrical forms and earthen hues of the Gothic Revival. As the nation drifted toward civil conflict, the Greek Revival increasingly became a regional style. Even before the storm broke, moonlight on white columns had become to Southerners a poignant emblem of a way of life that was rapidly passing.
To Nicholas Biddle the “world’s great truths” had seemed to go naturally together; the Bible and Greek architecture were the two columns that supported a larger truth. Americans in the next generation were forced to choose between them.