November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
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
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.
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.