Greek Revival Architecture: A Classic Style in the United States

The Greek Revival architectural movement began in the middle of the 18th century when cities like Washington D.C. were not yet in existence. Beyond just architectural forms, it represented important ideals in the founding of the United States.

Greek Revival architecture echoes the form of Greek temples. The style represents classic symmetry, democratic ideals, and a historic flair that the early founders valued.

Beginning of Greek Revival Architecture

Greek Revival Architecture
Greek Revival Architecture

In the early 18th century, only scholars and travelers interested in antiquity had knowledge of Greece. Politics in the region made travel to Greece difficult. The Greeks triumphed over the Ottomans in a war of independence in 1832, opening it to travelers from Europe.

Connoisseurs of the mid-18th century were among the few interested in early Greek Revival architecture. More people in Britain became interested in the style as a way to signal sobriety and order at the height of their wars with Napoleonic France. Greek Revival architecture was a more recognized style by the early 1800s.

Greek Revival Architecture in the United States

The Greek Revival architecture style spread from Britain and became popular throughout northern Europe.

Many early United States citizens became interested in Greek architecture’s symbolism. It contrasted the lax style and values the first American citizens saw taking root in France. This style, and others like it in the Neoclassical order, is free from associations with the church that was innate in other architectural forms from Europe and Britain.

Thomas Jefferson appointed building surveyor Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design public buildings in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Like the U.S. Capital, he developed these buildings in a classical style using local natural motifs such as corn cobs and tobacco leaves.

The Greek Revival style dominated architecture in the United States from 1820-1850. One of the most famous architects responsible for the proliferation of Neo-Greek building design was Robert Mills, a student of Latrobe’s. He designed both the Monumental Church and the Washington Monument.

Another reason for the lasting popularity of the Greek Revival style was the publication of pattern books. One of the most important was Benjamin Asher’s The Practical House Carpenter. It was responsible for the spread of Greek Revival homes throughout the Northeast and Midwest in the United States.

Greek Revival Houses

Large Greek Revival buildings are simple and symmetrical. These elements also became popular in individual home design.

Greek Revival-style houses combined columns and pediments, low-pitched roofs, and white-colored exteriors. As with some aspects of public buildings, the Greek Revival style took on regional elements.

In warm and humid southern climates, Greek Revival houses feature a portico, piazza, or porch to take advantage of the cool evening air. Greek Revival homes in the north would often embellish their exteriors with decorative pilasters rather than full porches with columns.

There were also variations based on the scope and size of the Grecian-style home. Large Greek Revival homes with wealthy owners included most of the elements of Greek temples, like columns, large pediments, and wide decorative friezes.

More modest farmhouse-style homes featured only some details of Greek-style architecture. These details included a simple rectangular shape and triangular gables, creating the look of a Grecian pediment. Almost all Greek Revival homes are white.

Design Elements of Greek Revival Architecture

Greek architectural elements are important in the interior and exterior of Greek Revival buildings.

Exterior Design Features

  • Symmetrical design
  • Jutting front-facing gables to mimic the look of pediments
  • Low-pitched roof
  • Decorative cornices and friezes
  • Fluted or smooth columns in the Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian style
  • Decorative pilasters to mimic the look of columns
  • White exterior to mimic marble temples
  • Wide porches and porticos
  • Double sash windows with six panes in each sash
  • Elaborate door surrounds that feature sidelights and transoms
  • Square openings for windows and doors

Interior Design Features

  • Interior columns and pilasters featuring Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian forms
  • Open and rectangular floor plans
  • Intricate plaster cornices and ceiling designs
  • Warm interior colors like beige, red, blue, and gold
  • Hardwood floors

Examples of Greek Revival Architecture in the United States

The United States features many prominent examples of Greek Revival architecture.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial - Greek Revival Architecture

Many buildings in the United States capital, Washington D.C., have a Greek Revival style. For example, the Lincoln Memorial has the style of a Greek temple.

The architects designed it using Yule marble. Thirty-six fluted Doric columns support the exterior portico. There are decorative cornices and friezes throughout the structure adorned by ribbons and palm leaves.

Millford Plantation

Millford Plantation - Greek Revival

Historians consider the Milford Plantation in Pinewood, South Carolina, one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the South. The home’s facade features six imposing Corinthian columns supporting a substantial portico. Millford hired the celebrated cabinet maker Duncan Phyfe to fill the home’s interior with Grecian-inspired furniture.

Second Bank of the United States

Second Bank of the United States

The Second Bank of the United States is a classic example of Greek Revival architecture. The architect William Strickland designed this building to look like the historic Greek temple, the Parthenon. It has a triangular pediment supported by eight fluted Doric columns.

John C. Ainsworth House

Capt. John C. Ainsworth House - Greek Revival Architecture Style

The John C. Ainsworth House in Portland, Oregon, has a more rustic Greek Revival style, featuring four columns that support a projecting gable. It has large double sash windows with a 6-lite design and a slight triangular pediment over each window. The entrance features sidelights and a transom that surround a single door.

What is the Difference Between Greek Revival and Neoclassical Architecture?

Greek Revival architecture is part of the larger style called Neoclassical architecture. Neoclassical architecture reflected simplicity and the use of columns. These styles feature Greek and Roman forms from Greek Revival and Palladian architecture. Historians see the Neoclassical forms as an Enlightenment reaction to the decorative and over-stylized excesses of the Baroque and Rococo movements.