Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.
When looking at 19th-century houses, specifically those built between 1825 and 1860, it’s not uncommon to come across ones classified as "Greek Revival." But how did ancient Greece's architectural vocabulary find favor with architects and clients in the American south, midwest, and across upstate New York?
A couple of forces worked in tandem to give this architectural movement steam. There was, for example, a renewed interest in the architecture of antiquity in the mid-to-late 18th century: Pompeii was first excavated in 1748, and not long afterward, the Scottish archaeologist and architect James Stewart published The Antiquities of Athens (1762). The book included highly detailed drawings of some of the most famous buildings of ancient Greece, not least of which was the Acropolis complex.
This book also sparked a wave of European architecture inspired by ancient Greece. It didn’t take long for those waves to reach U.S. shores. Need proof? Just look at the government architecture of Washington, D.C., which was largely completed in the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, architects like Asher Benjamin were producing pattern books that outlined how to adopt and adapt these architectural elements for residential dwellings. Benjamin published The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter in 1830, and this manual provided specific directions for how to proportion columns, decorate doorways, and design mantlepieces, among other elements of a house.
These pattern books helped disseminate the Greek Revival style across the U.S., and allowed farmers and city-dwellers alike to design houses in the most up-to-date style of architecture, plucked directly from Athens. Here are five examples, ranging from farmhouses in need of restoration to southern mansions, that will fulfill any Greek Revival fantasy.
North Kingstown, Rhode Island (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $559,900)
We’re beginning our tour in New England with an adorable waterfront house built around 1830. One of the most common elements of Greek Revival architecture is the use of columns. Sometimes, as we see around the front door of this house, designers substituted pilasters for columns. Two Doric pilasters flank this doorway, which is capped by an entablature (that triple band of wood molding that joins the two pilasters).
As we move inside, we see this pilaster-and-entablature motif repeated again, this time surrounding a fireplace—three fireplaces, to be exact. Sure, one of the fireplaces isn't working (it's currently boarded up), but it seems like the fireplace that’s boarded up adjoins the working fireplace in the kitchen. This means the chimney was originally built for two fireplaces, and can therefore be restored. Keep in mind, though, that restoring fireplaces can be rather pricey. Thankfully, the other two are in working order! We’re especially pleased to see the fireplace in the kitchen.
Niles, Michigan (4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $132,000)
Often, Greek Revival houses feature porches supported by fluted columns, like we see on this circa-1850 house in Michigan. The front elevation of the white clapboard house includes not only fluted Doric columns, but also a door surrounded by Doric pilasters and topped with an entablature, like we saw in Rhode Island.
Inside, we see a number of characteristics that are indicative of the Greek Revival style. Almost every doorway is surrounded by thick molding, sometimes referred to as "ear molding" or "crossette molding." We love the woodwork commonly found in Greek Revival homes, because it usually features deep undercuts, creating shadows and a little drama.
The first floor features a double parlor—also typical in 19th-century homes—and marble mantlepieces that are similar in shape to the wooden mantles in the Rhode Island house. Typically, Greek Revival mantles are made of either wood or marble, and often you’ll find that the marble is darker in color.
Now, while the first floor has maintained a lot of the 1850s character, not as much can be said of the second floor, which has succumbed to chalkboard paint and a cardboard cut-out of Bellatrix Lestrange. Thankfully, those two things can be easily changed.
Eatonton, Georgia (4 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, $875,000)
Examples of the Greek Revival style reach peak drama when you head to the south, just look at this 8,500-square-foot, 1845 house. The facade basically takes a temple front—pediment, columns, and all—and affixes it to the house. There are corinthian columns and pilasters, and each window is capped with its own entablature.
The interiors feature the same ear molding that we saw in Michigan in addition to other types of heavily carved molding. There are also plaster medallions in the ceiling, which take their patterns from moldings in Ancient Greece.
What you’ll find with Greek Revival houses in the south is how tall the ceilings are. The proportions of the rooms—and the house in general—seem to be stretched upwards. This is, in part, to accommodate for heat and ventilation. Since heat rises, it helps to keep rooms cooler if there are tall ceilings.
Bath, Maine (7 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, $554,900)
Heading back to New England, we wanted to highlight this clapboard house built in 1843. Its facade features the same pilaster-surrounded doorway that we’ve been seeing on every house thus far. If you ever see that motif in the wild, chances are its the Greek Revival at work.
Also: check out the woodwork and mantles inside the house. Every door and window—even on the facade—is surrounded a type of woodwork that’s different from the ear or crossette molding we saw in previous houses. This type of surround essentially creates a little temple over each door and window with two pilasters topped by a little wooden pediment. This represent another way that the architecture of Ancient Greece was repurposed for American residences.
Also, in the double parlor, we see twin fireplaces made out of black marble in the same shape that we saw in the Rhode Island house. The use of dark marble for mantlepieces was not uncommon, and Asher Benjamin even explicitly calls for dark marble in a mantlepiece design featured in one of his pattern books.
Schoharie, NY (3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, $199,000)
If you’re a die-hard fan of the Greek Revival like we are, you can’t look for a house without considering upstate New York, which has some of the best examples—and highest concentration—of Greek Revival architecture in America. We’re especially excited about this 1840’s house, because it is pristine on the outside, has some stunning details inside, and sits on over 100 acres of land.
The exterior of the house continues the architectural trends we have been seeing so far with the use of doric pilasters around the doorway (in this case, the four corners of the main structure also have doric pilasters). The wing off to the side features a porch with doric columns adapted into squares.
This wing is quite common in Greek Revival farmhouses. Usually, it signifies that the house was added onto over the course of a few generations. The wing is usually the oldest part of the house, sometimes dating to the late-18th century. Then, as time goes on and perhaps the family which owned the farm became more prosperous, the main part of the house was built in the fashionable style of the time: the Greek Revival.
While the interior needs some love, it is a field day for anybody who wants thick, dramatic molding in their life. Can we stop for a moment and appreciate how the ear molding also makes a little pediment above each doorway? No doorway—and no window—was left unadorned. This would make an incredible house for somebody who wouldn’t mind rolling up their sleeves a bit.