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Classical Revival Architecture II
When I was about twelve years old (1957) there came a cyclical re-release of the epic Civil War movie, Gone With the Wind. Although there was much about the film that should have left in indelible impression upon me, actually the one thing I remember most from my first exposure to this cinematic classic was not Scarlett O'Hara, the war, or the riches to rags to riches plot, but the magnificent Wilkes plantation, "Twelve Oaks." David O. Selznick's impressive first view of the beautiful, Classical Revival house and the camera's sweeping view of the wondrous entry foyer with its graceful split staircase as the shot follows Scarlett inside; has got to be one of the most incredible pieces of film footage ever filmed. This romantic vision of architectural beauty influenced my tastes in housing styles for probably ten years after that. Even today, I'd rather tour a house built in the Classical Revival style than any other.

We have a tendency to think of these graceful old homes with their stunning, pillared, porticoes as distinctly Southern in style. Actually, that's not the case at all. Those in the North were sometimes a bit more restrained but nonetheless, contained all the same key features of the style. The columns in Northern examples were sometimes more slender, the windows smaller but more numerous; and the houses often taller and narrower but the same pedimented doorways and windows, the same fanlights, the same balconies and curved stairways we traditionally think of as Early American Southern architecture were usually present. Building upon the Adam style I talked about last time, these homes represented a striving for a vibrant, self-styled, American independence, while ironically reflecting a gracious throwback to a strong European heritage--an attempt to "have it both ways" so to speak.

There are basically three structural configurations prevalent in the Classical Revival style. That which we think of most commonly is the two-story structure with a jutting, gabled portico rising to the eaves, sheltering a central, highly ornate entry. The White House is a somewhat oversized example of this. The second configuration is the same thing only scaled down to a more modest one-story version not unlike Monticello minus the gracious, but uncharacteristic dome. And finally, less common, is a rather square two-story central structure with its gable and portico (often only one story tall) facing forward while on either side extend single-story "wings." The Semple House in Williamsburg, Virginia is a very tasteful, restrained example of this arrangement.

The Classical Revival period began shortly after the Revolution and carried on for the next fifty years; and in the South, up until the Civil War. Unfortunately, during this early period in our history, classically trained architects were either a rarity or in fact, locally non-existent. Thus, in many cases, owners became their own architects, choosing elements they liked best from European books on the subject, then working in conjunction with their local builders to create something approximating the style. The results were sometimes quite striking in their originality with all the right proportions, angles, decorations, and other accoutrements befitting the style. Of course, more often, the roofs were too steep, the porticoes poorly matched to the house, the columns too slender and/or poorly spaced, and corners cut eliminating important stylistic devices where they were very much needed. Some of these surviving examples can be downright "homely," even pathetic, or at best, slightly amusing. Not surprisingly, the further off the beaten path one strays, the more likely they are. An interesting example of this, also from Gone With the Wind, is Selznick's depiction of Scarlett's home, Tara--a sort of "home-made" Classical Revival.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 July 2000

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