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Index by Medium

Classic Revival

It would be convenient, in studying Early American architecture, if the building of Colonial style homes had ceased promptly on July 4, 1776, and a whole new style had been born that day along with a new nation. Fortunately for us, the Declaration of Independence was about politics, not architecture, though certainly Thomas Jefferson, being the Renaissance man that he was, could have written as eloquently about one as the other. Well, actually, he DID, though his words on architecture are far outshone by his deeds. His magnificently well thought out and well proportioned statement on Classic Revival architecture embodied in his own Monticello reads as passionately, yet logically, in bricks and mortar as do his immortal words to King George on parchment.

In general, I don't like revival architecture. I wrote yesterday on the subject of "kitsch," and in most cases, the two are synonyms--architecture imitating architecture. Yet, on the other hand, imitative or not, I love Classical Revival. Part of the reason is that the Classical Revival humanises the cold, hard, geometrically dominated Classical style. I suppose, in giving it some thought, ALL revivalist styles do this, it's just that the Classical style of the Greeks and Romans so badly needed humanising while all the others didn't as much. After all, Classical architecture was the style of temples, of government buildings, art museums, some churches, hospitals, libraries, and bathhouses. It was magnificent and grandiose, but not often very human or even on a human scale. It was the architecture of the gods!

When last we left off discussing Colonial architecture we'd worked up through the Georgian period just prior to the revolution. Though it appeared before 1776, the first hint of the upcoming Classical Revival came during the 1780s up through the 1820s in the form of what's called the Adam style. No, it wasn't a primitive post and lintel architecture named for the husband of Eve; but for the British architect, Robert Adam, who, along with his younger brother, had the most important architectural practice in all England during the latter part of the eighteenth century. If one were to describe the Adam style, it would be as a transitional movement from Georgian to true Classical Revival. There are still many Georgian elements and proportions present but it's in the details, the window and door designs, cupolas, balustrades, cornices, steps, iron balconies, and other adornments that the Adam style presaged Classical Revival. The decorations were beautiful, like fine jewellery on a rather austere, pragmatic old lady, lots of fanlight windows, arched door frames, masonry insets with carved swags, restrained pediments over doors (or entrance stoops), curved steps, and panelled shutters. Sometimes this style is referred to as the "Federal Style," though this designation is prone to mixing the politics and architecture of the time.

On this July Fourth holiday, as we think back to the founding fathers of this country, in addition to Jefferson, we might also consider some of the founding fathers of American architecture as well, all of whom came to their profession copying the Adam style of their English cousins before moving on to the full-fledged Classical Revival that was to become synonymous with the democratic ideals of their new nation. From Boston came Charles Bullfinch; from Savannah, William Jay; from Philadelphia, Benjamin Latrobe; from Charleston, Gabriel Manigault; from New York, John McComb; from Massachusetts, Samuel McIntire; and from Maine, Alexander Parris. It would be romantic, not to mention inspirational, to think of these great designers, artists, and builders from all over the colonies as having met somewhere across town from Independence Hall to sign some great architectural manifesto of independence from Great Britain. But sadly, it didn't happen. Given the geography and provincial nature of the American colonies, most of them probably didn't even know each other. But as we meet today around our picnic tables piled high with barbecued chicken, hot-dogs, and spare ribs; and recall the great revolutionary patriots of this country, we might also pause a moment and reflect as well upon the "other" founding fathers, who guided a new nation's carpenters and craftsmen into the moulding of a new national architecture reflecting the same noble, democratic, human principals as those of Jefferson and his political cohorts.

contributed by Lane, Jim


4 July 2000

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