In Chicago, in 1893, this country put on a show-stopper of a world's fair, the World's Colombian Exhibition, ostensibly in celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, though actually a year late due to a number of unforeseen circumstances. The organisers of the show dictated that the pavilions all be of classical design built around a central court with a reflecting pool. As a result, Greek columns sprouted like trees in a forest. The major buildings were all monumental in scale. The various state structures however, were mostly house-size. Without exception, they each featured two-story tall Greek porticoes with either traditional gabled, semicircular, or Mount Vernon style designs. Some even had two-storied porticoes enclosing one-storied, full-width porches. The structures themselves brought together various elements of Georgian, Adam, Early Classical Revival, and Greek Revival, rolling them into an eclectic mix that came to be called Neo-classical. Modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who was working with Adler and Sullivan in designing the non-classical Transportation pavilion at the time, complained that the exhibition set back the course of American architecture by twenty years.
Wright was right. Thanks to the overwhelming impression made upon millions of visitors to the fair, and published photographs of every last post and lentil, the Neo-classical style effectively dominated American domestic architecture well into the second decade of the twentieth century; before the multitude of portico columns slowly melted away leaving what we've already termed Colonial Revival. The problem for the student of architectural styles is like sorting through multicoloured jellybeans, separating and labelling each one by colour. One needs a history book in one hand, an architecture book in the other. It's easy enough to say that, like Colonial Revival, the Neo-classical was largely a twentieth century style (whereas the others were all nineteenth century), but that demands a knowledge of when each example one might find was built. In the absence of that, it demands an extremely sharp eye for the authenticity of architectural detail because in essence, Neo-classical was nothing more than fake Classical Revival.
It was as if everyone in the country suddenly wanted to live in his or her own, imitation White House. Of course when would-be homeowners recovered from the sticker shock of anything even close to authentic Classical Revival they quickly began making compromises. Okay, it has to have classic Greek pillars and pediment, but brick can be substituted for pale limestone. We can always paint them white. Still too much? Okay, we'll build the whole thing out of wood. Fancy, pedimented windows too much, okay, so long as they have shutters, any window will do. Oh, so you're still partial to the wrap-around Queen Anne porch? Okay, no problem, we'll leave that and build the Greek portico out over top of the whole thing. Two stories too much, fine, how about one story with a Mount Vernon porch? Can't afford a full width porch? Okay, a smaller one in the middle will have to do. Four columns too much? Okay, how about one on each corner? Oh, you want a duplex, great, will that be one portico or two? Get the picture?
At their best, Neo-classical homes very often are stunningly beautiful, rivalling anything the Classical Revival period had to offer. Let's face it, there's no criticising the careful mixture of money and good taste. But there's also no substitute for it. As with the original Classical Revival, good Neo-classic homes were expensive to build and maintain. And when corners were cut the look suffered. Add to that the fact that those most likely to cut corners were the ones least knowledgeable regarding matters of style and taste. Done on a small scale, Neo-classical homes look...well...cheap. And when cheaper materials are also injected into the mix, the effect can be downright ugly. Moreover, at their best, Neo-classical homes are pretentious. At their worst...