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Friday, February 10, 2012

Classical Revival Architecture

Classical Revival style in its purest form seen
here in Benjamin Latrobe's 1798-1804 Bank of
Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
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 the new nation. Fortunately for us, the Declaration of Independence was about politics, not architecture, though certainly Thomas Jefferson, being the Renaissance man 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 does his immortal words to King George on parchment.

Adam style fireplace details, 1770
In general, I don't care much for "revival" architecture. Very often it can best be described as "kitsch," and in most cases, the two terms are synonyms--architecture imitating architecture. Yet, imitative or not, I love Classical Revival (top, right). Part of the reason is that Classical Revival humanized 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 humanizing while all the others, didn't so much. After all, Classical architecture was the style of Roman temples, government buildings, art museums, some churches, hospitals, libraries, and bath houses. It was magnificent and grandiose, but not often very human or even on a human scale. It was the architecture of the gods!

The Georgian style Hammond-Harwood House, 1774, Anapolis, Maryland

In discussing Colonial architecture there's mostly the Georgian period just prior to the revolution (as seen above).  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 (above, left). No, it was not 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 18th 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 jewelry, lots of fanlight windows, arched door frames, masonry insets with carved swags, restrained pediments over doors (or entrance stoops), curved steps, and paneled 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.

Unlike many "revival" styles, Classical Revival
translates well to domestic applications as seen
in the modest, wood, single story Kempf house,
dating from 1852-53 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Every July Fourth we think back to the American founding fathers. 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 Bulfinch; 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. 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. Yet independently, these founding fathers guided their new nation's carpenters and craftsmen into the molding of a new national architecture reflecting the same noble, democratic, human principals as those of Jefferson and his cohorts.

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