The Classical Revival

Shortly before the American Revolution, Peter Harrison -- the first American professional architect -- built the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island. Here the Roman Doric portico, with its four columns raised upon a high porch, presents the appearance of a temple façade. Only the wings on either side of this façade prevent it from appearing like the imitation Roman temples being built at that time in English gardens. After the Revolution, that universal genius, the statesman Thomas Jefferson, designed one of the first governmental buildings of the new republic, the state capitol at Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson, convinced that the republican form of government had its origin in antiquity, considered that the style appropriate to the new nation should stem directly from classical examples. With that in mind, he adopted for his model the Maison Carrée at Nimes, substituting the Ionic order in place of the Corinthian for the portico, and windows pierced in the cella walls in place of the engaged pilasters. Jefferson planned Monticello, his own home, with a raised central dome, a Doric portico, and great side halls like those in the original Georgian houses that had been taken from Palladio's Villa Capra.The final development of Jefferson's plan was reached in the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Here, at the end of a long central court flanked on either side by colonnades, connecting rows of Georgian houses with high porticos, stands a replica of the Roman Pantheon.

A combination of the classic and the Palladian academic influence with the high central dome can be seen in the Massachusetts State House in Boston ( 1795-1798), by Charles Bulfinch. Its tall dome rises from an attic over a Corinthian colonnade based upon an arched loggia. The culminating result in the union of plans influenced by the academicism of Jefferson and Bulfinch and the classical revival, is the United States Capitol at Washington. A study of the competitive drawings made in 1793 and that stage of the building completed by Walter in 1865 shows a continual fluctuation between pure classicism and Palladian academicism. From the first, both William Thornton and the French architect Steven Hallet had in mind a central dome. This gradually rose from a low, round form, to the high shape suggestive of St. Paul's in London and the Panthéon in Paris.

During the early years of the Republic many other buildings imitated as closely as possible Greek or Roman originals. Noteworthy is the Bank of the United States, or Custom House, in Philadelphia. Built in 1819 by Benjamin Latrobe, it has the form of a Doric temple. Beginning with this bank, the Greek revival spread rapidly from Georgia to Michigan, until Greek temples in all the orders, used as dwelling houses, dominated the great estates. Stimulated by the Greek war for independence, 1821-1827, the frontier states named their towns Ypsilanti, Byron, Sparta, Troy, Syracuse, and Athens. Here they built their temples alongside the log cabins of the first settlers. Using handbooks such as Minard Lafever's Modern Builders' Guide, published in 1833, these amateurs soon substituted square pillars of wood and stock moldings for the finely wrought Greek columns with their refined entasis. The new style resulting in western New York, Ohio, and the Middle Western states had a distinctive charm of its own.

The classical tradition in American building early became associated particularly with governmental and academic buildings or libraries. Dying down for a time during the Romantic era after 1850, it returned to culminate in the buildings of the Chicago World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition, in 1893. Architects such as Richard Morris Hunt, influenced by French academicism, started the vogue of designing art museums in the classical style. McKim, Mead, and White -- a firm founded in 1879 -employed refined Renaissance classical forms in the Boston Public Library and the Morgan Library, New York. The same firm designed the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in New York on the plan of a Roman bath, and inaugurated an era of classical station construction. Other architects in the classicist tradition are Carrère and Hastings, with the New York Public Library; John Russell Pope, with the Temple of the Scottish Rite in Washington, built as a reconstruction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; and Henry Bacon, whose Lincoln Memorial in Washington achieves something more original, albeit using the classical order.

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