Greek Revival Architecture
Looking for that historic house that reminds you of an antebellum plantation in the South? You know the one. It’s large and imposing, with thick white columns that flank the front entrance and support a porch that spans the width of the house. Imagine Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the Wind inside the parlor. She’s sewing her green gown from those heavy velvet curtains. If you like this imagery, then you may like what’s known as Greek revival.
It’s an international style that first appeared in the 1820s and really flourished in America during the 1830s and '40s. At the time, America was looking to ancient Greece for inspiration. Not just in its architecture, but in its philosophy, the arts and science, as well. Think about it -- this was the beginning of the American democracy. Independence from British rule had been fought for and won. The country was expanding in population and land. And Greece was in the midst of its own revolution.
When news spread that archaeologists had dug up signs of ancient life in the Greek isles, Americans wanted to know more. It made sense to mimic what we admired.
So we borrowed names from Greek literature and attached them to towns sprouting up all over, from Georgia to Maine and throughout the Midwest: Athens, Ithaca, Sparta. The architects of the day traveled to Greece and brought back with them detailed drawings from the ruins so we could more closely match antiquity.
As home buyers today look for their own historic Greek revival homes to buy and renovate, they may note a common architectural detail: These palatial homes were often modeled after the Parthenon.
- Tall columns and pediments. The ancient Greek temple model, with its row of tall columns and pediments, includes two of the most obvious characteristics of this style of historic home design.
- Painted plaster exterior. Although the buildings and ruins in Greece were all made of stone, American homes of this style were not. They were instead crafted in wood and covered in plaster, then painted in white to create the illusion of stone.
- Horizontal transom. It sits over the front door, instead of a fanlight like the earlier Federal period homes.
- Moldings. Bold but simple moldings, throughout the interior and exterior of the house, also exemplify the look of high-style Greek revival.
- Embellishment. Expensive homes might add more detail, like framed dormer windows on the second story, with pilasters and pediments. The less wealthy adopted similar features but with less flash.
- Andalusia. This famous example, designed by Thomas U. Walter, is near Philadelphia. It is one of the most widely noted Greek revival houses in the country.
- Plantation homes along the Gulf Coast. These fine examples of the Greek revival might be made of flashboards instead of clapboards. Flashboards have a tongue and groove fit, and seams don’t show. They paint into a nice smooth finish -- again, like stone.
Practically Speaking: Hassles and Headaches
Their low-pitched roofs can cause problems and require regular repairs to prevent leaking. The wooden columns also can cause problems for the homeowner if the bottoms rot out. To preserve the column, you don’t tear out the whole piece -- you have to cut away the rotted parts and replace them. Your best bet is to find a skilled craftsman who specializes in historic reconstruction.
Corner boards on these homes can also be a challenging dry-rot fix to repair. You’ll never find a 150-year-old corner board in stock at the local lumber yard. You’ll have to customize. Overall, the hand-carved detail common in Greek revival homes requires routine maintenance, even if it’s just a regular paint job to protect the wood. Don’t buy one unless you know you can do it yourself or have the resources to hire out.
Even so, if your lifestyle includes entertaining guests, if you are naturally drawn to a formality and detail in design, if you’d name your house Tara -- and if you don’t mind the maintenance -- then a Greek revival home might best suit your taste.