American Neoclassical Architecture: Characteristics & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Neoclassical architecture is found commonly across the United States, and has played an important role in national history. In this lesson, we'll explore the history behind this style and see how it defined the American aesthetic.

Neoclassicism

If something is classic, it's implicitly sort of old. If something contains the prefix 'neo-' then by definition it is new. So, neoclassicism is the artistic style of new old stuff. Okay, there's a bit more to it than that. Classical art refers to the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. Those are the cultures that set the foundations for European aesthetics. Art changed over the years, but by the 18th century a revival movement appeared that encouraged the return of Greek and Roman artistic ideas, something that hadn't happened since the Italian Renaissance. This was also a political gesture, as growing European kingdoms and early nation-states looked to the past for legitimacy. So it was an old style, but made new for new purposes. Neo. Classical.

Neoclassicism in America

Neoclassical art was common across many parts of Europe, particularly in architecture. However, where it really grabbed root and took hold wasn't in Europe, but in a brand new nation called the United States of America. The Americans became quickly obsessed with Neoclassicism, both before and after their revolution, and it became a symbol of the American nation.

Why? Well, the founding figures shared an obsession with ancient Rome. The reason for this was simple: ancient Rome was the only true example of a major republic in Western history. As the founding figures debated the American republic, they focused on the Roman Republic. The founding figures read Roman texts, shared Roman legends and stories, and began to fill the new nation with Roman-styled art and architecture to communicate that they were taking up Rome's mantle as a great republic in a world of tyranny.

American Neoclassical Architecture

So, the Neoclassical movement was pretty important to early Americans. One of the most important American architects to first embrace this style as a link between the American ideas of republican government and the legacy of ancient Rome was Thomas Jefferson. Many remember him for his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, but Jefferson was a respected architect as well. His personal home, called Monticello, is one of his earlier attempts at a neoclassical design. Begun in 1769, it echoed a Greek Doric temple with the four simple columns and triangular pediment. Now, the brick walls, that was very American, and it's important to remember that Neoclassicism was never about simply imitating the ancient Romans and Greeks. It was about using their ideas on art and architecture in a new (neo) way.

Monticello
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After the American Revolution, Jefferson continued exploring the use of Neoclassical architecture in the new American republic. One of his most-lauded structures is the Virginia State Capitol building. Jefferson was a Virginian, very proudly so, and in 1788 designed the first formal capitol building for the state. Tossing all subtlety aside, Jefferson directly modeled it after the Maison Carrée, a 1st-century BCE Roman temple in France. The rows of columns, mathematically-determined proportions of columns, and overall sense of order, stability, and rational logic capture the spirit of Roman architecture.

The Virginia State Capitol
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The Maison Carree in France
Maison Carree

Perhaps the best-known example of American Neoclassical architecture, however, wasn't actually designed by Jefferson. It was just sponsored by him. In 1792, Jefferson (then Secretary of State) opened a design competition for a building to house the United States Congress, called the US Capitol Building. The government was being relocated to a new location along the Potomac River, more centralized between the 13 original states, and needed new structures. In 1793, the results were in and the winner was an amateur American architect named William Thornton. Thornton's design featured a white exterior, rows of columns, and a sense of rational, calm logic. It was a stunning neoclassical design, which was tweaked and amended over the years into the structure that houses the national legislature today.

US Capitol
US Capitol

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