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Greek Revival Architecture: History & Characteristics

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen a church or courthouse with large white columns? What style was it? This lesson will explore the history of Greek Revival architecture and its characteristics.

What is Greek Revival Architecture?

If you have driven through small towns in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, you may have noticed structures with white columns, sloping roofs and simple stately entrances. You might have been looking at examples of Greek Revival architecture.

Greek Revival style house in Upstate New York
Greek Revival house

Greek Revival architecture was a building style that emerged in Europe and the United States in the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. It took elements of classical Greek architecture and used them in a wide variety of buildings. The style became especially popular in the United States around 1820.

But how did an architectural style that was thousands of years old influence builders so many centuries later?

History of Greek Revival Architecture

The history of Greek Revival architecture starts with archaeology. In the mid-1700s, archaeological excavations in Athens and other sites uncovered remains of ancient Greece. People had known about ancient Romans, but they were astounded and inspired by the previously unknown world of classical Greece. As word of the excavations reached Europe, scholars wrote about ancient temples and marble sculptures. Illustrations of the finds sparked fascination with the classical past.

The British Museum is an excellent example of Greek Revival in Europe
The British Museum

Architects in Europe developed a style inspired by Greek architecture. In the United States, people like Thomas Jefferson used classical architectural elements on new building projects. Jefferson's design for the Virginia State Capitol building, circa 1785, was one of the first American structures to reflect classical Greek elements. By the 1820s, Greek Revival was the dominant style in America, remaining that way through the 1850s.

Greek Revival's popularity wasn't only about architecture. The interest in classical Greece, a place of lofty philosophies, reflected the goals of the young United States and its untested experiment in democracy. American architects looked away from British styles to architecture that spoke to founding a new nation. Across parts of the Northeast United States, places like Ithaca, Cato and Athens (communities founded in the early 19th century) reflect the connection of ancient Greece with those desires.

Greek Revival was the first truly national style in America. And architectural pattern books, published guides of architectural elements and buildings, were copied and readily available. It meant that anyone with building skills could use the images in the books to build in the latest, most popular style. Churches, libraries, houses, courthouses and many other structures were built in the Greek Revival style.

Characteristics of Greek Revival

Greek revival structures reflect the symmetry of ancient Greek structures and often resemble Greek temples. Common characteristics include columns or pilasters (square columns), often used on a portico, a covered entrance porch that might be small or run the entire length of a building's front. The columns could be fluted or smooth. Sometimes they have Doric capitals. A capital is the top decorative end of a column, and Doric is the simplest of three orders or style categories of Greek architecture.

Greek Revival church
Greek Revival church

Another common trait of Greek Revival buildings are gabled roofs, which have two sloping sides that meet at a ridge line on a roof. Below the roof and above the columns, there's often a wide band of trim. This area, called the entablature, has three parts:

  1. Projecting border near the roof line called the cornice
  2. Decorative or plain horizontal band called the frieze
  3. Area below the frieze called the architrave

The whole idea of the entablature comes directly from classical Greek architecture.

The Nantucket Atheneum, a public library, built in 1847. This structure replaced an earlier one that had burned. Notice the Doric capitals on its columns.
Nantucket Atheneum

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