By Elizabeth Ann Brown
Although the roots of Greek Revival in America can be debated by scholars, there’s no doubt that the style found fertile ground in our new republic. Two factors probably led to the popularity of the style: prosperity in the first half of the 19th century and the advent of pattern books that promoted the Greek Revival style. Although there were many pattern books, those by Asher Benjamin and Minard Lefever are perhaps the most remembered today because condensed paperback versions have been republished.
Pattern books were the 19th century equivalent of Southern Living, making the latest taste available in the hinterlands. Carpenters and builders used these pattern books and while some buildings are faithful copies of the patterns in the books, most often the books were used to put Greek Revival details on the kind of buildings carpenters already knew how to build. Details important to the Greek Revival style include columns with capitols based on the ancient orders of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian; columns and trim that are battered or get slightly larger at the bottom; cornices with mouldings; and generously-sized windows. I always appreciate the care taken in the doorcase – the combination of the door, sidelights, and moulding that invites entry to the house.
The Greek Revival houses we know today were built with the skill and labor of enslaved people. After the war and the freeing of slaves, these skilled builders continued to construct houses and became part of the foundation of Montgomery’s black middle class. One of these men, James Hails, built his own central hall cottage in the 600 block of Alabama Street and although his house was moved to make way for new development, he must have built many similar Greek Revival cottages all over Montgomery. Take a look at the vernacular cottages with Greek Revival details like 512 Martha Street (which formerly resided on the corner of Lawrence and Washington) and 334 Felder Avenue.
The iconic Greek Revival building is only a box with columns. Greek Revival manages to turn a box into the quiet, dignified style that remains so popular because of the magic (science, really) of proportion and detail. We have several substantial Greek Revival houses which are masters of this, comparable to the best anywhere.
The Knox House, just south of the Baptist church on South Perry Street, was designed by Philadelphia architect Stephen Decatur Button using details from the pattern book of Minard Lafever. It features a well-leafed Corinthian order column capitol, a beautiful, deep frieze (that’s the flat part over the columns) and well-proportioned cornice (the mouldings above that). The house is stucco scored to look like blocks of stone, a common treatment at the time. Around the block on Court Street is the much more restrained Lomax House, which makes the best of brick with a very plain Doric order portico: simple, quiet, elegant. The doorcase has a battered surround and a small pediment above. Also check out the Murphy House on Bibb Street, surely among the most elegant water works offices in the nation.
No discussion of Greek Revival in Montgomery would be complete without talking about the capitol building. When the first building burned in 1849, a new one was erected using part of the foundation of the original building, then only a few years old. Like the original one, the present building presents a handsome portico to Dexter Avenue with six fluted Corinthian columns. The clock is centered above in a tiny pedimented clock house, a miniature Greek temple for time. Note how the windows grow smaller in size from the first floor to the third, giving the proportions a slight vertical lift. The building has additions that more than triple the size of the 1850 building, but the original can be seen clearly on the front as the central block between the two recesses, called hyphens, which separate it from the two twentieth century wings.
Many books have been written about Greek Revival, one of my favorites is Greek Revival America by Roger Kennedy, out of print but available from used books sites (Abe Books and Alibris are two) for about $50.00. An old classic recommended by my colleague Robert Gamble is Greek Revival Architecture in America by Talbot Hamlin, first published in 1944 and still available from Dover. Our sister city, Mobile, is well-covered in The Pillared City: Greek Revival Mobile, from the University of Georgia Press and authored by my friend John Sledge.
Paperback and hard cover copies of pattern books are also available on the used book sites, with Dover editions of Asher Benjamin’s The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter, and The American Builder’s Companion, available for less than $25.00. Or how about Lefever’s The Beauties of Modern Architecture, 1856 edition for $3,750.00! Good news here, General Books has a new (2010) paperback edition of that one for about $30.00 – get Capitol Book and News to order it for you.
Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.