Category Archives: Elizabeth Ann Brown

Colonial Revival

Time and events coincided to turn the interest of American architecture away from the excesses of the Victorian Era and toward the country’s historical roots. In 1876 our country celebrated its centennial with celebrations and commemorations all over the country. If you were alive in 1976, you probably remember “Bicentennial Fever” sweeping the nation in much the same way. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia helped focus national attention on American technology and decorative arts. One of its exhibits, a colonial kitchen with costumed interpreters, sparked larger interest in the colonial home. Decorative features like moldings, Palladian windows and columns of a more classical style began to migrate onto the irregular house forms we associate with the Victorians. At a glance these houses don’t appear to have anything to do with our Colonial beginnings. As the style developed, houses began to have more in common with our Federal and Georgian roots.

Montgomery was wild for the Colonial Revival. Important houses like the Teague House and the House of Mayors on Perry Street underwent significant alterations to bring them up to date. The House of Mayors lost its wrap-around porch and gained a classical entrance and some beautiful leaded glass in designs. The severe Greek Revival of the Teague house got a fancy sheet metal cornice and door surround (tap on it–it’s hollow!). The Griel mansion on South Lawrence Street, which was Italianate, lost its tower and gained afull-blown porch. Residents raced to keep houses up to date.

Montgomery’s newest residential areas, Capitol Heights, Cloverdale and the southern extensions of Court, Perry, Lawrence, Hull and Decatur that we now call the Garden District are also replete with examples of the style. In Capitol Heights, Colonial Revival shows its face in both grand and modest ways up and down Madison Avenue and South Capitol Parkway.

In the Garden District, the shape of the Queen Anne house persists on the northeast corner of Hull and Clanton, but the porch has round Doric columns and both the porch and eave moldings have dentil blocks and brackets. Just down on the next corner is a full-blown Colonial Revival with a very flat facade and beautifully proportioned entry and central Palladian window. In Cloverdale, Felder Avenue examples form a graceful sweep of substantial Colonial Revival on one of Montgomery’s most beautiful residential streets.

As time went on, brick houses began to outstrip weatherboard as a favorite exterior cladding, because of construction techniques allowing brick veneer for the first time. Smaller houses like the “Cape Cod” cottage became very popular. Graham Street in Cloverdale is full of little gems of colonial inspiration. The three houses with picket fences on the east side of the street between Felder and Park could be in any New England village. On the other end of the street near Thorn is a perfect example, with brick parapet walls enclosing the gable roof almost like Tidewater Virginia. I did say “almost.”

With only a brief side trip into some other styles, Colonial Revival has been the most popular and enduring stylistic language of residential architecture in our country. It was very popular in the catalogues of mail-order houses like Sears and Aladdin. Books about these mail-order houses are a good way to study the breadth of the style. One of  my favorites is Houses by Mail, by Katherine Stevenson and Ward Jandl. Any of the staff at Capitol Book and News can order it for you, or you can get a copy used on the on-line book sites like Alibris or ABE books.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown

The Victorians

By Elizabeth Brown

If Bob Dylan had been alive in the 1870’s, he could have sung, “The times, they are a-changing,” to much the same effect as he did in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Times had actually already been changing before the Civil War, but as the building trades began to revive after Reconstruction, people suddenly gained access to changes in style and technology that had been scattered across the South before the war. Steam powered saw mills were everywhere, and you could now buy already-milled lumber, rather than hand-dressing your own timbers. The centuries-old braced-frame construction (which used a few large timbers) fell away as new framing systems (involving many small pieces of wood) became popular because of the availability of sawn wood.

Catalogs from manufacturing centers became available, showing doors, windows, mantles, brackets, and all kinds of trim, readily available through your local hardware store and delivered by train. For the first time, materials only in the northeast were now available everywhere. While the availability of materials led to standardization of building parts, the variety of forms allowed by mechanization meant that there was an almost infinite number of parts to combine in design. You might be able to buy the same parts in Columbus, Ohio, as in Montgomery, Alabama, but they were not likely combined in quite the same way.

Queen Anne

The Queen Anne style was all the rage by the 1880’s. The name isn’t really indicative of the real Queen Anne or the Renaissance architecture that was popular during her reign, nor did it have much to do with the style called Queen Anne in Great Britain.

House form took a decided turn toward the asymmetrical, with a large hip roof combining with an intersecting gable toward the front becoming a very popular style. The gable toward the street, often the whole house, became highly decorated with wood shingles, carving, half-timbering (sometimes all of them) combined to dazzling effect. If the Greek Revival was an exercise in restraint, Queen Anne was an exercise in excess. Two-story houses were popular, but one-story houses in the Queen Anne style abound in Montgomery. Brick was popular in the northeast, but except for a few notable examples, wood predominated around here.

Everything about this house speaks of prosperity and an economy booming again after the deprivations of war and Reconstruction .

A tower is often called out as a defining feature of Queen Anne in the guidebooks. One great example here is the very high-styled Kennedy-Sims house on South Perry Street. It is brick, and has a round tower overhanging an octagonal base, rising with a frieze of lozenge-shaped wood through the main roof to a dramatically curved tower roof and finial. This tower could have graced an important street in any city in the country with ease. The details on the porch are more restrained and classical, but who needs a ginger-breaded-up porch with that tower, the stone trim, and the leaded-glass windows? At one time, Perry Street could have held its own with the “millionaire’s row” of most any prosperous American city. Sadly, many fine houses were town down in the 1960’s and replaced with buildings with little character.

Unfortunately the environment of the Kennedy-Sims house is degraded by construction of unsympathetic buildings on both sides.

Another towered and brick example in the neighborhood is the Stay House at 631 South McDonough. The brick forms a backdrop against which the jigsaw-cut porch and gable trim is shown to advantage. The center, square tower is engaged in the main body of the roof. One charming feature of both the tower and gable are the horseshoe-shaped ventilators, leading to a local name as the “horseshoe house.” Probably not meant to be horseshoes, these “ogee” arches with the compound Moorish curve are found in many pattern books, and are said to be representative of the “Oriental” influence. The house was built by Dr. John Hazard Henry, one of Montgomery’s early physicians.

Although still replete with decoration, the Stay house presents a more restrained and dignified face to the street. The rusticated (rough) stonework is particularly nice. Although we're accustomed to the contrast between the wood trim and the house, period colors were often dark, with earth tones predominating.

Although I have always thought of this house as Second Empire, now I’m not so sure. Are the curves we’re seeing on this tower actually showing the Oriental influence?

We can note more high-style examples on Perry Street , but it is in Cottage Hill that Victorian and Queen Anne flourish. A profusion of wood, cut in the most intricate of designs, lines the streets of one of Montgomery’s post-war (the Civil War, that is) housing boom areas. A drive up Martha Street shows any number of examples of vernacular Victorian Queen Anne cottages, with their asymmetrical form and lacy gingerbread decorating the porches.

There may be numerous examples of the “L-shaped Victorian Cottage” in Montgomery, but their charm is only reinforced by their numbers.

Stick Style and Shingle Style

More popular in the northeast than in the South, we still see the influences of Stick and Shingle Style in Montgomery. Stick Style refers to larger wood members which outline areas of weatherboard or shingles, and give a sense of rectangularity to the design. These horizontal and vertical elements were often picked out in a darker color. This technique is applied to the very symmetrical house on the southwest corner of Martha and Hanrick to great effect, although the owner has chosen to paint the “sticks” white and the body of the house a rich cream.

This vernacular cottage shows influence of the Stick-Style in the gable decoration, with larger white members framing areas of decorative siding, some of it installed at a 45 degree angle.

The Shingle Style was popular for retreats and shore houses of the wealthy in the northeast, and I think particularly interesting because they seem to really convey a sense of the volume of space inside, rather than a composition of decorated walls. Church of the Good Shepherd on South Jackson Street in Centennial Hill is not fully Shingle Style, but the shingled gable and then recessed front with the Gothic arched window appear to be carved out of one volume, rather than being decorative elements arranged on the facade in the same way Shingle Style buildings do.

Good Shepherd’s front façade decorates in a very volumetric fashion, with the gable in very high relief to the wall of the church. The composition seems to have been carved from a block of wood.

The Romantics

Alabamians in this period continued their love of all things European, or their ideas of what they might be. Italianate continued to be fashionable, with decorative motifs like brackets, spindlework and arches moving onto the asymmetrical box that had become the current house form. One of the Dowe houses, 320 Washington Avenue, demonstrates the Victorian Italianate well. We also turned our eye to the French and adopted the curved Mansard roof of the Second Empire style, although if you judge by the number of examples we seem to have continued our romance more with the Italians than the French.

The Dowe House would have felt at home on a San Francisco street, although her color scheme might be a bit subdued for that California city.

Victorian styles continued well into the early decades of the 20th century. Next time we’ll talk about Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical, probably the most resilient architectural styles in our vocabulary.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown

American Memory

By Elizabeth Brown

A better view of the Teague House than one usually gets through the magnolia trees is available in this HABS drawing.

As I’ve blogged about antebellum architectural styles in Montgomery, I’ve been surprised by the number of times the examples that came to mind were moved, altered to the point they weren’t good examples, or worse, gone entirely. One of the old axioms of historic preservation is that poverty is its best friend (for a while, anyway), and Montgomery has always been a relatively prosperous place. We have remodeled and demolished our built environment more than places like Charleston or Savannah, so that what we have now is more of a mixture of eras. In the world of built environment, that can either mean excitement or confusion – we got both.

How can we find out how things used to be? Where can we find a record of our past? The Montgomery County Historical Society has made it part of their mission to collect photos of early Montgomery, and Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery also has good information about what used to be here. We’re lucky to be in the capitol city, because the resources of the state’s Department of Archives and History are at our fingertips as well. With the advent of the computer age, even the Library of Congress is a click or two away, and there you will find the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) in the archives called “American Memory.”

HABS started as a way to put out-of-work architects to work during the Great Depression. It was one of the Roosevelt administration’s “alphabet programs,” like the WPA and the CCC. These programs were sometimes derisively called “make work” programs, but they left us a lasting legacy about our culture. The mission of HABS was to provide information about significant buildings through drawings and large-format photography. Organized on a state-by-state basis, it was headed up in Alabama by Walter E. Burkhart from Auburn, who had studied documentary drawing while doing graduate work at Columbia. HABS provides an interesting view into buildings and the lives led within through photographs and drawings.

Take, for example, the Owens-Teague House on the corner of Perry and High. A great Greek Revival house of 1848, it was enlarged by the Teague family and embellished with additional metal cornice and doorcase work near the turn of the 20th century. The gray color it was painted a few years ago is the color the Teagues painted the house when they finished their work. The front is high-style, with unusual hand-carved wooden Ionic column capitols from the early period. Certainly it is close to everyone’s ideal Southern mansion. A quick trip around back shows that instead of a landscaped yard with entertaining space as we would have today, the whole back yard is a kitchen garden! Beans seem to be full up, with corn just rising and a hope for both peaches and figs later in the summer. Inside, the house seems rather empty, with original heavy parlor mirrors over the rather plain Greek-Revival mantels mixing with then-current fashion of slip-covered chairs and a ginger-jar lamp.

Roam through the HABS collection and take a at look the entry for the Stone-Young-Baggett House, which is out on the Old Selma Road. Compare it with the Owens-Teague House. It is easy to see that the two houses were likely the work of the same hand, with the body of the house similarly scaled and selection of exterior details from the Greek Revival vocabulary. The interior woodwork of the two houses is identical.

Dr. Burkhart must have had a special appreciation for Greek Revival as shown in the examples he chose to document. The corner of Wilkerson and Montgomery Street once had the 1850 Oliver-Houseman Residence, an example of the Bracketed Greek Revival. With the Italianate style providing the inspiration for cornice brackets, the rest of the house is pure Greek Revival. It has fluted Doric columns (note that true Doric columns have no base) and the door and window facings show a longer piece across the top often referred to as “ears.” Looking at the photographs, we see that the backyard is stuffed with outbuildings, with the kitchen and slave house on the right, and a wooden building described as a doctor’s office on the left, all backed onto a retaining wall from an adjoining house. The interior shows a beautiful mantle, probably cast iron, that must have been ordered at great expense, showing a real level of sophistication for Montgomery in the middle of the 19th century. Smoke rising from the chimney indicates the house is occupied, but the photos show a house fallen on hard times. The back porch is collapsing and the paint is in bad shape everywhere you look. It’s not hard to imagine that the Great Depression has taken a toll both on the house and the people who lived there.

We are indeed fortunate that Dr. Burkhart was on the job. As head of the architecture program at Auburn, he went on to build a great foundation for the school. He, his students and architects like Nicholas Holmes, Sr. of Mobile recorded many more buildings than were documented in most states, leaving us with a rich legacy of how we lived and what we built. The collection continues to grow, with teams from HABS as well as local architects and photographers contributing to the collection. Recent additions include the old brick ovens from Jenkins Brick (the latest technology when they were built here) and the Seibels-Ball-Lanier house on Adams Avenue, demolished about 1990.

Visiting American Memory is easy with this link: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/habs_haer/index.html

Look on left-hand side of the opening page and you’ll see options of searching by subject or place, choose place and Alabama comes up first. Montgomery, with 30 structures recorded, is on the second of two pages. All the illustrations in this article come from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown, Historic preservation

Ah, the Italians!

By Elizabeth Brown

The sunny climes and tropical breezes (translation: hot with a humid wind from the Gulf of Mexico) were thought to make the South the ideal locale for the Italian influence — or such was the idea of Samuel Sloan, a well-known Philadelphia architect. His pattern book, The Model Architect, proposed Italian Villas for the South, noting the villas’ wide, overhanging eaves, large windows, abundance of porches and arched arcades as appropriate for our climate. He even designed special wall constructions with an interior airspace to keep us cool. Towers and low roofs, often hipped,  also characterized the style.

When I think of Italian architecture, I think of Palladio or the Renaissance, with more formal, symmetrical villas and almost rigid urban residences, but the style Sloan and others brought to the United States is different. It begins to depart from the strict form of a central hall with rooms on each side that characterizes much early architecture in the south. The style found a ready local audience. The Model Architect features a design for “a southern home,” a house he designed for the Winter family in Montgomery, with two interlocking rectangular volumes off-set and a characteristic tower between them. Sadly, like most of the Italianate houses we once had in Montgomery, this house is long departed.

The low hipped roof, eave brackets and ventilators, and graceful front portico of the First White House of the Confederacy are all hallmarks of the Italianate style.

This is not to say that all Italianate houses were asymmetrical. For example, take a look at the First White House of the Confederacy on the corner of Union and Washington. A rectangular form with a low hipped roof, heavy eave brackets, between which are very interesting round cast iron ventilators in a “liberty cap” design. There is a light (almost fanciful) one-story portico with small round paired columns, and a balustrade with turned spindles. One of the most interesting, and often overlooked features of the facade is the area under this portico where, instead of weatherboard, we find narrow boards shaped and coursed to look like long, regular stonework. There must have been dozens of similar examples of this kind of house in Montgomery in the areas around Bibb and Lee streets, where this house originally stood. An early postcard view (and confirmed by paint analysis) shows the house in shades of brown and tan. These earth tones were popular for Italianate houses, thought to convey the idea of stone. “White House,” in this case, perhaps says more about the status of the house than the color!

Pleasing proportions and an imaginative color scheme highlight the decorative details of this Whitman Street cottage. Sash colors were almost always dark in both Italianate and Greek Revival color schemes.

Also take a trip to Cottage Hill, to the southeast corner of Whitman and Martha , to view a one-story cottage with much charm. Here everything is lighter, as befits a smaller house, but the composition is just as charming, with a low hipped roof, eave brackets, and a portico almost large enough to be called a porch.

The very lavish Italianate facade of 1 Dexter Avenue is among the finest in the state. The storefront level has been remodeled several times, but the design remains compatible with the upper floors.

Not confined to residential structures alone, Italianate ideas also provided style for commercial buildings. The Winter Building on the southeast of the Court Square fountain, with wide eaves and heavy brackets and stucco scored to look like stone, show the influence of the Italianate style. It once had a two-story balcony around the Dexter and Court sides. Turn around now and look across Dexter at the upper stories of the Klein Building, with arched windows, scored stucco, and an abundance of detail to please the eye.

The second-story French doors make more sense when you know there was originally a two-story balcony on the building. The balcony softened, and provided a more decorative detail, to what appears now to be a very severe façade.

Although I have been known to say that architecture is not a cafeteria, where you push your tray along and select the features you want from among the styles, the truth is that many builders have always done just that — and occasionally with success. For those who were still married to Greek Revival, Italianate details had appeal and we begin to see what is often referred to as Bracketed Greek Revival, where eave brackets and lighter and more fanciful railings and bannisters were applied to otherwise standard Greek Revival houses.

Another related style is the ornamental cottage, or Cottage Orne (pronounced or-nay), which was promoted by several pattern books (including Sloan’s) as an excellent home for a rural location. This did not keep us from using the design in town too! Take the Rice-Semple-Haardt house on the corner of Court and High Streets. Purely a Greek Revival cottage on the first floor with large, square columns on a wrap-around porch, it got an update and enlargement which gave it an entirely different character a few years after it was built. With a new upper story showing lighter columns and an arcade of decoration sweeping across between the columns, a new mood is created altogether. This is a remodeling so drastic that it shouldn’t have worked. Yet, these dissimilar elements form a harmonious composition in spite of themselves. From paint analysis, we know the first color scheme applied after the enlargement was a carnation pink, not unlike the Whitman Street house in Cottage Hill, but a later cream scheme was retained in this rehabilitation. I think I’m relieved!

A happy marriage between the Greek Revival and Italianate are evident in the Rice-Semple-Haardt House, which was moved from the 700 block of Monroe Street to the current location on the corner of Court and High. Note the large, square paneled columns and even a little dentil moulding on the first floor, and then an explosion of lighter decorative elements above.

Sloan’s pattern books were perhaps the most complete of the pre-Civil War years. He talked about regional differences and designed buildings tailored to locales. More than other early pattern books, his volumes provided information about landscape and gardens, suggesting designs more appropriate to mountainous, flat, or rolling sites. Still very readable, Dover produced a version (which contains 2 volumes together) in 1980 called Sloan’s Victorian Buildings. New copies are available for about $25.00, with used ones available for less than five dollars on the used book sites. Of course, for the well-heeled among us, there are other editions in which the drawings are not reduced ($70.00 and up), and some original copies of the volumes one and two ($1,700.00 each). This may expand your notion of perfect summer reading.

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown, Historic preservation

Gothic Revival

By Elizabeth Brown

Like Greek Revival, interest in Gothic Revival started in Great Britain and traveled to the United States. Never as popular as Greek Revival, Gothic Revival started about the same time (the 1830’s) and was most popular as a style for houses of worship. Unfortunately, there aren’t any Gothic Revival houses in Montgomery, but there are a few nearby in Greenville, Selma and isolated locations across the Black Belt.

The former First Presbyterian Church has Gothic details applied to a common church form. Beautifully detailed brickwork, especially around the windows, speaks to the quality of the craftsmen in the Alabama frontier.

A word here about styles: People didn’t build Greek Revival one year and then next year start building Gothic Revival. Styles existed at the same time, and builders often borrowed ideas from styles and attached them to vernacular (known or folk) building types. Perhaps this explains the original First Presbyterian Church on Adams Avenue downtown. A handsome and solid looking building, it takes the symmetrical form we all recognize as a church building and applies decorative details from Gothic Revival to that form. We see a castellated decoration to the top of the walls and tower and pointed arched windows, but it lacks the strong verticality that is a part of the Gothic Revival style. This form could have just as easily been decorated up as Greek Revival, with a columned portico and large rectangular windows.

Not so St. John’s Episcopal Church, on the corner of Madison and Perry. Designed by the nationally-known firm of Wills and Dudley, St. John’s shows us the Gothic Revival in full development: A soaring spire, steeply pitched roof, buttressed walls, and pointed arch openings for doors and windows, all emphasizing verticality. At one point, the stucco was scored to look like stone, all but a trace of this disappearing under painting and repairs over the last 150 years. You must go inside and look up. There is a wonderfully painted and stenciled decoration to the beamed ceiling, lovingly restored by the congregation about 20 years ago. Long ago, this decoration extended to the walls and would have given the congregation plenty to look at if the sermon was a little boring (not a problem with the current rector). The present interior is filled with light, and the walls are full of good late 19th and early 20th century windows and memorials. You can feel this “cloud of witnesses” surround you.

The tapering design of the tower at St. John’s is an exercise in verticality. Notice the buttresses in the bottom of the photo that both stabilize the structure and help visually tie the tower to the ground. The thin lancet windows in the wall increase the vertical feel as the tower steps back, ending in a vertical spire.

Pattern books spread the Gothic Revival across the country, with Richard Upjohn’s Rural Architecture (1852) being one of the most popular. It grew out of an “ecclesiological” movement in England, which spread the idea of renewal through returning to Gothic design principals for houses of worship. In this book, Upjohn showed designs for appropriate churches for the frontier using wood (the most plentiful material) in a vertical board-and-batten application to reinforce a vertical appearance, rather than more common horizontal clapboard.

Although not located in the Montgomery area, I would be remiss if I did not point out that several churches across Alabama followed his pattern book designs almost identically (St. Lukes in Jacksonville and St. John’s at Forkland), and others may have been designed by Upjohn outright (St. Lukes in  Cahawba and St. Andrew’s at Prarieville). This set of Gothic Revival churches is perhaps the most architecturally significant group of buildings in the state, certainly as good as any in the country.

In Montgomery, the Gothic Revival movement persisted. The old Holy Trinity on Goldthwaite Street (now the Jubilee Community Center) follows an Upjohnian spirit, the board-and-batten exterior showing a very nice period-appropriate dark neutral color scheme. Further east from Midtown, Grace Church in Mt. Meigs, not built until 1892, shows how long this movement persisted in the Alabama landscape.

The porch on the old Holy Comforter on Goldthwaite street in Cottage Hill shows wood to its best advantage, with chamfered posts forming graceful arches. Note the steeply pitched roof and the board-and-batten siding.

Further reading? Robert Gamble’s discussion in Historic Architecture in Alabama puts things in an excellent statewide context (University of Alabama Press and on the porch at Capitol Book and News). Richard Upjohn’s pattern book, Rural Architecture, is scarce. Although reprinted by Columbia University Press in the 1970’s, it must have been a very small run. I’ve only found it at Auburn University’s architecture library. From the used book sites, there is a very good book, Richard Upjohn–Architect and Churchman, written by his great-grandson Everard M.Upjohn. Beware: All the new paperback copies contain the text of a book about King Richard III, not Richard Upjohn! (Therein lies the problem with printing books in China.) You must buy an older, hardback copy from Columbia or DeCapo Press (about $75.00) to be sure you’re getting the proper book. A less expensive choice, although I’ve not read it, might be The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture, by Phoebe Stanton, Johns Hopkins University Press,1997. It is available on the used book sites for about $5.00.

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown

Know Your Greek Revival

By Elizabeth Ann Brown

Everything is in order here to make a house that looks solid and grounded without being heavy. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the enthusiasm of the late Jimmy Loeb for getting the Knox House house, once chopped into apartments and then abandoned, into the hands of those who keep it so beautifully.

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.

A simple front porch with Doric columns, low hip roof and overall more-window-than-wall all work together for a harmonious composition. Greek Revival cottages like this make great homes all over the South.

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown

Intro To Montgomery Architecture

By Elizabeth Ann Brown

It is always amazing to go around our Midtown neighborhoods and see the variety of houses we have in Montgomery. I never fail to get a smile out of people when I give them directions to my house by telling them I live around the corner from a well-known politician, with the caveat that I am in a much smaller house. Large and small, Greek Revival, bungalow and ranch, rich and not-so-rich, we manage to live cheek-by-jowl with one another in (mostly) happy companionship. In my heart, I know this is America.

Montgomery’s urban planning seems to take into account every idea tried in the 19th and 20th centuries. The grid in downtown, those wacky places where the grid shifts and leaves us a little uncertain of where we are, boulevards, broad streets, then on to the romantic curves of Cloverdale. We have something for every taste, except perhaps for that of our traffic engineers.

It is my great pleasure to join this blog and talk about the architecture and planning of our city. We will cover styles, and also look at the incredible variety that results when people just plain ol’ build what they like.

Architecture is a subject that everyone thinks they know a little something about, even if only intuitively. But there’s actually quite a bit to it — and it’s a subject that has been written about since humans started building structures. Want to get ahead on your homework? Start out with some good books:

The porch at Capitol Book and News on Woodley Terrace at Fairview (pictured below) always seems to have a ready supply of copies of Historic Architecture in Alabama by Robert Gamble. Another great resource is A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia and Lee McAlester. You’ll recognize lots of local examples in here: They photographed their way through Montgomery, Selma, and Union Springs as they wrote the book. Lastly, grab a pocket-sized guide I found on one of the used book web sites for a whopping $2.95, What Style Is It? by Poppeliers and Chambers.

Next time, we’ll begin our studies in earnest with styles and photos of Greek Revival, the architecture of our young democracy.

American fascination with our roots has never gone out of style, especially in the south. With excellent proportions and some nice, fat Doric columns, this house cum bookstore is “Colonial Revival” styling at its very best. All it needs is a family out front with two children and a Scottie dog to say, “This is Montgomery in 1923.”

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Elizabeth Ann Brown