American architecture

American architecture

American architecture, the architecture produced in the geographical area that now constitutes the United States.

Early History

American architecture properly begins in the 17th cent. with the colonization of the North American continent. Settlers from various European countries brought with them the building techniques and prevailing forms of their respective homelands. Colonial architecture was subsequently adapted to the topography and climate of the chosen site, the availability of building materials, the dearth of trained builders and artisans, and the general poverty of the settlers.

Only in New Orleans, where the French government sent skilled architects and engineers, was anything produced that approached the sophistication of architecture in France. The comparatively short Spanish domination of Florida also produced highly complex structures, including the fort at St. Augustine (begun 1672). The Spanish impress was more permanent in the American Southwest, where settlers borrowed extensively from the Native American techniques of construction in adobe. Mexican baroque details and church forms appeared in a new and simpler guise, as in the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California missions. The Dutch, who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York City), were traders for the most part, and examples of their residential work can be seen throughout the Hudson River Valley.

The English settlements were of two basic types: the small town in the North and the large plantation in the South. In New England settlers erected many-gabled houses of wood with prominent brick chimney stacks of late Gothic inspiration, such as the Parson Capen House in Topsfield, Mass. (1683). In the South, brick rapidly superseded wood as the chief building material, as for example, in St. Luke's Church in Smithfield, Va. (1632). The formality and classicism of 18th-century English architecture was almost immediately reflected in the colonies, as in the official buildings of Williamsburg, Va. or the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia (begun 1731).

During this time a growing prosperity and widening commerce brought a new influx of well-trained artisans, and English architectural books became increasingly available. Many Protestant churches were adapted and simplified from contemporary English styles designed by such architects as Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. Among the American examples are Christ Church in Philadelphia (begun 1727) and St. Paul's Chapel in New York City (1764-66). Pioneer building techniques, however, persisted on the Western frontier where settlers often built cabins of logs or later of sod.


Toward the end of the colonial period, architectural styles based on a more precise study of ancient Roman and Greek buildings were beginning to appear in Europe. This shift in taste coincided with the American Revolution, and the neoclassical style became closely identified with the political values of the young republic. In interior decoration, the Adam style (see Adam, Robert), as it was then popularly known in England, was soon translated to American use through the pattern books of Asher Benjamin.

A more monumental aesthetic, which became known as the Federal style, was typical of the work of Charles Bulfinch in Boston and of Samuel McIntire in Salem, both of whom were among the growing number of native-born designers. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave serious thought to architecture and were deeply involved in the planning and building of Washington, D.C. Both statesmen looked to the classical world as the best source of inspiration. Jefferson's conception of the Roman ideals of beauty and proportion was elegantly expressed in his design for the Virginia state capitol at Richmond (1785-89).

Architecture, previously the domain of gentlemen amateurs and master builders, became increasingly professionalized in the first half of the 19th cent. The field was also greatly enhanced by the arrival of several European architects, including the English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Architectural books continued to exert considerable influence as well. The later pattern books of Asher Benjamin and those of Minard Lafever spread the taste for classicism beyond the major cities of the east coast to the hinterlands.

The South built great mansions during the antebellum period, often with two-story colonnades, such as Dunleith Plantation in Natchez, Miss. (c.1848). In both port cities and small towns there was a subtle shift in taste from the earlier Roman-based classicism to Greek sources. Prominent Greek revival buildings of the period include William Strickland's Merchant's Exchange in Philadelphia (1832-34) and Robert Mills's Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. (1836-42).

Other Styles

Simultaneously, other revival styles began to compete nationally with classicism. In the Southwest, the Spanish tradition, occasionally modified by Eastern influences (as in California), remained dominant until the Mexican War. The English-based Gothic revival style became increasingly popular after 1835, especially for houses and churches. Prominent examples include A. J. Davis's Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, N.Y. (begun 1838) and James Renwick's St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City (1853-88). The widely distributed books of A. J. Downing on the picturesque cottage style and landscape gardening further advanced the trend. Other revival styles popular at the same time included the Italian villa and the Lombard Romanesque.

The writings of John Ruskin began to influence American architects at about the time of the Civil War, and a short-lived fashion for Victorian Gothic buildings ensued, such as Frank Furness's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1872-76). The trend toward historical eclecticism intensified in the decades following the Civil War. Newly wealthy patrons commissioned buildings in styles characterized by unbridled ostentation, as for example Richard Morris Hunt's designs for the sprawling mansions of Newport, R.I. The highly influential Henry Hobson Richardson designed massive, dignified buildings in an abstracted Romanesque style that contrasted sharply with the surrounding eclecticism. During this period many architects went to Paris, if possible to the École des Beaux-Arts, to receive their training. Architectural schools were established in the United States along the model of the École, beginning with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865.

The Birth of Modernism

Although divided by stylistic eclecticism, the United States took the lead in the development of advanced building technologies in the second half of the 19th cent. Engineering became a distinctly separate profession, and works such as the Brooklyn Bridge by John and Washington Roebling (1869-83) number among the most impressive of all American achievements. The technical innovations of this era included the use of cast iron, steel, and reinforced concrete in construction.

The trend toward functional design, which had been steadily growing, reached its greatest expression in the works of the so-called Chicago school of architecture led by Louis Henry Sullivan. Sullivan broke completely with historical eclecticism and used modern materials in such a way as to emphasize their function. The commercial buildings and skyscrapers of Chicago and other cities built under his influence were admired for their power and originality as well as for the rational organization of their parts.

Neoclassical Revival

Classicism triumphed once again, however, largely because of the 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago. The major architectural firms that participated in the fair reinvigorated the classical tradition nationwide, often at an imperial scale, as for example in McKim, Mead, and White's Pennsylvania RR Station in New York City (1906-10). Despite the efforts of Sullivan and his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright, neoclassical doctrines adapted from the École des Beaux-Arts remained solidly entrenched for many decades after the turn of the 20th cent. There were noticeable exceptions to this, particularly in the domestic realm, where the English Arts and Crafts movement implemented by William Morris had a lasting influence in the United States.

Modern American Architecture

Wright, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest architects of the 20th cent., developed a highly original approach to residential design before World War I, which became known as the "Prairie Style." His early work, executed in and around Chicago, combined open planning principles with horizontal emphasis, asymmetrical facade elevations, and broad, sheltering roofs, as seen, for example, in his Robie House (1909). Wright, who stood apart from the European-derived modernist mainstream, continued to design buildings into his old age, producing some of his finest and most idiosyncratic works, such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1946-59).

The unornamented, machine-inspired aesthetic of European modernism was introduced to the United States through such foreign-born architects as Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and William Lescaze during the 1920s. Later dubbed the International style, this functionalist mode of architecture became preeminent in the United States after World War II, particularly in the design of corporate office buildings. Notable examples include Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Lever House (1952) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1956-58), both in New York City. With the immigration to the United States of such prominent Europeans as Walter Gropius and Mies, the curricula of many American architectural schools were revamped along the lines of the Bauhaus in Germany.

Around 1960 a formal and theoretical reaction to the International style began to take shape as architects became increasingly disenchanted with the sterile aestheticism of much postwar building. Louis I. Kahn reintroduced axial planning and other Beaux-Arts principles, while Eero Saarinen experimented with dynamic sculptural forms. In addition, Robert Venturi argued for the value of studying the vernacular and commercial landscape, thus broadening the theoretical foundations of modern design and ushering in the postmodern era. By the early 1980s postmodernism had become America's dominant style, particularly for public buildings. At around this time, the United States, often an importer and interpreter of modernist architectural trends, became an exporter of postmodernist concepts. In postmodern design, architects such as Philip Johnson (in one of his many changes of architectural style), Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Robert A. M. Stern, Charles Moore, Helmut Jahn, Thomas Beeby, and others recombined ornament, historicism, technology, and often vivid color in diverse, eclectic, and often witty manners. Among postmodernism's most notable buildings are Graves's Portland Building (1982), Portland, Oreg., and Johnson's AT&T Building, now the Sony Building (1978-84), New York City. While postmodern architecture remained a dominant mode in the 1990s, some contemporary architects have created their own styles. Foremost among these is Frank Gehry, whose asymmetrical, sculptural buildings using both common and unusual materials, are an architectural world unto themselves. One of his finest works is the monumental and organic titanium steel Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (1997).


See H. Morrison, Early American Architecture (1952); T. Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America (1944, repr. 1964); F. Kimball, Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and Early Republic (1922, repr. 1966); V. J. Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (1969) and The Shingle Style and the Stick Style (rev. ed. 1971); L. M. Roth, A Concise History of American Architecture (1979); W. H. Pierson and W. Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects, (4 vol., 1986).

The Greek Revival was an architectural movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, predominantly in northern Europe and the United States. A product of Hellenism, it may be looked upon as the last phase in the development of Neoclassical architecture. With a new found access to Greece archaeologist-architects of the period studied the Doric and Ionic movement, examples of which can be found in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Finland (where the assembly of Greek buildings in Helsinki city centre is particularly notable). Yet in each country it touched, the style was looked on as the expression of local nationalism and civic virtue, especially in Germany and America, where the idiom was regarded as free from any ecclesiastical or aristocratic associations. The term Greek revival was first used by Charles Robert Cockerell in a lecture he gave as Professor of Architecture to the Royal Academy in 1842. The term was indicative of how highly self-conscious these practitioners of the style were who knew that they had created a new mode of architecture. The taste for all things Greek in furniture and interior design was at its peak by the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the designs of Thomas Hope had influenced a number of decorative styles known variously as Neoclassical, Empire, Russian Empire, and Regency. Greek Revival architecture took a different course in a number of countries, lasting up till the Civil War in America (1860s) and even later in Scotland. The style was also exported to Greece under the first two (German and Danish) kings of the newly independent nation.


Despite the unbounded prestige of ancient Greece amongst the educated elite of Europe, there was little to no direct knowledge of that civilization before the middle of the 18th century. The monuments of Greek antiquity were known chiefly from Pausanias and other literary sources. Visiting Ottoman Greece was a difficult and dangerous business prior to the period of stagnation beginning with the Great Turkish War. Few Grand Tourists called on Athens during the first half of the 18th century, and none made any significant study of the architectural ruins. It would take until the expedition funded by the Society of Dilettanti of 1751 by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett before serious archaeological enquiry began in earnest. Stuart and Revett's findings, published as The Antiquities of Athens (first vol. 1762, vol. 5, 1816), along with Julien-David Le Roy's Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce (1758) were the first accurate surveys of ancient Greek architecture. Intellectual curiosty quickly led to a desire to emulate, so Stuart was commissioned after his return from Greece by George Lyttelton to produce the first Greek building in England, the garden temple at Hagley Hall (1758-9). A number of British architects in the second half of the century took up the expressive challenge of the Doric from their aristocratic patrons, including Joseph Bonomi and John Soane, but it was to remain the private enthusiasm of connoisseurs up to the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Seen in its wider social context, Greek Revival architecture sounded a new note of sobriety and restraint in public buildings in Britain around 1800 as an assertion of nationalism attendant on the Act of Union, the Napoleonic wars, and the clamour for political reform. It was to be William Wilkins's winning design for the public competition for Downing College that announced the Greek style was to be the dominant idiom in architecture. Wilkins and Robert Smirke went on to build some of the most important buildings of the era, including the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden (1808-9), the General Post Office (1824-9), and the British Museum (1823-48), Wilkins University College London (1826-30), and the National Gallery (1832-8). In Scotland the style was avidly adopted by William Henry Playfair, Thomas Hamilton, and Charles Robert Cockerell, who severally and jointly contributed to the massive expansion of Edinburgh's New Town, including the Calton Hill development and the Moray estate. Such was the popularity of the Doric in Edinburgh that the city now enjoys a striking visual uniformity, and as such is sometimes whimsically referred to as the Athens of the North.

If it is tempting to see the Greek revival as the expression of Regency authoritarianism, then the changing conditions of life in Britain made Doric the loser of the Battle of the Styles, dramatically symbolized by the selection of Barry's Gothic design for the Palace of Westminster in 1836. Nevertheless, Greek continued to be in favour in Scotland well into the 1870s in the singular figure of Alexander Thomson.

Germany and France

In Germany, the Greek revival is predominantly found in two centres, Berlin and Munich. In both locales, Doric was the court style rather than a popular movement, and was heavily patronized by Frederick William II and Ludwig I as the expression of their desires for their respective seats to become the capital of Germany. The earliest Greek building was the Brandenburg Gate (1788-91) by Carl Gotthard Langhans, who modelled it on the Propylaea. Ten years after the death of Frederick the Great, the Berlin Akademie initiated a competition for a monument to the king that would promote “morality and patriotism."

Friedrich Gilly’s unexecuted design for a temple raised above the Leipziger Platz caught the tenor of high idealism that the Germans sought in Greek architecture and was enormously influential on Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo von Klenze. Schinkel was in a position to stamp his mark on Berlin after the catastrophe of the French occupation ended in 1813; his work on what is now the Altes Museum, Schauspielhaus, and the Neue Wache transformed that city. Similarly, in Munich von Klenze’s Glyptothek and Walhalla were the fulfillment of Gilly’s vision of an orderly and moral German world.

By comparison, the Greek revival in France was never popular with either the State or the public. What little there is started with Charles de Wailly’s crypt in the church of St Leu-St Gilles (1773-80), and Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s Barriere des Bonshommes (1785-9). First-hand evidence of Greek architecture was of very little importance to the French, due to the influence of Marc-Antoine Laugier’s doctrines that sought to discern the principles of the Greeks instead of their mere practices. It would take until Laboustre’s Neo-Grec of the second Empire for the Greek revival to flower briefly in France.

North America

Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens, and though he never practiced in the style Jefferson was to prove instrumental in introducing Greek Revival architecture to the United States. In 1803, Benjamin Latrobe was appointed by Jefferson as surveyor of public building in the United States, Latrobe went on to design a number of important public buildings in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, including work on the United States Capitol and the Bank of Pennsylvania.

Latrobe's design for the Capitol was an imaginative interpretation of the classical orders not constrained by historical precedent, incorporating American motifs such as corncobs and tobacco leaves into his capitals. This idiosyncratic approach was to become typical of the American attitude to Greek detailing. His overall plan for the Capitol did not survive, though much of his interiors do. He also did notable work on the Supreme Court interior (1806-7) and his masterpiece, the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Baltimore (1805-21). Even as he claimed that “I am a bigoted Greek in the condemnation of the Roman architecture…,” he did not seek to rigidly impose Greek forms, stating that “[o]ur religion requires a church wholly different from the temple, our legislative assemblies and our courts of justice, buildings of entirely different principles from their basilicas; and our amusements could not possibly be performed in their theatres or amphitheatres.” Latrobe’s circle of junior colleagues would prove to be an informal school of Greek revivalists, and it was his influence that was to shape the next generation of American architects.

The second phase in the development of American Greek revival saw the pupils of Latrobe create a monumental national style under the patronage of banker and hellenophile Nicholas Biddle, including such works as the Second Bank of the United States by William Strickland (1824), Biddle’s home "Andalusia" by Thomas U. Walter (1835-1836), and Girard College also by Walter (1833-47). New York saw the construction (1833) of the row of Greek temples at Sailors' Snug Harbor. At the same time, the popular appetite for the Greek was sustained by architectural pattern books, the most important of which was Asher Benjamin’s The Practical House Carpenter (1830). This guide helped create the proliferation of Greek homes seen especially in northern New York State and the Western Reserves of Ohio. From the period of about 1820 to 1850, the Greek Revival style dominated the United States and could be found as far west as Springfield, Illinois.

Other notable American architects to use Greek Revival designs included Latrobe's student, Robert Mills who designed the Washington Monument, as well as George Hadfield, and Gabriel Manigault.

In Canada, Montreal architect John Ostell designed a number of prominent Greek Revival Buildings, including the first building on the McGill University campus and Montreal's original Custom House, now part of the Pointe-à-Callière Museum. The Toronto Street Post Office, completed in 1853, is another Canadian example.


The discovery that the Greeks had painted their temples had a profound influence on the later development of the style. The archaeological dig at Aegina and Bassae in 1811-12 by Cockerell, Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, and Karl Haller von Hallerstein had disinterred painted fragments of masonry daubed with impermanent colours. This revelation was a direct contradiction of Winckelmann’s notion of the Greek temple as timeless, fixed, and pure in its whiteness. In 1823, Samuel Angell discovered the coloured metopes of Temple C at Selinunte, Sicily and published them in 1826. The French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff witnessed the exhibition of Angell’s find and endeavoured to excavate Temple B at Selinus. His imaginative reconstructions of this temple were exhibited in Rome and Paris in 1824 and he went on to publish these as Architecture polychrome chez les Grecs (1830) and later in Restitution du Temple d'Empedocle a Selinote (1851). The controversy was to inspire von Klenze’s Aegina room at the Munich Glyptothek of 1830, the first of his many speculative reconstructions of Greek colour.

Hittorff lectured in Paris in 1829-1830, that Greek temples had originally been painted ochre yellow, with the moulding and sculptural details in red, blue, green, and gold. While this may or may not have been the case with older wooden or plain stone temples, it was definitely not the case with the more luxurious marble temples, where color was used sparingly to accentuate architectural highlights. Similarly, Henri Labrouste proposed a reconstruction of the temples at Paestum to the Academie des Beaux-Arts in 1829, decked out in startling colour, inverting the accepted chronology of the three Doric temples, thereby implying that the development of the Greek orders did not increase in formal complexity over time, i.e., the evolution from Doric to Corinthian was not inexorable. Both events were to cause a minor scandal. The emerging understanding that Greek art was subject to changing forces of environment and culture was a direct assault on the architectural rationalism of the day.


With the rise of architectural historicism in the mid-nineteenth century it is no longer possible to speak of a Greek revival movement, where the Doric is employed it is as another self-consciously anachronizing style. The San Francisco mint (completed 1874) is a case in point. Yet Greek culture and Greek design motifs continued to exert a powerful hold on late Victorian imagination and beyond. Peter Behrens’s Haus Wiegund (1911-12), for example, echos the austere classicism of Gilly and Schinkel. Further north we find a resurgent interest in rationalism dressed in the neoclassical style; Nordic Classicism. If the idiom has fallen out of favour since World War II it is thanks to its association, rightly or wrongly, with the pastiche classicism of Albert Speer which still provokes controversy as witnessed in Léon Krier’s provocative essay “Krier on Speer".


Primary sources

  • Jacob Spon Voyage d'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant 1678
  • George Wheler Journey into Greece 1682
  • Richard Pococke A Description of the East and Some Other Countries 1743-5
  • R. Dalton Antiquities and Views in Greece and Egypt 1751
  • Comte de Caylus Recueil d'antiquités 1752-67
  • Marc-Antoine Laugier Essai sur l'architecture 1753
  • J.J. Winkelmann ''Gedanken uber die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst" 1755
  • J D LeRoy Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce 1758
  • James Stuart and Nicholas Revett The Antiquities of Athens 1762-1816
  • J.J. Winkelmann Anmerkungen uber die Baukunst der alten Tempel zu Girgenti in Sicilien 1762
  • J.J. Winkelmann Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums 1764
  • Thomas Major The ruins of Paestum 1768
  • Stephen Riou The Grecian Orders 1768
  • R. Chandler et al. Ionian Antiquities 1768-1881
  • G. B. Piranesi Differentes Pesto 1778
  • J.J. Barthelemy Voyage du jeune Anarcharsis en Grèce dans le milieu du quatrième siecle avant l'ère vulgaire 1787
  • William Wilkins The Antiquities of Magna Grecia 1807
  • Leo von Klenze Der Tempel des olympischen Jupiter zu Agrigent 1821
  • S Agnell and T. Evens Sculptured Metopes Discovered among the ruins of Selinus 1823
  • Peter Oluf Brøndsted Voyages et recherches dans le Grèce 1826-30
  • Otto Magnus Stackelberg Der Apollotempel zu Bassae in Arcadien 1826
  • J I Hittorff and L von Zanth Architecture antique de la sicile 1827
  • C R Cockerell et al. Antiquities of Athens and other places of Greece, Sicily, etc. 1830
  • A. Blouet Expedition scientifique de Moree 1831-8
  • F. Kugler Uber die Polychromie der griechischen Architektur und Skulptur und ihr Grenze 1835
  • C. R. Cockerell The Temples of Jupiter Panhellenius at Aegina and of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae 1860
    • Pattern Books
  • Asher Benjamin The American Builder's Companion 1806
  • Asher Benjamin The Builder's Guide 1839
  • Asher Benjamin The Practical House Carpenter 1830
  • Owen Biddle The Young Carpenter's Assistant 1805
  • William Brown The Carpenter's Assistant 1848
  • Minard Lafever The Young Builder's General Instructor 1829
  • Thomas U Walter Two Hundred Designs for Cottages and Villas 1846.
  • References

    • Greek Revival Architecture in America, Talbot Hamlin, OUP, 1944.
    • Greek Revival America, Roger G. Kennedy, 1989.
    • Greek Revival America? Reflections on uses and functions of antique architectural patterns in American architecture between 1760-1860, Christoph Hoecker, in: Hephaistos - New approaches in Classical Archaeology and related fields vol. 15, 1997, pp. 197-241.
    • The Greek Revival, J. Mordaunt Cook, 1972.
    • The Sources of Greek Revival Architecture, Dora Wiebenson, 1969.
    • Study of Greek Revival Architecture in the Seneca and Cayuga Lake Regions, by Clifford H. Ruffner, Jr

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