Greek revival was the "National Style"
American builders loved emulating ancient Greek temples.
By Les Christie, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - Driving through nearly any area east of the Mississippi, travelers wouldn't have to go far before they came upon a house that could be plucked up, carried thousands of miles away to a limestone bluff overlooking the Aegean Sea and look like it belonged there.

Hundreds of thousands of houses that emulate the appearance of an ancient Greek temple design were built beginning shortly after the turn of the 19th century. These became so ubiquitous in the United States that Greek revival became known as the "National Style."

Photo GallerylaunchSee more photos

Built for the families of rich plantation owners, bourgeois farmers, New England sea captains, merchants large and small, and many other ordinary Americans, Greek revival houses became an integral part of the fabric of American residential architecture.

In North America, this was strictly a U.S. phenomenon; Canada has no tradition of building in the genre. How did this formal, old-world style used for the design of temples where pagans practiced polytheism come to be so associated with the young, free-wheeling, and Christian republic?

Democratic roots

The connection was democracy.

Americans admired the architectural style, not only for its graceful proportions, but because they associated it with the great democratic tradition of ancient Greeks And many felt, thanks to the freedom guaranteed by our constitution and system of government, that every American could aspire to own his or her own version of this ideal form.

The style soon received a big push from the sympathy Americans felt for the emerging, modern Greek state. From 1821 to 1829, when Greek revival architecture really took wing, the Greeks fought a war of independence to free themselves from the profoundly autocratic Ottoman Empire. Many westerners volunteered to help the Greeks during that conflict, the most famous of whom was Lord Byron.

All things Greece became so fashionable that, in addition to homes, many public buildings courthouses, schools, legislative buildings, banks and churches adopted the style. The trend extended to naming towns after Greek cities. There are still at least 14 Athens in the United States, and 10 Spartas, seven Corinths, six Syracuses, four Ithacas and even a Delphi or two.

Several design elements identify the Greek revival style. Triangular pediments, columns and porticos and faade pilasters are all indicative. The decoration is usually far more austere than in the original. Unlike the friezes of real Greek temples with their elaborate sculptures and moldings, most American homes draw their parallel by mimicking the geometry rather than the details of their Greek counterparts.

American entablatures, for example, the horizontal structures lying on the tops of the columns and supporting the triangular pediments, were often very plain. Even the columns, usually deeply grooved, or fluted, in the ancient originals, were sometimes smooth in America. Pilasters here tended to be minimally decorated and their relief low.

The construction materials were different as well. Most Greek revivals were built with the same materials as the federal, colonial, Georgian or other homes of the day. Instead of being made of white Pentelic marble, like the Parthenon and other buildings of the Acropolis in Athens, they were constructed of wood, brick or local stone.

Many were painted white, however, perhaps to heighten the resemblances to their exemplars. And, of course, to copy the most famous house in the nation and one with numerous Greek revival elements which was also white. It's the place where George W. Bush now hangs his Stetson.

 Top of page

Follow the news that matters to you. Create your own alert to be notified on topics you're interested in.

Or, visit Popular Alerts for suggestions.
Manage alerts | What is this?