March 1990

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Classical Architecture and Greek Forms

In Western New York


Bill Treichler

There are still many buildings in the villages and the countryside of Western New York that show the long tradition of classical architecture in Colonial America. Building design evolved in this country following classical precedents from England that had come earlier from Italy. Beautiful houses were built in all of the colonies. By the time of the Revolution, a refined type had developed that was called Federal style. Both Canandaigua and Geneva, New York, have a number of handsome examples in this style.

Beginning in the second half of the 18th century, buildings emulating ancient Greek temples appeared in Russia, Germany, Scotland, and all over Europe. The interest in Greeks forms began in Europe with the discovery of classical ruins in Greece and Italy.

On the continent the new Greek buildings were monumental and designed to be impressive. In Scotland the interest in the new classicism coincided with Scotland's intellectual renaissance, and there the Greek forms were incorporated often into residential buildings.

All during the latter part of the eighteenth century the people in the American colonies were pre-occupied with their troubles with England and winning their independence. Not until after the War of 1812, which finalized the separation and turned Americans away from English views and English preference for traditional design, did the Greek Revival gain acceptance here. But with the recovery from the uncertain times of the two wars, a feeling of confidence swept over the country. It was a time when Americans became aware of their great opportunities, and when enterprising men felt their freedom and began to desire to live like gods—in temples. Some of these highly successful people were able to have built for themselves magnificent houses.

The ideals of Greek proportion and decoration were rediscovered and Greek style became identified with freedom, opportunity, and intellectualism. The Greek Revival was largely disseminated in this country by books that carried illustrations of the different orders of Greek architecture as well as plans for typical buildings. The first of these publications came from England; later many books were printed in this country which refined the details and provided carpenters with designs to utilize or modify for new buildings.

Some men became established as architects by the approval they received for the churches and public buildings they built. Some of these men had begun as carpenters and then went on to become designers. One of the most influential of these designers and handbook producers was Asher Benjamin, who was born in Connecticut and trained there as a carpenter. He spent the early years of his life building houses and churches in the Connecticut River Valley. In 1797 he published his first book, A Country Builder's Assistant, in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Altogether he published seven books on building and some went through many editions.

Minard Lafever was another writer of handbooks who had great influence spreading the Greek style. Born in New Jersey, he had been trained as a carpenter in the Finger Lakes region of New York and then gone to New York City. His first book was The Young Builder's General Instructor, 1829. This was followed in 1833 by The Modern Builder's Guide in which he redefined Greek design in his own taste. Where Benjamin had preferred the Doric order, Lafever favored the Ionic. Also in this book he published two house designs in the temple style with wings. Similar houses were built all across the country and are often seen in New York. In his third book, The Beauties of Modern Architecture, 1835, Lafever further simplified and refined his styling.

Greek design was practised by builders and amateurs, as well as by men who became recognized as professionals. The variety in the design of the many houses built is evident on almost any short trip through the region of the Finger Lakes.

Talbot Hamlin in his book Greek Revival Architecture in America says:

Western New York in those days was a country of experiment, of striving for the new—a restless, utopian country. It was the home of religious cults of all kinds, the birthplace of Mormonism. It was serious, idealistic, perhaps at times even a little 'touched.' And something of this quality seems to have permeated its architecture, given it vitality, made it eager to seize and to use the new Greek forms and to use them and modify them in new and experimental ways, so that even in the experiments there seems to be little that is tentative—on the contrary they indicate a strong affirmation. There is an enormous variety of house types; many of different schemes found farther west in Ohio and Michigan had their seeds sown in New York State. One especially notable characteristic is the ubiquitous use of porches or piazzas; in no other part of the northern United States are these such a universal adjunct to even the simplest houses.

Many of Greek houses with one-storey wings in New York have porches that look inviting and useful running along the length of one or both wings. When porches were on the south or west sides of a building or when a portico faced in these directions, the windows under the portico or behind the colonnade were protected from the sun or blowing rain. Another Greek style characteristic, inset porches, gave protection from wind, rain, and sun for the recessed doorways and windows. Greek design accommodated well to practical considerations.

New York was covered with trees. Greek construction had its earliest roots in buildings erected from trees. The Greeks built their first temples of wood; posts were set in rows and poles laid along their tops, built up into a sheltering roof. The Greeks preserved their architecture in stone buildings when they ran out of trees and they continued the use of a heavy entablature above the columns when they built of stone. This characteristic heavy band surrounding the building below the roof continues in its design elements the form of a stacked-up timber roof.

Greek architecture was natural for a forested country and for builders well-experienced in post and lintel construction. Barn and house framing had been thoroughly worked out by American craftsman during the time they had been in this country, already nearly 200 years.

Not only did this region provide the timbers for frames, it also supplied the premier lumber for casing those frames, eastern white pine, a dimensionally stable, rot-resistant, easily-workable wood that was often clear of knots and available in wide widths.

Builders could achieve striking effects with such wood. They could use clapboarding for outer walls and smooth boarding in recesses and behind columns. They could shape moldings for door and window surrounds and for cornices. Columns and cornices could be built up of knot-free pieces. White pine made available to people of moderate means lumber to frame, cover and trim their houses. The continued existence of so many of these buildings confirms the soundness of the builders' construction practices and the marvelous durability of white pine.

Greek Revival houses built of wood had frames much like barn frames and were in their proportions well suited to timber-frame construction which favored simple rectangular shapes. They had simple roofs that very seldom intersected. If a building had wings, the main roof was above the other roofs. Dormers and valleys that are expensive to frame and water seal were avoided. Chimneys are not a feature of Greek architecture. In a time when stoves were replacing fireplaces for heating, chimneys could be fewer and smaller.

The roof plan in a sense defined the house plan and gave a viewer the knowledge of the appearance of the house from all its sides. Greek style designing was an intellectual effort seeking unity and completeness. This may also account for the feeling of visual satisfaction that Greek architecture gave to so many people.

New York State has a topography and a climate very suitable for the Greek style. The rounding hills and generally sunny skies of this district show off simple, sharp-edged cubiform masses to their best visual advantage. Bright sunlight casting high-contrast shadows accents crisp moldings and sensuous columns against flat, smooth surfaces.

There are still many inspiring classical and Greek-form structures in western New York. Talbot Hamlin in his great Greek Revival Architecture in America laments:

"Nowhere more than in up-state New York is local research to discover local architects and builders, to trace detailed influence, more necessary. Nowhere is Greek Revival work more vital and more varied. We can point here and there to influences taken over from the earlier Massachusetts-Connecticut-Berkshire work; we can see again and again the influence of Lafever both in mass and detail… Yet about the personalities, even about the ideals, of the actual designers and builders who took and merged and changed these influences and from them created individual new buildings we know almost nothing. Wherever they were, again and again they built well, and the houses they put up do much to make the character of upper New York what it is. Let us hope our ignorance with respect to these devoted early architects and builders will be little by little diminished."

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