Classical Architecture in America:
The Federal Style and Beyond
Antiquity haunted the Federal imagination. The Enlightenment saw itself as a continuation of the Renaissance, which had re-adopted classical traditions after ten centuries of the Dark Ages. The classical world was the standard of thought and conduct to men of the Enlightenment; it was more real to them than their own world. Ancient history was history in the absolute sense. They had been taught to judge their literature by the standard of Quintilian, and to form their thought on Cicero and Seneca. Then, England in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries became conscious of its own national greatness and likened itself to the Roman Republic. Many Englishmen would have applauded Jonathan Richardson’s self-congratulatory _expression of self-esteem:
“No nation under heaven so nearly resembles the ancient Greeks and Romans as we. There is a haughty carriage, an elevation of thought, a greatness of taste, a love of liberty, a simplicity and honesty among us, which we inherit from our ancestors, and which belongs to us as Englishmen.”
There was a feeling that writers of the Restoration period had refined the English language and had brought versification to perfection. This view was supported by Samuel Johnson in his famous encomium on John Dryden:
“What was said (by Suetonius) of Rome adorned by Augustus, may be applied by an easy metaphor to English poetry embellished by Dryden…he found it brick, and he left it marble.”
However, believers in the cyclical theory of history saw the tide turning against Western civilization in the neo-classical period; after all, the grandeur that was Rome had come to an inglorious end. Rome had been corrupted by military conquest and commercial greed, and now, Georgian
England was being led into decay by the growth of moneyed interests, factional politics and a professional army pursuing wars of conquest.
Bishop George Berkeley wrote On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America (1725) so eloquently:
“Westward the course of the empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”
In the progress of empire from East to West, would fallen humanity arrive providentially and progressively at Berkeley’s apocalyptic “fifth act” in America and be given a fresh chance for redemption? On the eve of the American Revolution, Horace Walpole predicted, in 1774:
“The next Augustan Age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will perhaps be a Thucydides at Boston, Xenophon at New York, and in time, a Virgil in Mexico, and a Newton in Peru.”
The revolutionaries who came to Philadelphia in 1776, perceived Greece and Rome as the noblest achievement of free men aspiring to govern themselves. “The Roman republic,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, “attained to the utmost height of human greatness.” In this conviction, the Founding Fathers of the new republic called the upper chamber of its legislature the Senate, named new communities Athens and Sparta, organize the Society of Cincinnati, assigned Latin texts to the young, carved its heroes in togas, and copied Greek temples in erecting new buildings. Nicholas Biddle, Philadelphia’s cultural and financial leader, traveled to Greece in 1806 and was so enamored of its ancient structures that he confided in his diary, “The soil of Greece is sacred to genius and to letters… The two great truths in the world are the Bible and Grecian architecture.” He subsequently enlarged his house, Andalusia, on the banks of the Delaware River to resemble a colossal Doric porticoed temple.
The study and use of classical antiquities was regarded as a means of penetrating the eternally valid truths, which were thought to underlie the superficial diversities of the visible world. Winckelmann revealed a deeper purpose when he declared: “There is only one way for the moderns to become great and perhaps unequalled: by imitating the Ancients.” To him, the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” of antique statues were in themselves ennobling. The term “neo-classical”, or the more obviously opprobrious adjective “pseudo-classical”, were pejorative at the time. It is important to remember that what we now call “neo-classical” was described by artists and critics at the time as, quite simply, the “true” or “correct” style, an art of universal significance and eternal validity. In place of the rococo Olympus of amorous gods and licentious goddesses and that perennial fête champêtre in which the jeunesse dorée philandered through an eternal, languorous afternoon amidst rocaille ornament—what Baudelaire, in 1855, called “an excess of gay and charming frivolities”—one now finds themes and subjects of a very different kind: a new style that was strongly didactic in intention, offering sobering lessons in the more homely virtues and stoic exemplars of unspoiled and uncorrupted simplicity, of abstinence and self-restraint, of noble self-sacrifice and heroic patriotism.
With the close of the Revolutionary War, the new republic faced not only the task of reconstructing an exhausted and practically bankrupt nation, but of simultaneously creating an entirely new political and economic apparatus commensurate with its new status. For the building field, as for all other branches of the economy, this posed a new set of problems. Construction had been at a virtual standstill for the duration of the war.
It was entirely logical that the first big building projects after the war should be largely governmental. There was the natural desire to give suitable architectural _expression to the intense nationalism of the period. Thus, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had the problem of housing an entire administrative apparatus, including a large new legislature. It had the equally important ideological task of housing them appropriately, so that the people of Boston, as of the world at large, could see the concrete affirmation of their freedom. Massachusetts moved swiftly and impressively. Already in 1795, the architect Charles Bulfinch had laid the cornerstone of a handsome new capitol; in 1802, the state solons were settling themselves into its new-found brick and marble majesty. Nor were the other states far behind, either in time or in number of columns and size of dome. The larger scale, shrewd foresight, and ardent optimism of these new state capitols and city halls were but the local reflection of an even bigger project—the construction of a new capitol city at Washington.
Washington, D. C., the Federal city, was a monument of great expectations. The French-born engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s (1754-1825) design for a capitol was imaginative and ambitious. Each branch of government was to be physically separate: connecting branches were broad avenues that cut diagonally across the gridiron arrangement of numbered and lettered streets. L’Enfant urged that the public buildings be built in brick and stone in the style of Greek and Roman temples. But reality did not conform to desire. It was “the City of Magnificent Intentions,” wrote Charles Dickens in 1842. “Such as it is it is likely to remain.” Construction of the public buildings was painfully slow: eight years passed before the President’s House was habitable; seven, before Congress could deliberate in the Capitol. And yet, the dream of a planned monument to classical republicanism persisted.
From any vantage point, Washington is a city defined by the geometry of its street plan and by the inter-relationship between its major public buildings. Within the original L’Enfant city, the street system of radial avenues and grid streets spreads out toward the horizon, punctuated by towers, domes and obelisks. The wide radial avenues and major grid thoroughfares knit together the open spaces of the Mall, Rock Creek Park, and the many smaller neighborhood parks scattered throughout the city. In no other city is the architectural experience more dramatic.
The national capitol was located on the Potomac River as the result of a political compromise forged in Congress. From 1783 to the passage of the Residence Act of 1790, more than 50 cities and towns were proposed, but the central location of the Potomac, its accessible but defensible position, the closeness of its headwaters to the Ohio River (and thus a vast area of inland country, and George Washington’s sponsorship of the site, were all determinative. When L’Enfant was appointed by Washington to design the federal city early in 1791, he supposed he was working directly for the President. In 1788, he had been selected as the architect of Federal Hall in New York City, and is appointment as the designer of the new capitol three years later was not the result of a competitive process. Rather, it reflected Washington’s belief that L’Enfant was the only person in the country capable of planning the new city and all of its public buildings. The entire process of working with inexperienced commissioners probed to be tumultuous, and L’Enfant was fired within a year, a fate that was to befall numerous talented architects during the first decade of the city’s existence. A long series of architects became victims of this process in the design and construction of the Capitol. Including L’Enfant, who had submitted the initial design in 1791, seven architects were employed in designing and constructing the original Capitol, before it was completed in 1829. Throughout its long and checkered history, the Capitol was subject to the often uninformed opinions of numerous members of Congress on whom funding depended.
An overview of the background, education and involvement in the city’s life of Washington’s most significant architects provides a cumulative picture of the changing nature of architectural practice in America. When Irish-born and Irish-trained James Hoban (c.1762-1831) won the competition for the President’s House in 1792, he relocated from Charleston, S.C., where he had been practicing architecture for the previous five years during is early years in Washington, Hoban and his builder-partner erected numerous row houses and at least one hotel as speculative ventures.