Classical Architecture in America:
The Federal Style and Beyond
In the design of actual buildings, Jefferson’s intense practicality matched that of Franklin. Like the Pennsylvania sage, his diaries abound in keen observations on how to build better; an ingenious design for a folding table, a lamp in a fan-shaped transom which lights both sides of the door, horizontally pivoted windows which when opened would “admit air and not rain.” In Nîmes Jefferson could sit “gazing whole hours at the Masion Careée, like a lover at his mistress.” The design for the University at Charlottesville is an example of Jefferson’s intelligent subordination of technique to the larger demands of theory. Here he might teach African-American slaves to carve a classical column—changing the order to ionic “on account of the difficulty of the Corinthian capitals.” Or, in a serpentine brick wall, he might by canny use of curves, make one brick do the work of two. But, long before he had outlined the functions of a state-wide system of education, and while he watched the masons work, he haad a very precise picture of the capstone of such a system. His approach here in his “academical village” was rational, his concept functional, his program ambitious. He envisioned a great university made up of may schools, designed to meet the expanding needs of a prosperous society.
Chronologically, Jefferson’s understanding of the importance of a national architecture steadily deepened and matured. He was a critic of taste, perceptive but subjective, when in 1782, he penned his scathing indictment of Williamsburg architecture. The buildings of the college were “rude mis-shapen piles which, buy for the fact that they have roofs, would be mistaken for brick-kilns.” His preferences were all with “columnar” architecture )as the Greek and Roman Revival styles were then called), buty these preferences were not yet dominantly ideological. He proposed columns because he liked them, and brick because “when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to its value as well as to its ornament.” He wanted national greatness at every level of national life—political, social, cultural and artistic. The building field, like any other, he believed must contribute to this greatness; and the individual building itself must satisfy, not only the needs of its owner, but also of the community as a whole. But, above and beyond it obvious utility, Jefferson saw architecture as itself a civilizing force. That is why, at the University in Charlottesville, each of the pavilions in a different variant of the Classic orders. They were to act as “models of taste and good architecture and [to be] of a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for architectural lectures.” Thus, he proposed to indoctrinate all the sons of the Virginia gentry (and not merely aspiring architects) with, at least, the minimum of artistic literacy. The very buildings, like the classes held inside them, would help to prepare the students for their role of leadership.
For the rest of his life after his retirement from the presidency, Thomas Jefferson was to occupy a strategic position with reference to the main lines of development in American building. And, his efforts in behalf of a national architecture and a native building technology, was not wasted. America built hugely and built well, and the Revival—first the Roman, then the Greek—became the absolutely universal idiom of design. Under Jefferson’s pervasive and kindly genius, a whole school of great American architects appeared: Latrobe, Bulfinch, Mills, Strickland, Walters. . These men differed from the predecessors, and indeed from Jefferson himself, in several important respects. They were not amateurs, nor dilettantes, nor even necessarily, gentlemen, but full-time, technically trained professionals. They were largely the product of universities, with a sound footing in engineering and a diminished obsession with the more literary aspects of architecture. The environment in which they matured, and which Jefferson had done so much to guarantee, was especially favorable to the development of well-rounded designers. The Industrial Revolution gave increasing importance to science and technology inside the classroom and out. Classicism could thus co-exist with nascent science. One man could master both architecture and engineering.
For men like the English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe, it was thus possible to be at once an enthusiastic and meticulous classicist and an imaginative and resourceful hydraulic engineer. He landed in Norfolk (Virginia) in 1796, and his work soon came to Jefferson’s attention. It is easy to understand why the young man appealed to Jefferson. Latrobe had a first-rate technical education; he was a “bigoted Greek” in his aesthetic standards; and, he had a liberal and imaginative mind.
Latrobe was the most important American designer in the new Greek Revival style. He recognized that architects must seek more than harmony of form. He was almost unique in early 19th Century America for achieving an integration of “firmness, commodity and delight” (the three conditions for architecture expressed by Sir Henry Wotton as early as 1624) within forms that were expressive as well. It let Latrobe to deplore the misdeeds of carpenter-builders like those who submitted plans for the national capitol; it also led him to disagree with gentlemen-architects like Jefferson who tended too frequently to slavishly coping classic forms.
Latrobe’s architectural and other knowledge merited the respect of Jefferson, and the architect’s career owed much to the Virginian’s patronage. One of his important commissions—the Virginia State Penitentiary—was based upon data which Jefferson had forwarded from Europe during his ambassadorship. The Jefferson letters helped him in the Quaker City, where he was soon designing the handsome classic structure for the Bank of Pennsylvania. It was here, too, that he received what was perhaps his most notable commission—the Philadelphia Water Works. It was certainly one of the most important building projects of the new Republic. Here, Latrobe displayed exactly those qualities which Jefferson so admired in building design: technical progressiveness, competent craftsmanship, and aesthetic sophistication. There was no prototype for a project of this complexity and scale. In Center Square, in 1799, he built an engine house for the pumps that raised the water from the Schuylkill River. The building had a parallel-piped base that supported a tall cylinder terminated by a low dome. Its proportions, emphatically un-classical, were tall at the top and low at the base. No blending ameliorated the abrupt junctions of the strong geometrical posts. The building announced the architect’s intention to utilize classical elements, like column, with pure geometric forms, to keep the buildings simple in silhouette and allow use to be the major determinant in the composition. “I would never put a cupula (sic) on any spherical come. It is not the ornament, it is the use I want,” he once wrote.
Latrobe’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore, begun in 1808 and dedicated in 1821, is a fine example of a new building for an old institution. It was a succession of surely designed spaces, beginning with a portico and vault, proceeding to a small dome and culminating at a major dome over the crossing. All these spaces were rational volumetric interpretations of a liturgical plan, and they determined the enclosing masses. No one can mistake the plan, clearly visible in the elevation, and no one can misinterpret the structural system that encloses these spaces. But, Latrobe did not let the desire for a simple distinct form, lead him to subordinate the masses beneath the dome or shorten the nave. He began with a freedom of planning and _expression unknown in Georgina formalism and produced this remarkable concatenation of unblended elementary spaces and masses. There are classical details to be sure, and they were made more classical by the porch, added in the 1870s, but they are combined, non-classically, in a composition that is sustained only by the balancing of pure, elementary geometry.
No matter how much he respected Latrobe’s rational exposition of useful forms, and though he frequently consulted Latrobe about his plans for the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was never able to bring himself fully to relinquish formalism.
Jefferson’s initial proposal for the University was a direct attack on the problem, seeking a practical correction of the defects he had criticized at William and Mary College, but the solution lacked architectural character. Following some suggestions made by Latrobe, Jefferson revised the plan so that it provided for an academic community centered on a dominant rotunda, the library, which stood upon an eminence, when lawns descended in a series of terraces. Two rows of parallel buildings stood on each side of the lawn. The innermost row contained pavilions for classrooms or faculty residences. These were connected by covered passageways, which also gave access to low buildings where some of the students lived. Beyond the first row, or lawn, there were gardens enclosed by serpentine walls; these were closed by the second row of buildings called “ranges”, providing more dormitories. The excellent site plan achieved a community of buildings, each of which served a definite purpose; it permitted variety within an over-all integration; it protected the community against the spread of fire or disease; it isolated noise. Thus far, it obeyed good rational principles. But Jefferson could not follow rationalism to the end. Instead, he ransacked Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture ISBN 0262661330 to find temple facades for his pavilions; he studied drawings of the Pantheon, made them more classical by altering the proportions of the porch, and transformed the whole thing into a library, which was essentially the Pantheon at half size.
No style since the 18th Century Georgian captured American hearts more fully than the classical, especially the Greek Revival. When they were permitted to do so by their clients, professional architects used Greek architectural elements, but applied them to modern practical plans. At the Franklin Institute in 1840, Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the dome on the Capitol at Washington, lectured: “The popular idea that to design a building in Grecian taste is nothing more than to copy a Grecian building, is altogether erroneous…. If architects would oftener aim to think as the Greeks thought, than to do as the Greeks did, our columnar architecture would possess a higher degree of originality, and its character and _expression would gradually become conformed to the local circumstances of the country, and the republican spirit of its institutions.” A Greek Revival town is a fine and handsome assembly of stately colonnades and well-turned building masses. Scale and workmanship were often exquisite. The vitality of Greek Revival design stemmed from a sure sense of architecture as a combination of use, construction, and beauty, first of all, in spaces put to various uses. The style moved westward to grace Saratoga Springs and Ovid and Homer in upstate New York; it moved south to Frankfort, Kentucky, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Athens, Georgia. In the lower Mississippi Valley, the Greek Revival reached an apogee of refinement, with attenuated columns like those in Stanton Hall at Natchez, Mississippi. The building in those towns were not reproductions of whole Greek or Roman buildings; at most, their porticoes or cornices were copies; but largely, they should be regarded first in terms of their plans and sections, where the results were practical and graceful, and then, in terms of their details whose refinement was frequently original. The Greek Revival style in architecture spread and became so characteristic of this nation’s landscape that America’s “templed hills” were referred to in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, and our “alabaster cities” immortalized in “America The Beautiful”.