by Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)
By the early 1800s, the United States of America was a new country, but its culture and even its architecture, especially in New York, was predominantly English. After the War of 1812, when the British tried once again to take over, the movers and shakers in the country were consciously seeking to create an American cultural identity independent of England.
Because most of the elite had the benefit of a classical education, they naturally turned to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. Greece was the home of democracy, and Greco-Roman architecture was the basis of Western architecture. Around this time, many new American towns and cities were also being founded — the reason we have a lot of towns named Athens, Syracuse, Ithaca, Ilium and Troy across the former colonies.
The first real American architecture was, actually, in many ways Greek — in the form of Greek temples. During this period Greek temples were popping up everywhere. By the 1830s, Greek temple-fronts were common in New York as churches, civic buildings and wealthy suburban homes. Brooklyn’s Lefferts-Laidlaw house at 136 Clinton Avenue in Wallabout, built around 1835, is a fine example of this kind of architecture.
But the architects and builders of the day came up with many interesting variations of the Greek style, which lasted from the 1830s through the 1850s. In Brooklyn, Greek Revival homes could be rowhouses or freestanding, and made of brick, brownstone or wood. Some were a hybrid of styles such as Federal and Greek Revival or, later, Italianate and Greek Revival. The latter are especially plentiful in Brooklyn.
The Greek Revival-style colonnade row
The fanciest examples of the Greek Revival rowhouse style can be found in colonnade rows. There aren’t very many of them left. The two most famous groups are La Grange Terrace, aka Colonnade Row on Lafayette Avenue, across from the Public Theater in Manhattan, and the Willow Place colonnade in Brooklyn Heights.
These houses formed a spectacular streetscape — a long row of houses set back from the street by a running colonnade of wooden or stone columns. The Manhattan houses and columns were marble faced and quite ornate, built for wealthy merchants living in what is now NoHo. Today the row is much reduced, and very much altered, but magnificent still.
The Willow Place colonnade is much simpler than its Manhattan cousin, but still has a charm all its own. The houses, at 43-49 Willow Place, between Joralemon and State streets, are actually small, narrow red brick houses, partially hidden by the long overhanging porches formed by the pairs of simple wooden columns that rise two stories from a raised porch.
They were built towards the end of the Greek Revival period, in 1846. Across the street was once another group of colonnaded houses, but only 46 Willow Place survived, and is in much need of some love.
Williamsburg also has a colonnade row, on Humboldt Street, but it has been much altered over the years.
The beginnings of the Greek Revival style
Brooklyn’s older urban neighborhoods have a great concentration of original Greek Revival Houses from the pre-Civil War period. Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill are full of Greek Revivals.
Because of their simplicity and lack of fancy ornament, the facades make a comeback in the 1880s, when developers were building cheaper one and two-family brick row houses all throughout Brooklyn, but these are not true Greek Revivals.
Architectural historians credit architect and planner Andrew Jackson Davis for the Greek Revival style in New York. He probably designed La Grange Terrace and was famous for his ideas on Greek-style temple-fronts in suburban settings.
Most of the independent builder/developers working during this time acted as their own architects. They worked from designs printed in style books, some by Davis, as well as other contemporary architects such as Brooklyn’s own Minard Lefever, who published the Modern Builder’s Guide in 1833. Another important pattern book author of the period was Asher Benjamin.
Because these builders were free to design as they wanted, there are many varieties of the Greek Revival house — some fancier, some more economical. But they all share a number of traits.
The anatomy of a Greek Revival rowhouse
The typical Greek Revival rowhouse was built with a brownstone ground floor and red brick above. Many later examples were faced entirely in brownstone. Brownstone, a form of sandstone, was a cheap building material, as the quarries were in New Jersey and other nearby locations. Greek Revival rowhouses could also be wood, as at 133 Carlton Avenue, 71 Vanderbilt Avenue, and 73 Vanderbilt Avenue in Wallabout.
Like the Federal style that preceded it, the Greek Revival row house relied on uniformity on the block: The sum was greater than each individual home. But unlike the later Italianate townhouses, the Greek Revival house went for quiet elegance — even if it was on a budget.
Greek Revivals have slightly pitched to the back flat rooflines — they got rid of the Federal dormers. Some houses had small attic windows instead. A frieze band of windows or shorter third-story windows are an identifying feature of some Greek Revival houses.
They also have tall parlor floor windows, many of which drop to the floor. They accent the taller ceilings on the parlor floors, especially in the houses built for upscale buyers.
In order to accentuate the unified street appearance, in general, the window sills and lintels are simple slabs of stone, and lie flat against the houses, with no protrusions.
Only the door enframement and the stoop project out from the houses. The doorways are set back, allowing for a heavy door frame with columns supporting a pediment. Depending on price, these columns were flat wooden pilasters, or fancier fluted columns. Some houses, like 20-26 Willow Street, have Federal-style sidelights and transoms.
Most of the ornament went into the stoop railings and the front fencing. Cast iron was readily available after the 1830s, and many Greek Revival houses made the most of it. Houses from this period sometimes have fancy cast iron framed porches and verandahs, and the iron balconies that span the width of the windows on the parlor floor.
The houses are capped by a simple wooden cornice, accented with simple dentils or slightly fancier brackets. The important design element was a play on light and shadow and texture.
Some houses, especially for the wealthy, like Cobble Hill’s 340 Clinton Street, are a bit fancier. This mansion had a mansard roof added later, as well as more Italianate-leaning lintels.
The Greek Revival house interior
The relative simplicity of the exterior carries through to the interior, where rooms and layouts are relatively simple and austere with graceful proportions. Walls were simple plaster, with no wainscoting, just a simple chair rail or plain baseboard.
The floors were wide-planked hardwood. Parquet was not yet in vogue, but rugs and floor cloths could be laid. The fanciness on the parlor floors was in the doorways, ceilings and mantles. Like the tall windows, the parlor doors were also very tall, and in wealthier homes were made of exotic woods like mahogany or rosewood. The door frames were often quite ornate, with columns flanking the entrances.
The sliding pocket door comes into its own during this period, and allows for a large double entrance between parlor rooms. When open, it created a spacious pass-through from the front to the back of the house.
The ceilings in Greek Revival homes could be quite ornate, even in middle class homes. Plasterwork abounds, in the form of ornate coved ceilings, with egg-and-dart and dentil motifs, and later in the style, more ornate floral and classical patterns. At the center of the room was a heavily carved, and very ornate center medallion from which hung a chandelier.
By the late 1830s, the Industrial Revolution had perfected mass production of these elements. Some were plaster, cast from molds. Some were wood. The less expensive examples were made of a lighter and cheaper papier-mâché, covered with plaster.
Fireplace mantels were also quite ornate, depending on budget, and were no longer the Federal wooden paneled fireplaces. Marble was the material de jour, with the more expensive black and gold veined marbles especially popular. Most homes had a cheaper light grey marble, and rooms not on the parlor floor often had even cheaper marble, oiled slate, or wooden mantles.
Moldings around doors and windows may have been simple square moldings, or a variation on these known as “ear” moldings, which protrude slightly at the top of the sides.
Because of the austerity of the style, Greek Revival is often a favorite with contemporary architects. Its simplicity is often mistaken for insignificant detail or lack of original detail by renovators.
The end of Greek Revival rowhouses
The Greek Revival style lasted a little more than 20 years. By the middle of the 1850s, people were tired of it. They began to complain that it was too “pagan,” as the buildings of ancient Greece were no longer suitable to a “Christian nation.” Temple-front building were especially prone to such criticism.
In reality, those temples were expensive to build, so any excuse to find something new was welcomed. By this time, Brooklyn was booming, and a new building style had emerged — the brownstone Italianate.
Today, the Greek Revival style is very popular with those who love the modern-looking, wide open spaces of the style. For many, it is the best of townhouse living.
The large high-ceiling rooms on the parlor floor are as close to open plan layouts as you can get without tearing down walls. The wide double doors between the back and front parlors enable one to see from the front to the back of the house, with lots of light and air.
The wide-plank floors are very much in style, and are also much simpler than later ornate parquet. If desired, the simplicity of the other rooms on other floors also lends to a more modern renovation and lifestyle. The simplicity of the brick facades can also mean less money spent in façade maintenance.
While less famous than the later Italianate brownstone, Brooklyn’s Greek Revival houses greatly add to the variety and individuality of our neighborhoods.