Philadelphia And The Greek Revival The Prominent Style Said Much About The Character Of A Developing Nation.

Posted: October 15, 1989

During the 1950s and 1960s, when the so-called international style of architecture was ascendant, it became very difficult to tell buildings apart. A city hall might look just like an office building, a hospital, a school or a hotel. Some such buildings were better than others, but all showed their structure, had plenty of glass and attempted to address the facts of modern life with efficiency, up-to-date materials and an aesthetic free of historical forms.

While a few architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe supreme among them, designed magnificent buildings in this style, it is tempting to see the universality of the international style as a symptom of Americans' withdrawal

from public life. Though many architects shared the belief that modern style was the only honest way to build, the stripped-down public buildings that resulted helped convince the rest of us that everything truly important was to be found in the American family's home.

Today, we tend to build structures that are as arbitrary in their eccentricity as buildings of the last generation were in their sameness; and as we once stripped down old buildings to make them look up-to-date, now we add things on. Yet architects do this guiltily, perhaps with a sense of uneasiness that they are making landscapes of delusion. Some are nostalgic for a time when they could be confident that one style fit all.

In fact, such a strong consensus has been rare in our history. One would probably have to go back to the second quarter of the 19th century, the era of the Greek revival, to find anything quite like it. The temple form, with columns across the entire facade, was considered appropriate for banks, churches, schools, charitable institutions and even private homes.

There is a certain symmetry between these two universal styles, for just as the international style speaks of the absence of a civic environment, the Greek revival seems to be trying to will one into being.

Local buildings from that period - such as the Second Bank of the United States in the 400 block of Chestnut Street; the Merchants Exchange at Walnut and Dock Streets; the Naval Home on Grays Ferry Avenue (all designed by Willian Strickland); Girard College on Girard Avenue and Corinthian Street; Andalusia, Nicholas Biddle's country seat on the Delaware River (both by Thomas U. Walter); St. George's Cathedral on Eighth Street south of Locust, and the Atwater Kent Museum on Seventh Street south of Market (both by John Haviland) - were and are architectural statements of national importance.

Philadelphia had what many considered to be America's first Greek revival building, Benjamin Latrobe's long-ago demolished Bank of Pennsylvania, built in 1799, and it also has the last - the immense, derelict Ridgeway Library at Broad and Catharine Streets, completed in 1877.

Today, many of the buildings of the Greek revival have a mysterious appearance. The most engaging ones are the ones that are least literally Greek, such as the Merchants Exchange, with its round colonnade and somnolent lions, or the Naval Home, a proto-motel with nautical trim. But even these buildings, along with the more literal temple-form structures, stand out more than most old buildings.

They have the air of having been left by a civilization wholly different

from our own. That this seems truer in Philadelphia than elsewhere must be ascribed in part to the extreme susceptibility of our local Schuylkill marble to air pollution. But there is also a quality of abstractness, at once cold and naive. One has a sense that these edifices are not simply buildings but embodiments of an idea.

Once you make that seemingly obvious observation, the trouble begins. Just what was the idea? The American Greek revival has little to do with archaeology, little relationship with the Greek liberation efforts that so engaged the English romantics. What were the people who built these very similar buildings for very dissimilar purposes really trying to tell one another? And what did they really say?

If these are the sorts of questions that pique your interest, you will probably enjoy looking at a book that was unveiled here last week as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's convention. It is Greek Revival America, a richly illustrated, physically imposing, absurdly expensive ($85) production, written by Roger G. Kennedy, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, and published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

I'm not saying that you will find answers in the book, but at least Kennedy, unlike some others who have tackled this architecture, is not afraid to ask the questions. In his earlier book, Architecture, Men, Women and Money, Kennedy - asking the rude question, "How did they pay for it?" - cast a fresh light on early American buildings.

In this book, he again concentrates on the patrons rather than the architects. Such a concentration on clients seems particularly appropriate when you consider that although none of the major Greek revival architects had ever traveled to Greece, Nicholas Biddle, who was directly responsible for four of the local buildings noted above and whose influence was wide-ranging, had spent time there.

The traditional explanation for the rise of Greek revival in the United States is that in the early years of the republic, people felt alienation from England, where fashions had previously been set, along with identification with the democratic ideas of ancient Athens. That Athens was also a slave- holding society was presumably reassuring to those in the South, where the colonnaded mansion reached its most elaborate form.

As Kennedy points out, this explanation conveniently ignores about four decades. The architecture and decoration of the first decades of American independence are known as the federal period, which Kennedy views as drab, depressing and half-hearted. Anyone who saw the revelatory "Federal Philadelphia" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art two years ago might question this characterization, and I suspect that most contemporary Americans would choose a federal-style house and furniture over Greek revival. However, one can see that the English-influenced anti-Englishness had gone on for too long and was at a dead end.

The Greek revival did not start to take hold until nearly all the Founding Fathers had died. This last fact begins to suggest an explanation. Though there had been significant revivals of Greek architecture in the early decades of the century in Germany, France, Russia and Scotland, it did not take hold here until the arrival of a new generation of leaders, one that had grown up as part of an independent United States.

They were not sons of founders, but grandsons. They started new businesses and set the country on the road to economic potency. They wore their pants tight. They put stone columns in front of their buildings.

Politically, the change came with Andrew Jackson, a generation-straddling old general whose experience under fire brought a dose of reassurance to what had to be a time of change.

Although Kennedy argues that the Greek revival symbolized much of what Jackson also represented, he shows that the style itself was the expression of Old Hickory's adversaries. Jackson was a Democrat, but a map of the distinguished buildings of the Greek revival would be similar to one of areas that habitually voted for the Whigs.

And, of course, Biddle, the most prominent patron of and propagandist for the Greek revival, was also Jackson's antagonist in the "wars" over the Bank of the United States. Biddle lost the political and financial battle, but Kennedy suggests that he won the aesthetic battle and that he wouldn't have counted that a total loss.

Clearly, one of the attractions of the style was the impression of stability, something that was heightened when the material used was white marble. Biddle, sitting in his gleaming, impregnable temple on Chestnut Street, was overconfident. The architecture spoke of an institutional permanence that was illusory, though the building itself still stands.

By identifying Greek revival as a politically significant style, and then saying that it was best embodied by the political nemesis of those who advocated it, Kennedy gets himself in a terrible tangle. The book itself turns out to be a set of loose ends, linked by handsome pictures, and it does not provide the incisive analysis that it seems to promise.

Yet, you can see what Kennedy is driving at. These temple-fronted buildings are artifacts of consciously-created confidence. And though Jackson did not have to try so hard to be sure of himself, his administration does seem a turning point in Americans' sense of themselves.

Public cockiness can mask inner insecurities, of course. With a handful of exceptions, most notably Girard College, Greek revival buildings in the North are not surrounded by columns on all four sides, while many of the great plantation houses of the South are. Though this peripheral porch form does have antecedents in Creole cottages of the Caribbean, Kennedy does not find this explanation sufficient. He sees the house surrounded by its white columns as a place where the woman is, at once, imprisoned and empowered, as one commentator said, like a spider in a cage.

And though styles are, by definition, short-lived, the tensions that finally produced the Civil War showed that the Greek revival's assertion of permanence and perfection was, at best, premature. Architecture is a way in which a culture understands itself, but it doesn't always tell itself the whole truth.

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