Ask Rufus: The Coming of Greek Revival

 

Franklin Square is a ca. 1835 Greek Revival home on Third Avenue North. The style’s elements of symmetry and a tripartite entrance are clearly shown by the house.

Franklin Square is a ca. 1835 Greek Revival home on Third Avenue North. The style’s elements of symmetry and a tripartite entrance are clearly shown by the house. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Not all Greek Revival houses were large mansions. Ashlawn on Fifth Avenue South is a cottage constructed in the Greek Revival style during the 1830s.

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

When people think of antebellum homes in the South it is generally an image of a large Greek Revival style house that comes to mind. The term Greek Revival refers to the attempt to design a house to have the flavor of an ancient Greek temple. The Greek Revival style appears to have originated in England in the 1750s but Georgian (Federal Style in the U.S.) remained more popular. As the new American republic grew during the early 1800s many people viewed its origins as coming out of the ancient democratic form of government in Greece. 

 

America's perceived Greek democratic heritage and the resentment against England after the War of 1812 combined to cause the American public to increasingly prefer a building style reflecting the non-English roots of the new Republic. The Greek Revival style fit this bill. By the 1820s the interest in the Greek heritage of democracy began to be reflected in buildings with elements taken from ancient Greek architecture. 

 

As Columbus was a frontier town in the 1820s, the major shift in architectural taste was slow to take hold. It was beginning to appear around 1830 and by the late 1830s the use of the Greek Revival style was increasingly popular in Columbus. Early homes in the style ranged from Ashlawn an early 1830s cottage on 6th Ave South to Franklin Square an 1835 two story brick mansion on Third Avenue North. 

 

Probably the best example of Columbus' transition into the construction of "classic Greek Revival mansions" is Temple Heights on 9th Sreet North. The house was constructed by Richard Brownrigg about 1839 in the Federal style with a Carolina side-hall floor plan. The house was sold in 1847 to Thomas Harris, who in order to update the house, remolded it into the Greek Revival style. He added the two story Doric columned porches giving the house an appearance reminiscent of a Greek temple. 

 

The Greek Revival style dominated construction in Columbus from ca. 1840 to 1861. According to Ken P'Pool, who I consider a leading authority on Southern architecture, the style "flourished as grandly there (Columbus) as anywhere in the nation." The style in Columbus as elsewhere is typified by being rigidly symmetrical, that is each side of the front of the house is usually a mirror image of the other and has a tripartite entrance with a transom and side-lights around the front door. 

 

One of Columbus' earliest surviving Greek Revival homes is Twelve Gables on Third Street South. While generally associated with the founding of Memorial Day, it is also an excellent example of how a typical traditional house could be converted into the Greek Revival Style simply by the addition of a Greek Revival porch and mill work. The house was constructed about 1837. I have been asked before where the name Twelve Gables came from and it reflects the house's 10 gabled dormers and the two end gables. 

 

Much rarer than antebellum homes are antebellum commercial buildings. In Columbus on Second Avenue North (formerly Military Street which turned toward the river at First Baptist Church) across from the Court House are two excellent surviving examples of antebellum Greek Revival commercial buildings. There is the Harris and Harrison Law Office and next door the Harrison-Whitfield Building. 

 

The Harris and Harrison Law office is the one story Greek Revival building across from the courthouse which Roger Larson used for the Columbus Packet office. It had been built in the early 1840s as a law office. The other building is the three story brick office building next door. It was the Harrison-Whitfield building which was constructed in a simplified Greek Revival style about 1858. For many years it was the Woodmen of the World building with their lodge hall on the third floor. 

 

That building is one of the largest surviving antebellum office buildings in Mississippi. The offices in the Woodmen's Building and others along "Lawyer's Row" were originally sold much like condominium offices are sold today. 

 

The story of the Greek Revival style as used in Columbus is too long to cover in a single column. Of the 22 homes on tour in the first Columbus Pilgrimage in 1940, 17 were either Greek Revival or had significant Greek Revival elements. A follow-up column will deal with the more classic form Greek Revival Buildings of mid 19th Century.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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