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Greek neoclassicism in American architecture

11 August 2009 / 10:08:32  GRReporter
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Earle Shettleworth, the director of Maine Historical Preservation Commission, was born in Portland and got involved in history and cultural heritage preservation while he was still a teenager. He has been on top of the commission since 1976. He had been pronounced the state's best historian twice- in 2004 and in 2008. He is among the most dedicated investigators of Greek neoclassicism in American architecture. Maria Spassova presents an interview with him.

-It is of interest that the Greeks in Maine are not that many; the Greek renaissance architectural style, however, is really common. Would you explain the reason for this phenomenon?

- The peak of Greek renaissance in Maine occurred in the years before the civil war, i.e. between 1830 and 1860. Maine is simply a part of the overall trend in the United States. For those 30-40 years the Greek renaissance is the most popular architectural style. One of the reasons this style had been admired that much is that Greece was considered by the Americans the motherland of democracy and at those times they would associate themselves with it. Let's not forget that at the time America is a very young country and its citizens are proud of their democracy. For a long period of time all public buildings, courts, state government buildings and civil institutions were built in this style. It was believed that because of its history, this style was very appropriate for the construction of such buildings. When in 1821 the Greek independence war takes place, the tension in America is growing even more. Americans show interest in the war and the way it goes since they associate with that war because of their own history and their own independence war in the 70s of 18th century (1775- 1783), this being another reason for the wide presence of the ancient Greek architecture.

- If you have to choose the most beautiful 5 buildings in Greek renaissance style in Maine, which would they be?

- One of the first Greek renaissance buildings in Maine is located in Portland- the Charles Q. Clapp building on "Spring" street, currently part of the Museum of arts in Portland, built in 1832. Next, in Bangor, a big city at that time, is located the building of lieutenant Hatch- really interesting because of its emphra-pro style with doors on both sides of the building resembling a Greek temple. It was built in the same year that Charles Q. Clapp built the house in Portland. If we turn our attention to the impact of Greek renaissance on ecclesiastical construction, the unarguably most beautiful building is the Baptist church in Sedgwick. Built in 1837 by the Bangor architect Benjamin Dean, it is located east- on Blue Hill peninsula. An architect that comes from Blue Hill on the other hand, had created another amazing church in Greek renaissance- the one in Ellsworth's downtown. Both churches have huge entrances to the resemblance of Greek temples, with big wooden pillars and sharply pointed belfries, also in Greek style. I would also include the state government building in Augusta, one of the first in Greek renaissance style in Maine, made by Charles Bulfinch, one of the first big architects of America. The beautiful building can be still seen today, with its impressive Greek entrance and beautiful granite pillars.


- What are the main characteristics of the Greek renaissance architecture, later adopted by the American architecture?

- American constructors and architectures have employed some of the basic motives in ancient Greek architecture, the most popular being the columns of all kinds- Dorian, Corinthian and Ionian style. Another form of this architectural style that can be observed in America are the big wide window moldings, big pieces around the corners and especially the friezes that can be seen in the shape of different elements with Greek nature.

- Can you share some more information on when and how this style arrives in the United States?

- Until the civil war (1861-1865), most of our architectural techniques had been copied from England. In the middle of 18th century two famous architects, James Stuart and Nicolas Revett, went to Athens and studied the architecture of the multiple ancient cultural monuments and later published the information in an impressive series called "The Antiquities of Athens" (the original can be found in "Victoria & Albert" Museum in London). Their book gives English architects, and later American ones, the basics of their work. These volumes contain exact and detailed sketches of each ancient Greek monument and every element that is part of it. In America the first signs of ancient Greek architecture became evident around 1800. In Maine, however, being quite remote, these trends need a couple of decades to appear. This happened between 1830 and 1860. At that time the Greek architectural style, or as it is known here- the Greek renaissance, was mostly promoted in books; less in Stuart and Revett's work than in books from Boston, Massachusetts. The impact of Stuart and Revett can be seen in those books, as well as all elements of their examinations, but the language is more accessible and this makes them a tool in the work of local architects.


- Can you say that certain alterations were made to the Greek renaissance architecture in America in the following years, in order to create a unique local style?

- Although that the Greek renaissance was most popular between the 30s and 60s of 19th century, in the years after the Civil war, the interest towards classical architecture remains- not only the Greek one but also the Roman. At that time we started calling it neoclassicism or Beaux arts, meaning beautiful art. The French term is used to symbolize the use of Greek and Roman classical architecture in the construction of public buildings, churches and schools in France. The Greek impact in American architecture can be seen until the 20th century- the Lincoln memorial being an example. It resembles a Greek temple- by the elements used and by their style, modified and adapted to the American atmosphere. Inspired by the Greek ancient architectures is also the Supreme Court building in Washington, evident in its frontal façade.


- Currently, is this architectural style still popular or has it been left in the past?

- It is very much a part of America's architectural history. Every now and then, however, we can see modern architects using this neo-Greek renaissance. Now it is used for houses more than for public buildings. Some people still prefer the simple classical lines, the symmetry and the balance. They still prefer Greek elements, such as the ones around the doors, around the corners of the building, the wide roof moldings. So, yes, architects continue to use Greek renaissance elements, here in Maine, as well as all over America.

Tags: Greek neoclassicism American architecture
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