American architecture: Neoclassicism


Toward the end of the colonial period, architectural styles based on a more precise study of ancient Roman and Greek buildings were beginning to appear in Europe. This shift in taste coincided with the American Revolution, and the neoclassical style became closely identified with the political values of the young republic. In interior decoration, the Adam style (see Adam, Robert), as it was then popularly known in England, was soon translated to American use through the pattern books of Asher Benjamin.

A more monumental aesthetic, which became known as the Federal style, was typical of the work of Charles Bulfinch in Boston and of Samuel McIntire in Salem, both of whom were among the growing number of native-born designers. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave serious thought to architecture and were deeply involved in the planning and building of Washington, D.C. Both statesmen looked to the classical world as the best source of inspiration. Jefferson's conception of the Roman ideals of beauty and proportion was elegantly expressed in his design for the Virginia state capitol at Richmond (1785–89).

Architecture, previously the domain of gentlemen amateurs and master builders, became increasingly professionalized in the first half of the 19th cent. The field was also greatly enhanced by the arrival of several European architects, including the English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Architectural books continued to exert considerable influence as well. The later pattern books of Asher Benjamin and those of Minard Lafever spread the taste for classicism beyond the major cities of the east coast to the hinterlands.

The South built great mansions during the antebellum period, often with two-story colonnades, such as Dunleith Plantation in Natchez, Miss. (c.1848). In both port cities and small towns there was a subtle shift in taste from the earlier Roman-based classicism to Greek sources. Prominent Greek revival buildings of the period include William Strickland's Merchant's Exchange in Philadelphia (1832–34) and Robert Mills's Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. (1836–42).

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