Style is appearance. It is a public, not a private, quality. It seeks to impart and impress. The word comes from a sharp instrument of the sort reinstituted for the first time since the cuneiform by computer makers in the late twentieth century to imprint an impression upon a portable device. Where Babylonians used styluses to make themselves understood upon clay tablets in ancient Mesopotamia, styluses are now employed to record e-mail messages on PDAs (personal digital assistants). It is a pleasure to consider the first inscriber of Gilgamesh with a PalmPilot and thus to be led to the use of style in architecture. It inscribes as well. It is employed by architects to impart those messages to the public that clients want to impart, about who those clients want to be thought to be.
the emergence of style
Style became important in the early American Republic as an assertion not only of what individuals wanted to be thought to be, but to give an impression of the new nation itself. The messages of earlier structures were associated with continuing cultures, either those in place when the Europeans arrived or those brought with the invaders. Generally speaking, these were astylar, less concerned with meaning than with utility, but there were exceptions. The temples, palaces, and assembly halls of the Native Americans no doubt were intended to impress. Why otherwise set them so high as Monks Mound at Cahokia, in Illinois, or paint them, as in the Southeast, or wall them and rear them so great, as at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico? And a person does not paint the skins that bind a portable habitation unless that person wishes to say something—to make use of what the French call an architecture parlante—a talking architecture. So a Cheyenne tepee may, indeed, have a style.
But that is not what one ordinarily means by the term. One means something that speaks in a European language and fits into the taxonomy of European variations in setting large personae before the public. For example, the Spaniards made use of a Vitruvian and Serlian set of precedents in asserting their presence as a Mediterranean culture in Florida, Texas and California. There is no mistaking the Roman style of the great domed brick churches in the bottom of the Satevo Canyon in Mexico or at San Xavier del Bac in Arizona. Spanish designers imagined how the buildings described by the Roman writer Vitruvius (first century b.c.) might have looked, and from their imaginary buildings came the temple forms suggested as pilastered hieroglyphs on the facades of their mission at Santa Barbara, California, and of their governor's house at St. Augustine, Florida. The Spanish Habsburgs and Bourbons sometimes thought of themselves as new Romans. Certainly their captains acted like Romans. Earlier, the Norse at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland seem to have contented themselves with sod structures as functional as the wicker wigwams of the first Pilgrims at Plymouth, but after 1620 or so the British were eagerly conveying by style their intention to remain and urbanize as soon as they could emerge from dugouts, cabins, brush-and-wicker wigwams, and "soddies." Jamestown had London-style town houses. By 1780 sections of Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York looked as much like middle-class areas of Bristol as sections of St. Augustine looked like middle-class sections of Havana or Cádiz.
As habitual architecture continued in city and country, the French West Indian way of building piazzas along the front of buildings came to the Mississippi Valley and the shores of the Gulf Coast and a Hispanic American way appeared along the rivers of the Southwest and Florida. Log cabins were created by Swedes and Finns along the Delaware, probably not so much to assert a style as to keep out the weather, and soon thereafter came ambitious framed-and-filled buildings in wood-building colonies and brick buildings where there was good clay and an acquaintance with masonry. Style bespoke a deliberate effort to impress. Size was important, of course, but at first not shape. Church spires marked style, writing instruments pointing upward toward the heavens, but the buildings bearing them often did not. Only fancy gables, curvilinear or stepped, did so, especially in Dutch trading towns seeking to state affinities to Amsterdam or Antwerp. Nonetheless, until about 1700, buildings were indistinguishable style by style among the colonies of the North Sea peoples. Barbados looked like Boston.
Dark, gabled, jumbled buildings were constructed large and small in the Northeast; simple, timber-framed cottages in the middle colonies; and in the port cities, row houses and tenements. When the number of gables diminished and buildings settled into symmetry, discernable style was setting in. The
persistence of medieval qualities in verticality, in grouped chimneys, and in a few windows pointed at the top was probably accidental—the Gothic Revival came in the 1830s and 1840s, after a break for classicism and in reaction to it.
The term "colonial" should be reserved for buildings that explicitly assert the dominance of an outside force; the word means farmlike, but in the context of this essay it means a place farmed for somebody else's benefit. Like "plantation," it was first applied to the English exploitation of Ireland and is not to be used carelessly. Nonetheless, considering the ways in which they were built and by whom, it is proper to say that the Santa Barbara Mission church is in the Spanish colonial, or Hispano-Vitruvian style; that the fortress of Quebec is French colonial; and that the white churches with Roman temple fronts and stacks of Roman gadgets ascending steeples in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston are in the British colonial style. The fundamental designs of the latter style were those of Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) and James Gibbs (1682–1754), architects of a triumphant, imperial British baroque. Its secular forms can be distantly observed at in Virginia at Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary, and also in Philadelphia at what became Independence Hall.
The most familiar domestic colonial buildings of the British eighteenth century are not derived from the Hellenistic or Roman Imperial of the baroque, but from a sort of demure and almost Puritan urban merchants' tradition. They are the tidy, red brick, and severe row town houses, often called Georgian when they have white wooden trim set primly into
red brick facades. It could be argued that the architectural influence of the merchant class that prospered under Kings George I (r. 1714–1727), II (r. 1727–1760), and III (r. 1760–1820) extended beyond 1776, but these were not architecturally sophisticated monarchs like George IV (r. 1820–1830). There are large Georgian manor houses in Virginia and Maryland plus one late example southeast of Pittsburgh, but they were not exemplary farther south and west until their style was revived in the 1920s and 1930s.
There is very little in the United States to suggest the more ebullient British styles of the colonial period. Few colonials could afford garlands, swags, and putti. Some very prudent and whitewashed Adamish plasterwork can be seen in George Washington's dining room at Mount Vernon, his sister's parlor ceiling at Fredericksburg, and the tiny pavilion of John Penn (1760–1834) (later included within the Philadelphia Zoo), and one or two other Philadelphia houses, but that is about it. The Scottish brothers Robert Adam (1728–1792) and James Adam (1730–1794) worked in the Gothic as well as in their more familiar garlanded classicism, but not with any American consequences.
Yet in lightening things up the Adam brothers did contribute to the Federal style after independence. (There is no Federalist style in the political sense—the Federalists and Jeffersonians had the same architectural tastes.) The Federal style bespoke a new nation, but it did so in forms that were indistinguishable from styles of the same time in England, Russia, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and France. Lighter, more pastel-colorful, glassier, and distinctly more suburban than the colonial style, the Federal was the work of French designers such as Pierre Pharoux, the Mangin Brothers, and Joseph Jacques Ramée (1764–1842), the Irish architect-contractors John McComb (1763–1853) and James Hoban (c. 1762–1831), the
West Indian Dr. William Thornton (1759–1828), and the English architects George Hadfield (1763–1826) and Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), the most influential of them all. Had the French designers remained at home, their buildings would have been called Directoire or Napoleonic; Latrobe and Hadfield worked in the Regency style at home and abroad. Latrobe's Gothic villa at Sedgley is gone, as are his villas for Richmond, Virginia. His masterpiece, the Baltimore cathedral, remains, as do his wonderful Federal-style bank in New Orleans, his interiors in the U.S. Capitol (his Federal dome is gone), and a handful of villas outside Washington.
Hadfield's imprint is stronger on the nation's capital. Overlooking Washington was Arlington House, the first Greek Revival building in the nation, a little ahead of its time. In Washington he designed the more characteristically Regency-style City Hall, later the District Courts Building. Thornton was a medical doctor, chief of the Patent Office from 1802 to 1828, and a gifted amateur architect. His Octagon House is the sort of thing Robert Adam might have done for a friend on a tight budget in a tight site; his Tudor Place shows how French was the prevailing Federal taste. Its color is especially instructive, a pale yellow, the color that its counterpart, Gore Place, in Waltham, Massachusetts, would have had if it had been built instead just outside Paris. The Mangin Brothers, in association with John McComb, provided New York its Federal-style City Hall, lighter and more French than Hadfield's for Washington, and Marc Isambard Brunel (1769–1849) showed that a plain English country house could be remodeled into the brassy French baroque for Aaron Burr at Marble Hill, in the West Village.
Generally, however, the Federal may have been cheerier than the Georgian, but it was still earnest and sober by contrast. Even among the newly rich privateering class on Beacon Hill in Boston and Baltimore, there was none of the fanlit, coved-ceilinged, plasterworked, flamboyant Regency of Dublin.
This Federal style was sustained into the 1820s in upstate New York by Ramée, best known for Union College at Schenectady, built in the form of a great French château and the first American campus to be constructed around a rotunda. The University of Virginia was the second. The Federal style is best exemplified, however, in republican country houses, whose builders have returned to anonymity, though their forms and details are based upon pattern books devised by identifiable architects. They are breezier than their colonial predecessors, often displaying fanlights and patterned sidelights to lighten up doorways as well as windows enlarged vertically. A few are more ambitious, making use of Adamesque coves above doors and windows and plastered exteriors in the white, yellow, and salmon that has too often been sandblasted away to bring them back to the hotter-selling red-brick Georgian. The English-inclining Alsops at Middletown, Connecticut, the French-inclining Gores at Waltham, Massachusetts, and the Prussian-inclining Whitfields at Gaineswood in Demopolis, Alabama, built Federal-style villas irrespective of their dates.
Three more decades passed after independence before a full-tilt Greco-Roman style surged into national popularity. When it came it was the architecture of Manifest Destiny. Of the few porticoed buildings constructed in the United States prior to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, only Arlington House carried Greek proportions. The Greek Revival that came with Jackson was largely Roman and appropriately imperial.
gothic revival and italianate styles
At the time there was, in a minor key, a Gothic Revival as well. Latrobe's foray into the Gothic had no more immediate consequences for American architectural style than did Hadfield's Greek at Arlington House, but after 1830 or so residential buildings and churches began to take on asymmetrical massing; pointed windows; crockets; finials; decorated, vine-like boards along their eaves; and a generally steeper look. To the extent that the signage of the two styles—their intended messages—can be distinguished, the Gothic Revival spoke to the "homewhispering" nostalgia of the Anglophile literary class of the 1830s and 1840s, and the Greco-Roman to its militantly American political class. The Gothic was assertively nativist, directed oddly enough against Irish Catholics. The Irish had, of course, as often built in the Gothic as the English. Yet in the United States they did not do so until the 1850s. When the Catholic squirearchy of Maryland laid up the first cathedral church in the early American Republic, it eschewed exotic forms like the Gothic, and Bishop John Carroll (1735–1815) rejected that alternative when it was offered by Latrobe. So the cathedral in Baltimore appeared in the Federal-Regency, neoclassical style. Thereafter, hundreds of Anglican Gothic churches went up. Finally, the Irish Catholics of New York insisted upon their own version at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Nobody seemed to notice that its prototypes were as French as those for the first St. Patrick's, down on Mott Street, which by then had burned down.
In addition, by the 1830s two varieties of Italianate style were beginning to follow American tourists homeward. The first was the Tuscan villa, with a square tower, brackets under the eaves, asymmetry, and round-arched windows. The second was the Renaissance palazzo style, cubical, also with brackets and round-arched windows, higher ceiling heights than had been common in the Greek or Gothic, considerably more plate glass, and symmetrical facades. Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia went Italianate in a rush. So did San Francisco; Chicago; Red Wing, Minnesota; and Savannah. It was no longer a new Republic, but an older one, with a leisure class desiring to be fashionable and to show that it had been "abroad."
The so-called battle of the styles occurred in mid-century, when the nation grew confused, divided, and sent mixed messages to itself and the rest of the world. Then Abraham Lincoln gave it a New Birth of Freedom and saw to it that the dome was set in place atop the Capitol—and a statue of Liberty set atop the dome, where the world, and the Confederate Army, could see it.
Morrison, Hugh. Early American Architecture, from the First Colonial Settlements to the National Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Pierson, William H., Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects. Vol. 1, The Colonial and Neo-classical Styles. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1976.
——. American Buildings and Their Architects. Vol. 2, Technology and the Picturesque: The Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1980.