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Reading 3: Classical Precedents
Why did Americans of the early national period so admire the classical buildings of the ancient Romans and Greeks? In essence, they believed they were shaping a form of government which had not been seen since the time of the great Roman Republic when power resided with the Senate. By today's definition, a republic refers to a form of government in which the power resides with the voting citizens and is exercised by their chosen representatives. When the nation was first founded, however, republicanism meant much more: it rejected the idea of a monarchy, the form of government of Great Britain and most other nations of the time; and it held to the belief that liberty was more important than political power. The nation's founders believed a republic would balance liberty and power to the benefit of citizens. They saw close parallels between republican Rome and the United States. The buildings constructed by the Romans served as useful models for the architects of the new republic. These new buildings reflected what they believed to be Rome's greatness.
In 1762, Englishmen James Stuart and Nicholas Revett published The Antiquities of Athens, a book of sketches that eventually greatly influenced architecture in the United States. The authors had traveled to Greece and studied many of its ancient buildings. For many years, their sketches made little impact, however, because it was believed that Greece was just one of several imitators of the classical style created by Romans. However, new research demonstrated that classical forms actually had originated in Greece. Greece also was where the concepts of liberty and democracy had flourished. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had given way to the brutal Roman Empire. Many people now began to accept the idea that ancient Greek architecture, with its emphasis on simplicity, symmetry, and balance, represented Greek ideas of government and, therefore, was appropriate for a nation that believed power belonged to the people, not to an individual ruler. The Neoclassical or Greek Revival Style based on the buildings of ancient Greece now was adopted by architects across the country for use in public buildings such as State Houses and courthouses. The Greek Revival Style dominated American architecture between 1820 and 1840.
As state governments became more confident in their abilities to manage public affairs, they wanted impressive buildings in which to govern. North Carolina was not to escape this wave of patriotic emotion spreading across the country. The main designers of the existing North Carolina capitol, Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, used drawings found in Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens. Most of the capitol's architectural details--columns, moldings, ornamental plasterwork, and anthemion (honeysuckle) crown on the dome--were carefully patterned after features of particular ancient Greek temples.
The North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh has been a source of pride to North Carolinians for more than 150 years. Its attractive architectural style and high quality construction testified to the ambitions of a state that saw itself as somewhat of a backwater region. One view published in The Raleigh Star claimed that: "Henceforth our youth may never need to roam The arts to study, better seen at home."1
Questions for Reading 3
1. What publication influenced the popularity of Greek Revival architecture in America?
2. Do you think Greek Revival architecture was an appropriate style for public buildings in North Carolina and the rest of America? Why or why not?
3. Do you think many people in 1840 or today know of the specific Greek structures from which many design elements of the North Carolina State House were borrowed? Do you think knowledge of the Greek styles is necessary to appreciate the building? Why or why not?
Reading 3 was compiled from Russel Blaine Nye, The Cultural Life of a New Nation, 1776-1830 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960); John L. Sanders, "The North Carolina State House and Capitol, 1792-1972," unpublished manuscript, North Carolina State House Archives, 1972; and Jack Zehmer and Sherry Ingram, "Capitol" (Wake County, North Carolina) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1970.
1The Raleigh Star, 3 April, 1839.