Traditional Building Portfolio



Grecian Ohio

In the first of an occasional series on regional styles, a local architect and historian argues that the early architecture of Ohio represents a vital chapter of American architectural history.
By William Heyer

Sidebar: Recognizing Grecian Architecture

Ohio's early architecture is at the heart of a mature American Classicism linking the life of our expanding nation with the beauty and timelessness of ancient Greece. Throughout the 17th state are many fine examples of an energetic, intelligent Classicism that continues to inspire a new generation of architects and designers.

Ohio grew dramatically after the American Revolution and settlers came from every one of the original colonies with high ideals and determination. Many walked from New England and Philadelphia, PA, lured by news of the interior country's fertile ground and other natural resources. By 1840, with the help of a growing canal system, Ohio was the third wealthiest and third most populous state. Even by 1820, Ohio could boast of its multicultural population represented by newcomers from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In fact, the southwest portion of Ohio was set aside for Virginia's Revolutionary War veterans and the northern portion was set aside for Connecticut as part of the Western Reserve.

In the first half of the 19th century, Grecian architecture was blooming in the East. Formed by the rediscovery of ancient Greece and the subsequent publication of its ancient monuments, architects like Benjamin Latrobe in Philadelphia, Alexander Jackson Davis in New York City and William Jay in Savannah, GA, helped the Grecian movement become an American phenomenon, which eventually permeated the country as our first national architecture. Ohio settlers brought this nascent movement with them and many of the leading Grecian architects eventually settled in the new western states: William Strickland in Nashville, TN, Francis Costigan in southern Indiana and Isaiah Rogers in Cincinnati, OH. Others are recorded as building here: Minard Lafever, Thomas U. Walter, Davis and Latrobe. By the 1830s and '40s, Ohio was an important workshop of Classicism. Talbot Hamlin, in his landmark book Greek Revival Architecture in America (Dover Publications, 1964) notes that in Ohio, "the result architecturally was a happy cross-fertilization, evident even in the early period. Inventiveness and novelty were as much a part of the picture as was traditional building."

The Ohio Statehouse in Columbus (1838-1861) is considered one of the most important Grecian structures of the 19th century. Designed by a series of architects after a national competition, this Doric temple to democracy and good taste is a powerful tribute to America's idealism and identity as successor to Greece and Rome. What makes the building so memorable is its use of bold Classical forms expressing the strength, economy and timelessness of good government. The front (west) octostylos in antis portico (i.e., recessed porch with eight columns between antae, or square piers attached to the walls) is a reference to the Parthenon, while the large rectangular mass of the building alludes to the temple form with its use of continuous Doric pilasters, entablature, triglyphs and metopes around the perimeter. The western pediment "floating" above the entablature completes the temple reference and draws the eye to a unique cupola designed by William West and completed by Isaiah Rogers. Many wonder why it has no dome. This cupola, in fact, was designed as a Greek tholos: a circular temple of antiquity with a conical roof. The tholos and interior rotunda, following tradition, honor a sacred person or idea. Here, they signify and memorialize good democratic government, eternal and sacred to the people. The interior Roman rotunda in combination with the Grecian exterior reflects an impressive understanding of the unifying nature of Classicism. The simple yet inventive composition of the Ohio Statehouse makes it one of the most monumental Classical structures in the country.

In contrast to the statehouse, most Ohio Grecian buildings are found not in Columbus or other large cities but in the small towns throughout the state. Lancaster, just to the southeast of Columbus, is one example. On a central hill in Lancaster known as Square 13 – with street names of those of downtown Philadelphia – is an exemplary concentration of Federal and Grecian homes. Because of the transitional timeframe in which it was built (1810-1850), Lancaster is an interesting model of a hybrid transition from Federal to Grecian architecture. The Reese-Peters House (1834), for example, is based on the massing of Philadelphia Grecian townhouses yet has Federal motifs like the window lintels and a curious entry portico – exactly the portico by Benjamin that appeared in his pattern book The Practice of Architecture (1833). In this portico, the Corinthian entablature is supported by composite columns, an elegant Roman addition. Much of the interior detailing derives from plates in Lafever's Modern Builders Guide (1833), another popular reference for Ohio's Grecian builders. Benjamin's playfulness and Lafever's elegance, as delineated in these pattern books, elevated this house and much of Ohio architecture during the transition from Federal to Grecian.

The transitional period gave way to mature Grecian designs in the 1840s and '50s. The Avery Downer House in Granville (1842), designed by Lafever, stands today as one of America's finest Grecian buildings. It is a wood-framed temple-form house with an Ionic two-story central portico modeled directly on the Temple of the Illisus in Athens – drawings of which were found in James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's Antiquities of Athens (1762) and in various American pattern books of the 1830s. The Doric wings of the house are modeled directly on the Temple of Hephaestos in Athens, and the frontispiece combines the entablature of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus and the capitals of the Corinthian Tower of the Winds in Athens – both also found in Grecian pattern books of the day. In the end, the Avery Downer House – at once Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – stands as the preeminent example of Ohio Grecian architecture.

Connecticut's Western Reserve in the northern part of the state spans from the eastern border across more than half of Ohio. Here, the Grecian movement also found fertile ground. The Presbyterian Female Seminary (1847) in Norwalk, some 60 miles west of Cleveland, is a unique religious building designed on church models from Grecian pattern books. The front Ionic distylos in antis portico (i.e., two columns between antae) is strikingly similar to churches designed by Lafever and Benjamin. The interior is now a residence but the current owner has carefully retained elements of the old seminary, including original door casings, newels, bases and exquisite timber roof trusses. This builing, thankfully, has been fully measured and recorded by South Bend, IN-based architect Thomas Gordon Smith and students of the University of Notre Dame's School of Architecture. It stands today as another model of Ohio's inventive Classicism.

Not far away in Brownhelm, OH, near Lake Erie and about 40 miles west of Cleveland, lies a foundation marking the place where the Joseph Swift House (1840), an important addition to the Ohio Grecian tradition, once stood. The form is remarkable as an Ohio one-story Grecian farmhouse with beautiful Ionic proportions and intercolumniations in antis and an atypical floor plan. The window surrounds on either end of the front elevation reveal a Grecian design only found elsewhere in designs of Lafever, although there is no direct evidence of his involvement. As Swift was originally from Massachusetts, he, like Avery of Granville, would have known the work of Lafever and may well have called on him to design his new home in Ohio. A learned man and successful farmer, Swift exemplified the agrarian and Classical ideals of the early Republic, which he honored in the design of his Grecian temple home. Tragically, it burned to the ground in the 1920s, but rare photographs and drawings still exist and the Western Reserve Library in Cleveland preserves historical abstracts that tell the history of Swift and his important house.

An oft-bypassed aspect of Ohio Grecian architecture is the fusion of Gothic and Grecian forms in the 1840s and '50s. Inventive examples of this hybrid architecture leave one quite comfortable with young Ohio's ability to speak several languages of architecture simultaneously. The Masonic Temple, built in Lancaster in 1845, is Grecian in form with a temple front and a frontispiece modeled on the Thrasyllus monument in Athens; yet it has large Gothic arched windows at the nave. This Classical temple, with Gothic elements, is still based on primary sources from Athens, giving it stature above later Victorian excesses where forms become almost unrecognizable. Examples of this hybridization abound in Ohio (including the Congregational Church in Atwater [1841]), revealing the influence of Christopher Wren's own hybrid designs, such as St. Clement Danes in London.

Many other examples of thoughtful Grecian architecture can be found throughout the state – courthouses in Dayton and Mount Vernon and houses in Chillicothe, Milan, Lebanon, etc. No article could offer enough space to tell the story of them all, but a partial listing can be found in a sidebar to this article. It is highly recommended that readers review these. A closer look at many of them will reveal the beauty of Ohio architecture within the Classical tradition.

Ohio's Grecian architecture played an essential role in defining American architecture during the 19th century. The concentration of richly inventive Classicism based on Greek precedent by leading architects and builders of the day – I dare to say – cannot be found anywhere so much as here. And it is for this reason that Ohio takes its place at the heart of Classical America.  



Use this tool to search for specific individuals, architectural firms, and
feature topics.
Advertising Information | Privacy Policy

Traditional Building Period Homes Traditional Building Portfolio traditional product galleries traditional product reports
rexbilt Tradweb Traditional Building Conference Palladio Awards

Copyright 2014. Active Interest Media. All Rights Reserved.