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NOLA History: Greek Revival Architecture

Western Civilization has been fascinated with Greek culture and architecture for millennia. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, interest in the Greek style of architecture in Europe and the United States was widespread. Since New Orleans was a French and Spanish city (rather than having British roots) Continental influences were strong, and by the 1820s, many buildings and homes were built in the “Greek Revival” style.

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The Benjamin-Schlesinger house, on Arabella Street in Uptown New Orleans. (Photo courtesy Infrogmation of New Orleans)

Larger Buildings First

The goal of those building in the Greek Revival style was to recreate the glory of Greece’s great temples, such as the Parthenon. Americans building in New Orleans didn’t want temples to gods, so they built temples to the arts, and to democracy.

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Gallier Hall, on St. Charles Avenue. (courtesy the Preservation Resource Center)

Columns are the most visible aspect of the style, so it’s logical that architects and builders constructed larger structures in the Greek Revival style first. Designed by James Gallier, Sr., Gallier Hall located on St. Charles Avenue is an iconic example of the style. Its massive columns and portico that spans the entire front of the building make it an icon in the city. Construction on the building began in 1845, and was in use by city government by 1853. Gallier Hall is still the ceremonial seat of city government. Since it is on St. Charles Avenue, the Mayor and other dignitaries regularly greet the various monarchs of Carnival as they parade past each winter.

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The Scottish Rite Temple on Carondelet Street in the Central Business District. (Photo courtesy Infrogmation of New Orleans)

Around the corner from Gallier Hall, on Carondelet Street, is the Scottish Rite Temple, another fine example of the Greek Revival style. Originally a church, the First United Methodist Church congregation of New Orleans began construction on the building in 1850, and it was completed in 1853. It served as a church until 1905, when it was sold by First UMC to the New Orleans Valley of the Scottish Rite (Southern Juristiction) of Freemasonry. The Masons added the massive stained-glass window in the front shortly after the purchase. The design of the building is so much like a Greek temple that many assume it was purpose-built for the Scottish Rite.

Characteristics of Greek Revival Style

What makes a building or home Greek Revival? There are a number of specific characteristics, nicely described by the Preservation Resource Center.

Doric-Ionic-Corinthian

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Ionic (left) and box columns on two homes on Esplanade Avenue in Faubourg Marigny. (Photo courtesy Infrogmation of New Orleans)

Lots of kids in New Orleans learned to spot Greek buildings and temples based on the types of columns used in their construction. The plain Doric style, the rams-head Ionic columns, and the more ornate Corinthian columns, as well as basic Box style can be found across the city, making Greek Revival homes easy to distinguish. The simplicity of the columns set these homes and buildings apart from the Italianate style, because the latter usually have arch supports on either side of their columns.

Cornice with Dentils

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Cornice with Dentils and Parapet on a house on Terpsichore Street in the Lower Garden District. (Photo courtesy Infrogmation of New Orleans)

The molding at the tip of a building is called its cornice. Greek Revival buildings have small blocks added underneath the cornice. These are called dentils. The dentils are a hallmark of the style.

Parapet

Just above the cornice is a small wall, called a parapet. On some larger structures, like Gallier Hall, the flat parapet has been replaced by a triangular portico, but the cornice below and its dentils still remain. The parapet in front of the flat roof of the Scottish Rite temple is quite pronounced.

Greek Key Lintels

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Doorway of the Dabney House, 2265 St. Charles Avenue, showing Greek Key design, square doorway, and Ionic columns. (courtesy National Park Service)

The wood surrounding the doorway of a Greek Revival house/building will flare out slightly on either side, creating the Greek Key effect.

Square Doorways and Windows

Doorways on the larger, public buildings built in the Greek Revival style vary depending the access needs of the structure. They all share a common design trait, though: boxy and square frames rather than curves and arches. This also follows through to “Creole Greek Revival” homes across the city (more on that below!).

Greek Revival Homes in New Orleans

The popularity of this style in public buildings led antebellum private citizens to adopt Greek Revival architecture when building homes. Adding columns and other features of Greek Revival to a Creole-style cottage or shotgun home made these humble structures stand out on the block.

Greek Revival homes can be found across the city. Even though the Spanish courtyard style is the dominant architecture in the French Quarter, there are a number of Greek Revival homes on the Faubourg Marigny side of Esplanade Avenue, going further into the neighborhood. The magnificent columns of the mansions of the Garden District inspired property owners in the Lower Garden District to build similar, if not smaller, homes in the same style.

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The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. (Photo courtesy Ann Larie Valentine)

From the Garden District, the style also moved up the river to the University section. The Columns Hotel is an interesting example of some of the basics of Greek Revival, although it has some Neoclassical influences, particularly the windows and front door. Still, the columns that are the hotel’s namesake, as well as the parapet and dentils under the cornice that make it stand out as one rides up to the Carrollton neighborhood on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line.

Greek Revival continues to be a popular style in New Orleans, as new homes are built, replacing structures that needed rebuilding, as well as homes built in the city’s suburbs. As you walk around the city’s historic neighborhoods, or when you ride our streetcars, make a game out of how many Greek Revival homes and buildings you find.

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s first novel, Dragon’s Dangeris now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).

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