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Classical Building Style

Georgian 1850-1865
Federal 1847-1865
Greek Revival 1847-1890

The stylistic history of Utah architecture during much of the 19th century is largely the demonstration of the enduring effects of 18th-century American Classicism. By the time of the American Revolution, Renaissance-derived ideas had permeated the colonial world and were working to transform a collection of essentially local building traditions into a single national style based on a revival of Classical principles.

Geometrical composition and symmetrical balance were the hallmarks of Classical design. Buildings everywhere had smooth rectangular facades, centrally placed doors, and evenly spaced windows. Exterior appointments would eventually change, and several important, related styles would emerge during the century, yet the overriding concern for symmetrical design and Classical Classical-Styles_largedecorative features would remain a consistently powerful force in American architecture.

These Classical styles were prevalent in the Midwest during the 1830s and ‘40s, and Mormon settlers carried this tradition to the Great Basin. From small, symmetrically pierced log and adobe cabins in the outlying regions to the large Greek Revival mansions of Salt Lake City, Classicism dominated Utah architecture from the pioneer period until well into the 1880s.

The important styles of this period are the Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival. The Georgian style is primarily associated with the introduction and subsequent popularity of the Georgian house, a large, central-passage, two-room-deep structure with smooth exterior wall surfaces, heavy, flat-arched window heads, and a low-pitched gable roof. These houses, built during the 18th century from Maine to Georgia, stood as conspicuous symbols of economic achievement and social standing.

The Federal style, so called because it rose to prominence along the East Coast during the early national or Federalist period between 1790 and 1820, continued many of the basic Georgian features. It is distinguished from the Georgian by the use of elliptical and round-arched windows and doors and by carved decorative ornaments, elements that played off against the rigid symmetry of the overall design.

The Greek Revival style, popular in America from about 1820 to 1870, also used the symmetrical format, but featured such Hellenic elements as full entablature, pedimented window heads, pedimented cornice returns below low-pitched gable roofs, and elaborate Classical porticos. The Greek Revival is often interpreted as sign and symbol of the flowering of American democracy during the early 19th century, and while there may be some truth to this assertion, the Greek Revival must also be viewed as part of the larger rational, symmetrical movement in American architecture that had occurred throughout the previous century.

Building forms during the Classical period were largely geometric blocks, some big, some little, but all displaying a balance in both massing and detail. Houses were based on traditional floor plans that were essentially transformations of square units, and principal façades were normally placed on the long side of the rectangular block, and reflected the room arrangement of the interior. The notable exception, however, was the temple-form type with its main entrance on the narrow side, usually below the gable.

The Classical stylistic period also saw the beginnings of the establishment of the architectural profession, but skilled builders and craftsmen continued to design most buildings. The dissemination of architectural ideas remained largely in the oral tradition, although the period did witness the appearance of such builders’ handbooks as Peter Nicholson’s The Carpenter’s New Guide (London, 1792) and Asher Benjamin’s The Practical House Carpenter (Boston, 1841), both of which were listed in the catalogue of the Utah Territorial Library in 1852.

The Georgian style was largely an 18th-century phenomenon, and not surprisingly it is rare in Utah. However, several large houses that employed Georgian decorative elements still exist from thegeorgian1_large early settlement period. But more important than specific examples of the style is the double-piel (i.e., two-room-deep) Georgian house form itself, and nearly every Utah community has one or two of these distinctive dwellings. Although the true Georgian house has a central passage dividing the two rooms on each side, the most common Georgian form in Utah has the passage running only halfway through the house, with two large rooms in the front and three smaller rooms along the rear. This pattern seems to reflect a lingering New England architectural influence.

–symmetrical principal façade
–side gables
–low pitched roof
–coursed ashlar walls
–emphasized water table
–flat arched window heads with pronounced keystones

Like the Georgian, the Federal style’s popularity largely predates the settlement of Utah, yet is nonetheless evident in early buildings in the state. The continuing influence of this subdued style federal1_largemay be seen in buildings that have the basic Classical symmetrical shape but lack extremes in external decoration. Elliptical and round-arch transoms or panels over windows or doors are distinguishing features of this rather plain style. Often found on two-story, one-room-deep, two-room-wide houses, the Federal style is also used in public and religious buildings.

–symmetrical principal façade
–side gables
–low-pitched roof
–elliptical arched openings
–thin corner boards (vertical boards at the building’s corners)
–lintel-type window heads (i.e., long rectangular beams above windows)
–plain, unornamented entablature
–clapboard siding

The Greek Revival was the most popular architectural style in Utah during the early settlement period, and its popularity lingered on in many parts of the state well into the 1890s. The style is often encountered in buildings from the 1870s and 1880s in combination with decorative features from the greek-revival1_largeGothic Revival and Italianate styles. Greek Revival buildings can be recognized by decorative elements associated with monumental Greek architecture, such as columns, full and often exaggerated entablature, and pedimented gables and window heads. Traditional house types were prevalent, although the new temple-form type, with its forward-facing gable, was introduced during this period and became extremely popular in the northeastern states, the northern Midwest, and Utah.

–symmetrical principal façade
–gable ends
–pedimented returns
–pedimented porch roof
–entablature (architrave, frieze, cornice)
–raking cornice
–columns, usually of the Ionic, Doric, or Corinthian order
–transoms with lights
–pedimented window heads