The Gothic Revival style, popular in America from the 1830s through the 1860s, could be seen as a mere revival of medieval motifs, but peer beneath the scrolls and trefoils that animate this style and one finds more profound meaning.
The Greek Revival, or Grecian, style (at its height from 1820 to 1840) parallels a period of geographic expansion and growing national identity in America. Part fashion, part conscious aesthetic, the Greek Revival is defined by its inventive use of ancient Greek forms. Publications such as Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens drove a fashion for the Grecian style first in Europe and then in America. But in America, it was more than fashion, it was political. As a young country emerging from the shadow of our British colonial past, we sought new paradigms. Viewing ourselves as inheritors of the Greek democratic tradition, we saw ourselves as the new Athens.
After emerging independent and free from the colonial yoke of Great Britain, post-revolutionary America began to form its national identity. Whether inspired by the works of Seneca or the life of Cincinnatus, early leaders like George Washington understood this nation to be the inheritor of Roman republican traditions. They sought to imbue America’s Novus Ordo Seclorum with symbols and architecture evocative of this. Concurrently, a growing class of merchants and landowners desired ways to show their taste and wealth. This confluence of interests in symbolic meaning and fashionable forms flowered into America’s Federal Style.