About Neoclassical Architecture

How Architects and Builders Borrow From the Past

white stone building against a blue sky, with pediments, stairs, columns, and a big dome
The U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped) 

Neoclassical architecture describes buildings that are inspired by the classic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. In the United States, it describes the important public buildings built after the American Revolution, well into the 1800s. The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. is a good example of neoclassicism, a design chosen by the Founding Fathers in 1793.

The prefix neo- means "new" and classical refers to ancient Greece and Rome.  If you look closely at anything called neoclassical, you'll see art, music, theater, literature, governments, and visual arts that are derived from ancient Western European civilizations. Classical architecture was built from roughly 850 B.C. to A.D. 476, but the popularity of neoclassicism rose from 1730 to 1925.

The Western world has always returned to the first great civilizations of mankind. The Roman arch was a repeated characteristic of the medieval Romanesque period from approximately 800 to 1200. What we call the Renaissance from about 1400 to 1600 was a "rebirth" of classicism. Neoclassicism is the influence of Renaissance architecture from the 15th and 16th century Europe.

Neoclassicism was a European movement that dominated the 1700s. Expressing the logic, order, and rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, people again returned to neoclassical ideas.  For the United States after the American Revolution in 1783, these concepts profoundly shaped the new government not only in the writing of the U.S. Constitution, but also in the architecture built to express the ideals of the new nation. Even today in much of the public architecture in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, you may see echoes of the Parthenon in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.

The word.neoclassic (without a hyphen is the preferred spelling) has come to be a general term encompassing a variety influences, including Classical Revival, Greek Revival, Palladian, and Federal. Some people don't even use the word neoclassical because they think it is useless in its generality. The word classic itself has changed in meaning over the centuries. At the time of the Mayflower Compact in 1620, the "classics" would have been the books written by Greek and Roman scholars — today we have classic rock, classic movies, and classic novels that have nothing to do with ancient classical times. The commonality is that anything called "classic" is considered superior or "first class." In this sense, every generation has a "new classic," or neoclassic.

Neoclassical Characteristics

During the 18th century, the written works of the Renaissance architects Giacomo da Vignola and Andrea Palladio were widely translated and read. These writings inspired appreciation for the Classical Orders of architecture and the beautifully proportioned architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical buildings have many (although not necessarily all) of four features: (1) symmetrical floor plan shape and fenestration (i.e., placement of windows); (2) tall columns, generally Doric but sometimes Ionic, that rise the full height of the building. In residential architecture, a double portico; (3) triangular pediments; and (4) a centered domed roof.

The Beginnings of Neoclassical Architecture

One important 18th century thinker, the French Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier, theorized that all architecture derives from three basic elements: the column, the entablature, and the pediment. In 1753, Laugier published a book-length essay that outlined his theory that all architecture grows from this shape, which he called the Primitive Hut. The general idea was that society was best when it was more primitive, that a purity is native in simplicity and symmetry.

The romanticization of simple forms and the Classical Orders spread to the American colonies. Symmetrical neoclassical buildings modeled after classical Greek and Roman temples were thought to symbolize principles of justice and democracy. One of the most influential Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, drew upon the ideas of Andrea Palladio when he drew architectural plans for the new nation, the United states. Jefferson's neoclassical design for the Virginia State Capitol in 1788 started the ball rolling for the building of the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. The State House in Richmond has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America.

Famous Neoclassical Buildings

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783 when the colonies were forming a more perfect Union and developing a constitution, the Founding Fathers turned to the ideals of ancient civilizations. Greek architecture and Roman government were nondenominational temples to democratic ideals. Jefferson's Monticello, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court building are all variations of the neoclassical — some being more influenced by Palladian ideals and some more like Greek Revival temples. Architectural historian Leland M. Roth writes that "all of the architecture of the period from 1785 to 1890 (and even much of it up to 1930) adapted historic styles to create associations in the mind of the user or observer which would strengthen and enhance the functional purpose of the building."

About Neoclassical Houses

The word neoclassical is often used to describe an architectural style, but neoclassicism is not actually any one distinct style. Neoclassicism is a trend, or approach to design, that can incorporate a variety of styles. As architects and designers became known for their work, their names became associated with a particular type of building — Palladian for Andrea Palladio, Jeffersonian for Thomas Jefferson, Adamesque for Robert Adams. Basically, it's all neoclassical — Classical Revival, Roman Revival, and Greek Revival.

Although you may associate neoclassicism with grand public buildings, the neoclassical approach has also shaped the way we build private homes. A gallery of neoclassical private homes proves the point. Some residential architects break the neoclassic architectural style into distinct time periods — no doubt to assist the realtors who market these American home styles.

Transforming a built house into a neoclassical style can go very badly, but this is not always the case. Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) redesigned Kenwood House in Hampstead, England from what was called a "double-pile" manor house into a neoclassical style. He remodeled Kenwood's north entrance in 1764, as outlined in History of Kenwood on the English Heritage website.

Fast Facts

Time periods of when architectural styles flourished are often inexact, if not arbitrary. In the book American House Styles: A Concise Guide, architect John Milnes Baker has given us his own concise guide to what he believes neoclassical-related periods to be:

  • Federal Style, 1780-1820, is named after the new U.S. government, although ideas come from the British Isles, including a continued interest in the Palladian window and the work of Robert Adams. A Federalist building does not always have imposing pillars, but its symmetry and decorative details are classically inspired.
  • Neoclassical, 1780-1825, is the period of America's breaking away from European modifications of Classical ideas and ideals, adhering instead to strict classical orders of proportion. Baker says the Neoclassicists "rarely presumed to distort the proportions of the classical orders except in the subtlest way."
  • Greek Revival, 1820-1850, de-emphasized Roman architectural details, such as the dome and arch, and focused more on the Greek way. This was a favorite of Antebellum architecture, the stately plantation homes built before America's Civil War.
  • Neoclassical Revival, 1895-1950, became a modernist's interpretation of ancient Rome and Greece. "When well done," writes Baker, "these houses had a certain dignity, but the line between dignity and pomposity was tenuous at best....Some of the most grotesque, tasteless, and nouveau-riche buildings offered by speculative builders today are pale shadows of the Neoclassical Revival. One can often see the pretense carried to absurdity when a makeshift portico is slapped on the facade of a raised ranch or pseudo-colonial. Unfortunately it is not an uncommon sight."

    Sources

    • "About the U.S. Capitol Building," https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/about-us-capitol-building and "Capitol Hill Neoclassical Architecture," https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/architecture-styles/neoclassical-architecture-capitol-hill, Architect of the Capitol [accessed April 17, 2018]
    • A Concise History of American Architecture by Leland M. Roth, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 54
    • American House Styles: A Concise Guide by John Milnes Baker, Norton, 1994, pp. 54, 56, 64, 104
    • Additional Photo Credits: Kenwood House, English Heritage Paul Highnam/Getty Images (cropped)