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During the rise of New York from the capital of an upstart nation to a global metropolis, the visual language of Greek and Roman antiquity played a formative role in the development of the city’s art and architecture. This compilation of essays offers a survey of diverse reinterpretations of classical forms in some of New York’s most iconic buildings, public monuments, and civic spaces.

Classical New York examines the influence of Greco-Roman thought and design from the Greek Revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the late-nineteenth-century American Renaissance and Beaux Arts period and into the twentieth century’s Art Deco. At every juncture, New Yorkers looked to the classical past for knowledge and inspiration in seeking out new ways to cultivate a civic identity, to design their buildings and monuments, and to structure their public and private spaces.

Specialists from a range of disciplines—archaeology, architectural history, art history, classics, and history— focus on how classical art and architecture are repurposed to help shape many of New York City’s most evocative buildings and works of art. Federal Hall evoked the Parthenon as an architectural and democratic model; the Pantheon served as a model for the creation of Libraries at New York University and Columbia University; Pennsylvania Station derived its form from the Baths of Caracalla; and Atlas and Prometheus of Rockefeller Center recast ancient myths in a new light during the Great Depression.

Designed to add breadth and depth to the exchange of ideas about the place and meaning of ancient Greece and Rome in our experience of New York City today, this examination of post-Revolutionary art, politics, and philosophy enriches the conversation about how we shape space—be it civic, religious, academic, theatrical, or domestic—and how we make use of that space and the objects in it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823281022
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis (Edited By)
Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis is Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies and the Acting Executive Officer of the M.A. Program in Liberal Studies at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.

Matthew McGowan (Edited By)
Matthew M. McGowan is Associate Professor and Chair of Classics at Fordham University.

Read an Excerpt


The Custom House of 1833–42: A Greek Revival Building in Context

Francis Morrone


The building that New Yorkers of today know as "Federal Hall" and that is properly called Federal Hall National Memorial, at 26 Wall Street, at the northeast corner of Nassau Street, was designed in 1833 and constructed between 1834 and 1842 as the United States Custom House, the most important federal building outside of Washington, DC. After only twenty years, the government required a larger Custom House, and 26 Wall Street served for the next fifty-eight years as the federal Subtreasury. Today's name, which dates from 1955, reflects the building's use as a National Park Service–administered museum dedicated to George Washington and to the history of 26 Wall Street itself. Federal Hall was the name of the building that preceded the former Custom House on its site. A 1788 remodeling of the 1704 city hall, Federal Hall served the new nation as its first capitol building, and it was the site of the first presidential inauguration, April 30, 1789. In 1812, some years after the capital's relocation to Washington, DC, Federal Hall was rather unceremoniously razed.

The Custom House of 1833–42 is, arguably, the most important building surviving from New York's "Greek Revival" of the 1830s and 1840s. It is the city's only truly Parthenonesque building, an example of the highest building craft of its time, and the work of a succession of several of the ablest and most interesting designers of the city's first era of professional building design. The building reflects the "Greek mania" that strongly marks the American culture of the time; it also reflects architecture's transition from Georgian Neoclassicism to the romantic styles that would dominate the remainder of the nineteenth century. It is the most significant surviving artifact of New York City's philhellenic era.

The Original Federal Hall

In 1704, New York built a new city hall on Wall Street. It was to replace the Stadt Huys on Pearl Street, which had served since Dutch colonial days. The two-story-plus-attic Georgian structure was effortlessly handsome in the manner of its time. Projecting end pavilions, each two window bays wide, rose to hipped roofs, each with a single dormer, or window projecting vertically from a sloping roof. The pavilions flanked a small plaza, reached from the sidewalk by five shallow steps, behind which a triple arcade led into the central section of the building. On the second floor of the central section were three openings, a window on either side of a double doorway that opened onto a balustraded balcony. The plaza, meanwhile, formed the sort of intermediary space, a little less casual than the sidewalk, a little less formal than inside the building, a type of space rare in the colonial city. At the attic story of the central section was a pitched roof with three dormers and, rising from the center top of the building, a balustraded and arcaded cupola surmounted by a weathervane. This was, in its width, its gestures toward urban design, and its crowning cupola, one of the most imposing and distinctive structures in a still largely unembellished and unimproved colonial outpost. For the next eight decades, the building served in its original function and was the scene of notable events including, in 1735, the trial for seditious libel of the printer John Peter Zenger and, in 1765, the meeting of the Stamp Act Congress.

In 1788, following ratification of the US Constitution, New York prepared to take its place as the nation's capital. As part of these preparations, the city hall was renovated into Federal Hall, the national capitol. The French artist Pierre L'Enfant was placed in charge of this renovation. He placed in front of the plaza a colonnade extending a little farther outward than the fronts of the flanking wings. At the first floor, four blocky piers screened the plaza. At the second floor of this central section and rising through the attic story, four Doric columns, of rather impressive dimensions, screened a loggia far more spacious than the balcony it replaced and supported an entablature in turn surmounted by a pediment with raking cornices enclosing a low-relief sculpture of the Great Seal of the United States. Rising from the center top of the building was an octagonal cupola ringed around its top by urns. At the second floor, the fenestration was changed to an elegant multipaned sash in vertically elongated frames with marble cap-molded lintels, with, set in the wall above the windows, marble panels with relief carvings (Figure 1.1). The earlier city hall was a simple, unpretentious, handsome building. The later Federal Hall, on the other hand, was a building that — as well it might have done, being the capitol of a new nation — put on airs. New York's buildings were becoming not only larger and functionally more complex; they were also becoming rhetorical — their appearance was meant to say something. And for all these reasons, New York began to move from a building culture dominated by artisan-builders to one dominated by trained professional architects. L'Enfant occupies a kind of halfway position in the evolution. He was, at the very least, a self-conscious and talented designer. He would go on to plan, with President Washington's patronage, the new capital city on the Potomac.

On April 30, 1789, on the loggia of Federal Hall, George Washington was administered the oath of office as the first president of the United States. That Federal Hall was a building the equal in historical importance to Philadelphia's Independence Hall did not prevent its demolition in 1812 and replacement by row houses. By that time, the national capital had long since moved out of New York, first to Philadelphia, then to the new city of Washington, DC. And New York had just built the beautiful city hall, just off Broadway at Murray Street, that still serves the city today.

Following his inauguration, President Washington and his entourage traveled a few blocks up Broadway to a service at St. Paul's Chapel, at Fulton Street. St. Paul's had been built before the revolution, in the 1760s, and added its tower in 1794. It very closely follows the tower of James Gibbs's St. Martin in the Fields, in London, completed in 1724. There were, via the Romans and the Renaissance, many residual elements of classical Greek architecture to be found in European and American buildings, not least among those elements being the orders themselves. In a sense, we should classify St. Paul's tower as "Greek Survival," not "Greek Revival."

The Greek Revival

Nonetheless, a new and sophisticated interest in classical Greek architecture was beginning to influence American practice by the 1790s. Samuel Blodgett's First Bank of the United States, built in 1796 and still standing in Philadelphia, was "the first temple of business which could be literally so named, the ancestor of all the columned banks in the country." But Blodgett's bank, with its relief panels, Corinthian pilasters, and rooftop balustrade, was still thoroughly a Georgian building. The outstanding example of the introduction of Grecian forms is Benjamin Latrobe's Bank of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, built between 1798 and 1801, a chaste Ionic temple with a hexastyle portico, a broad flight of steps, and a blank pediment. We see the inspiration of the Temple of Ilissus, illustrated in the most important single source for knowledge of classical architecture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Northern Europe and America, The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece, compiled by the British duo of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett (London 1762–94). One cannot help noting that Latrobe's bank — sadly demolished in 1867 — also features a prominent dome. The popularity of domes in the American Greek Revival is a subject to which we will return. Latrobe wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson, on May 21, 1807, "I am a bigoted Greek in the condemnation of the Roman architecture of Baalbec, Palmyra and Spalatro. ... Wherever, therefore, the Grecian style can be copied without impropriety, I love to be a mere, I would say a slavish, copyist." He goes on to say that such copying may seldom be done "without impropriety," because the conditions of modern life won't warrant it. Our architecture shall inevitably be a hybrid, though the Grecian element may be put forward.

Latrobe's student William Strickland (1788–1854) gave us America's first Parthenonesque public building with his Second Bank of the United States, designed in 1818 and built in 1819–24, in Philadelphia. Unlike Latrobe's bank, it is still standing. It is an octastyle Doric temple of somber grandeur, with matching porticoes on front and rear. Indeed, if we might call Latrobe's Bank of Pennsylvania chaste, we would call Strickland's bank austere. A very wide but not especially high flight of steps leads to the colonnade of eight fluted columns rising to Doric capitals and supporting an entablature with a frieze of triglyphs and metopes. Topping it off is a pediment with raking cornices framing a large, empty triangular space.

Strickland once said "that the student of architecture need go no further than the Antiquities of Athens as a basis for design." The Londoner James Stuart (1713–88) was of humble background, apprenticed as a fan painter, and was self-taught in Greek, Latin, and Italian. At the age of twenty-nine he went to Italy to study art, supporting himself as a cicerone or "tour guide" for English-speaking visitors. In Italy he met the architect Nicholas Revett (1721– 1804), the well-born son of a landowning Suffolk family. In 1750, Stuart and Revett embarked on their ambitious project to go to Athens to draw and describe what survived of ancient Greek architecture. They remained there until 1754.

Greek philosophy and literature had, in one way or another, continued from ancient times to the present to exert its influence on the Western mind, from the use made of Aristotle by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century to the Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino, which influenced Michelangelo, in the fifteenth century. The American Founding Fathers were steeped in Greek thought. Greek was part of the classical education that Thomas Jefferson received at the College of William and Mary. Yet for all the study and admiration of the ancient Greeks, very little was then known about the artifacts of classical Greek civilization. The archaeology boom of the eighteenth century would change that. The excavations at Herculaneum (1738), Pompeii (1748), Palmyra (1750), and Split (1757) added to our knowledge and understanding of Roman antiquity. But beginning in 1752, with Recueil d'antiquités by the Comte de Caylus, Greece, for the first time, came into focus. By 1753, the abbé Laugier, in his Essai sur l'architecture, was able to say, "It is therefore true that architecture is only under moderate obligation to the Romans and that it owes everything that is valuable and solid to the Greeks alone." Winckelmann's advocacy of Greek over Roman models in art followed soon after. The publication in 1758 of Julien-David Le Roy's Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce provided the first practical Greek stylebook for architects.

But for the English-speaking world, Stuart and Revett stand supreme. Before them, few had traveled to Greece to study its ruins, to catalogue and describe what they saw, and to speculate on the original appearances of ruined buildings. The first of what were eventually four folio volumes of Antiquities of Athens was published in 1762, with the subsequent volumes appearing in 1787, 1795, and 1816.

In New York, Martin Euclid Thompson's Merchants' Exchange of 1825–27, on the south side of Wall Street between William Street and Hanover Street, was not, with its towering Federal-style cupola, quite full-blown Greek Revival. But Thompson used, for his two-story tetrastyle portico, the Ionic order of the temple of Athena Polias (fourth century BCE) in Priene, in Ionia, as illustrated in the second volume (1787) of Antiquities of Athens. Thompson's building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1835 and replaced by the new Merchants' Exchange (1836–42) by Isaiah Rogers.

In an address to the American Academy of the Fine Arts, in New York, in 1824, the prominent writer, politician, and General Theological Seminary professor Gulian Verplanck said of America's architecture that

we have borrowed most of it from France and England, and by no means from the best models which these countries afford; it is only within a very few years that we have begun to think for ourselves, or to draw directly from the purer fountains of antiquity. Hence it is that when our increasing riches enabled us to erect large and expensive public edifices, instead of embodying in them those pure forms and scientific proportions of Grecian art ... many of our most costly buildings have been vitiated by the predominance of that taste which prevailed on the continent of Europe, in the reign of Louis XIV, and which was universal in Great Britain throughout most of the last century, though it has now given way, as it did in an earlier period in France, to a much more classical style. I mean that corruption of the Roman, or rather Palladian architecture, which delights in great profusion of unmeaning ornament, in piling order upon order, in multitudes of small and useless columns, and mean and unnecessary pilasters, in numerous and richly decorated windows.

The term "Greek Revival" was used as early as 1842 by C. R. Cockerell in an address to the Royal Academy. By then, "Grecian" architecture had become fashionable in Britain and on the Continent. In America, the Greek Revival had become the first national style of architecture. As William H. Pierson Jr. put it, "Adopted by the common man as well as the professional, it became the first style in American history to be consciously understood and embraced as a truly national mode of building." An English architect, William Ross, who later worked as a draftsman on the Custom House, wrote, in late 1835, "The Greek mania here is at its height, as you infer from the fact that everything is a Greek temple from the privies in the back court, through the various grades of prison, theatre, church, custom-house, and state-house."

In his essay "Rome in America," Stephen L. Dyson argued that the term "Greek Revival" is a misnomer:

State houses, churches, courthouses, Southern plantation mansions, and the town and country residences of the northern élite all were built in a style that was called Greek Revival but whose basic forms and major architectural elements were more Roman than Greek. They employed domes, columned façades, and the Ionic and especially the Corinthian order in an eclectic but impressive manner.

In a large sense, Dyson is correct. As we will see, the prevalence of domes in "Greek Revival" buildings, as noted by Dyson, is proof that architects were interested in a more generalized classical expression than in one that was exactingly Greek. This does not mean, however, that architects were not deeply impressed and influenced by such works as Antiquities of Athens, which suggested approaches to forms and ornamentation different from what then prevailed, and that jibed with, and contributed to, a philhellenism that pervaded American culture. Not least, without reference to Greek, as distinct from Roman, architecture, we cannot describe what it is that made Strickland's Second Bank of the United States feel so different from what had gone before it in America, nor can we explain the self-understanding of a Laugier in France or a Gulian Verplanck or Benjamin Latrobe in America.

Collectively, the late Georgian, which in America is often called "Federal," and the Greek Revival, both heavily influenced by eighteenth-century archaeology, are referred to as "Neoclassical." At the same time, the Greek Revival points forward to the romanticism that dominated the nineteenth century. Like the Gothic Revival that flourished simultaneously with the Greek Revival and that was practiced by many of the same architects, the Greek Revival was, in the words of Geoffrey Scott, a "casting on the screen of an imaginary past the projection of its unfulfilled desires." The architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock used the term "romantic classicism" to refer to buildings that, for example, combined Parthenon-like porticoes and Pantheon-like domes.


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Table of Contents

Preface vii

List of Figures ix

Classical New York
Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Matthew McGowan 1

1. The Custom House of 1833–42: A Greek Revival Building in Context 15
Francis Morrone

2. The Imperial Metropolis 38
Margaret Malamud

3. Archaeology versus Aesthetics: The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Classical Collection in Its Early Years 63
Elizabeth Bartman

4. The Gould Memorial Library and Hall of Fame: Reinterpreting the Pantheon in the Bronx 85
Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis

5. “The Expression of Civic Life”: Civic Centers and the City Beautiful in New York City 114
Jon Ritter

6. The Titans of Rockefeller Center: Prometheus and Atlas 140
Jared A. Simard

7. Rome Reborn: Old Pennsylvania Station and the Legacy of the Baths of Caracalla 161
Maryl B. Gensheimer

8. The Roman Bath in New York: Public Bathing, the Pursuit of Pleasure, and Monumental Delight 182
Allyson McDavid

9. “In Ancient and Permanent Language”: Artful Dialogue in the Latin Inscriptions of New York City 211
Matthew McGowan

Reflections 235
Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Matthew McGowan

Glossary 239

Acknowledgments 243

Bibliography 245

List of Contributors 267

Index 000

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