After the “Second War of Independence,” which many of us know better as the War of 1812, the United States was ready to assert its own identity. Up to that time, American culture was still very much British in architecture, fashion, and philosophy. I’ll leave it to other historians to discuss the last two, but as for the first…
Finally free from British influence, and eager to explicitly reject British culture, the United States after the War of 1812 sought to give itself a complete makeover. It was out with the Federal style, which like I wrote last week was more of an American version of a British style, and in with a new all-American architecture favored by former president (and architect) Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, with the help of architect Benjamin Latrobe, worked to foster a new national style that emulated the ideals of Ancient Greece, the birthplace of western democracy. Designs were drawn from the everlasting Greek temples like those on the Acropolis of Athens, the famous Parthenon and Erechtheion.
Introduced in Latrobe’s work on the Bank of Pennsylvania and later the U.S. Capitol, Greek Revival swept the nation. Urged on by his students Robert Mills and William Strickland, and Strickland’s own student Thomas Ustick Walter, it became the quintessential American architectural style used for everything from government offices and businesses to homes and churches, and even bird boxes.
It reached every corner of the country, from the far reaches of northern New England to the deep southern portions of Louisiana, from the metropolis of the East Coast to the windswept Great Plains. And like the Greek temples of old, these new buildings became Temples of Democracy, Commerce, and the American Way, just as Jefferson and Latrobe intended.
Mason County, no longer the frontier by the 1830s, certainly wasn’t immune to this new style’s influence. Local builders and architects read the works of prominent architects, especially the detailed pattern books of New Englander Asher Benjamin, and copied their designs as best they could with the materials at hand. Using plastered brick and carved wood in place of polished and sculpted limestone and marble, our country artisans built masterpieces that today are million-dollar homes.
Among the oldest surviving Greek Revival homes in Mason County are Samuel Henry Couch’s Longmeadow and George Sebrell’s Old Red Brick. Built in the 1830s, both are nearing their 200th anniversaries, though the years do little to diminish their stately grace. These plantations were soon joined by Peter Higgins Steenbergen’s Poplar Grove (1840s, burned several years ago, pictured with this article), Albert Gallatin Eastham’s Eastham House (1850s), the Redmond family’s Smithland (1860s), and a dozen others that have since been lost. Though like I said, it wasn’t just plantations that embraced this new style.
When Mason County finally built its courthouse in the 1840s, after having been housed in the home of William Sterrett for nearly thirty years, it was a massive Greek Revival building towering five stories over Main Street (measuring to the top of the cupola). This was the one demolished in 1956 to make way for the current courthouse. A shame really, but I do like our new International style courthouse.
In the Bend Area, and especially in Hartford, which saw a massive boom in the 1850s as the salt industry took off, many of the oldest homes were built in the Greek Revival style. Though many have been altered in some form or another over the last hundred and fifty years, the Moredock, Lerner, and Hanna homes, as well as the Methodist Church, are all in this style. Being from Hartford, I’m of the opinion that, if restored, these would likely be among the best collection of antebellum homes in the Ohio Valley.
In the southern end of the county, one of the best examples in our area is Glenwood’s Henry Gwinn House, built around 1860.
Yet in the Moredock House, Gwinn House, and Smithland Plantation, three of the last Greek Revival homes built in Mason County, hints of another style begin to appear. I’ll cover that style next week.
Information from McAlester’s “Field Guide” and my own research into Mason County’s historic homes.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.