The Academic or Eclectic Styles: Neo-Classical

An excellent example of Neoclassical: Note the Roman Ionic capitals on the columns, with the curvy ears turned at 45 degree angles to the front of the house. Go look at the ones on the Teague House (on the corner of Perry and High) to note the difference.

The turn of the twentieth century was an exciting time for architecture. Prosperity meant that people had money to spend on new houses and buildings while paying people to design them. Public and higher education was available to more people, and for the first time, academically trained architects were available beyond the east coast bastions of power and wealth. Where before only the Astors or the Vanderbilts had architects for their residences and retreats, now architects were designing houses for the ordinarily wealthy, the kind of people you might find everywhere.

Architects took their inspiration from their education and based new buildings on models of the Italian palazzo, the French chateau, or the English Tudor house. We ended up with a group of buildings in the Academic or Eclectic styles, that don’t appear to have much in common, but that share the same roots. America’s new confidence in a role as a world leader gave us the self-assurance to make these European styles our own.

The 1893 World Columbian Exposition, also know as the Chicago World’s Fair, gave additional impetus for the popularity of the Neoclassical style. The exposition was designed according to architect Daniel Burnham and included buildings used as exhibition halls, all designed by the major architects of the time. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture, whose firm designed Montgomery’s own Oak Park. While the architects said they were designing their Chicago buildings based on French Classicism, the buildings they drew up only followed the principles loosely. They were an American re-interpretation in much the same way as the colonial revival style’s interpretation of our colonial roots.

The collection exhibition halls at the Columbian Exposition, called pavilions by Burnham, were known as the “White City.” The pavilions drew that nickname from their coating of  white stucco. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of this Exposition, though, is that it resulted in painting nearly every building white for the next 75 years.

Neoclassicism certainly influenced local architect Frank Lockwood’s additions to our own capitol, ordered with those huge engaged Ionic columns. He separated the new additions with recessed connectors called hyphens, also a classical device. Although locally Lockwood is admired for his English country house types, he also designed many neoclassical houses, including one located on the west side of Perry Street where Clanton ends. Perhaps this is the first Neoclassical house in Montgomery, and it illustrates so well one of the design principles of the Neoclassical, mammoth proportion on the front facade. Certainly these columns were designed to impress us with their size, fluting, and glorious Composite capitols.

It would be hard to find an neoclassical house with more to offer than the Governor’s mansion. Did you know that this is the second house for the Governor? The first, a more Victorian example, vanished with the coming of the interstate.

Further north on Perry Street is the Governor’s Mansion, which appears as an example of neoclassicism in the McAlesters’ Field Guide to American Houses. Here we have huge columns as well as a hefty balustrade over the portecochere (a porch designed for carriages — and now for cars) on the left. Arched windows on the ground floor and paired windows on the second floor are all classical elements, but combined here on the same building in a new way. In spite of what I wrote many years ago in a driving tour of the Garden District, the Governor’s Mansion was designed not Frank Lockwood, but by the firm of B. B. Smith, who also designed our Union Station.

Also in the Garden District, and one of the best examples of the style, is the house on the corner of Hull Street and Rose Lane. Here is colossal proportion at its best, but this time with fluted Doric columns. This house appears to be Greek Revival, with its six over six windows and decorative frieze, but these details were popular in the neoclassical period as well. Thankfully, there is some visual relief, as this example is no longer white!

Felder Avenue offers a tour of popular styles, with Craftsman, Tudor Revival, Georgian and Colonial Revival houses. This Neoclassical example with Corinthian capitals and a beautifully detailed cornice looks right at home.

The Garden District doesn’t have a corner on neoclassical examples. In Cloverdale, consider Felder Avenue, again with columns at a colossal scale, but don’t let this make you miss the beautiful console-type brackets in the eave at the top of the house. The brick planter across the front is a somewhat jarring idea from the 1970s, more appropriate to a ranch style house.

The heavy balustrade on the porch is one of the hints that this isn’t a Greek Revival house.

On the grand avenues of Thomas and Bankhead, there are many examples which drew their inspiration from Mount Vernon, of which there was a replica at the Exposition. More on a Georgian platform, these houses had thinner columns and a porch all the way across the front, but still exhibit classical details in the windows, entries and cornices. Like their inspiration, these details tend to be more restrained.

Homages to Mount Vernon abound in all mid-town neighborhoods, including Edgewood. The Mount Vernon porch persists even to the ranch house period in the 1950’s.

Further reading? Certainly the chapter in the McAlester book already mentioned is excellent, with drawings showing how the styles developed and ample photographs. You can certainly see how popular this style was in the South by noting how many southern examples are used — not only from Montgomery, but Louisville, Jackson, Dallas and Raleigh. Don’t miss, however, a best seller from a few years ago called, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson (Crown, 2004). Although it reads like a novel, it’s the story of the fair and a man that used the fair to lure unsuspecting visitors to a bad end. Paperback is still available new for less than $10.00, Capitol Book and News can order it for you. Used copies are available on the usual web sites for less than $1.00.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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