Mt. Airy: Yesterday and Today: The Greek revival movement

    It surprised me to learn that Carpenter Lane is not named for George Carpenter of Phil-Ellena, but for Samuel Carpenter (1649-1714)! This Carpenter was esteemed as the most wealthy and influential citizen of William Penn’s new colony. He was a shipping merchant, a deputy to Penn, a Quaker, and he built himself a brick mansion near 2nd and Chestnut. Samuel Carpenter’s name is mentioned on Holme’s map of 1682 near Carpenter Lane. It was Samuel who leased (in 1690) the land on Monoshone Creek to William Rittenhouse where America’s first paper mill was built.

    In his expansive 1989 work, Greek Revival America, Roger Kennedy says that Phil-Ellena, George Carpenter’s 1841 mansion, named for his young wife Ellen, was “the largest of America’s Greek Revival palaces.”

    The Greek Revival style was in full swing from 1825 to 1855. Where did it come from? America’s founding fathers of our country grew up with the Georgian architectural style, imported from their mother country, England. But the succeeding generations of Americans rejected the style as too English and imperial.

    Greek Revival buildings, whether public buildings or private homes, often emphasize a columned and pedimented entrance. Philadelphia was at the center of this movement that swept the country’s public and domestic building until it was succeeded by the Picturesque Italianate and Gothic styles in the 1850s.

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    Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), a Philadelphian, was the great champion of Greek Revival architecture. Biddle traveled to Greece in 1805, and fell in love with Greek architecture for the freshness and simplicity that expressed the new American values of democracy and freedom. He became president of the Second Bank of the United States in 1823. and aspired to make Philadelphia the “Athens of America.” Biddle’s competition for the design the Second Bank was won by William Strickland. His Greek temple (1824), which still stands on Chestnut Street between 4th and 5th, was based on the Parthenon in Athens.

    Other noted architects of the American Greek Revival style were Benjamin Latrobe, William Strickland and Thomas Ustick Walter. The English-born Latrobe (1764-1820) introduced the style to the U.S. He worked with Thomas Jefferson on the Virginia state capitol, and was the third architect of the U.S. Capitol building. He designed the north portico of the White House and the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore.

    Strickland (1787-1854) was a student of Latrobe, and also designed the Merchant’s Exchange (1834) at 132 South 3rd Street with its semi-circular portico, and the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville. Walter (1804-1887) was trained by Strickland. He designed the Greek Revival buildings of Girard College (1833), under the patronage of Biddle the extension of the House and Senate wings of the U.S. Capitol building, and its cast-iron dome (1855-63). Biddle also chose Walter to transform his simple 18th century home, Andalusia, in Bucks County, with porticos of fluted white Doric columns (1834).

    The Fairmount Water Works (1812-15) are also early Greek Revival style. Phil-Ellena is a part of this august company. It was not unusual for George Carpenter to not employ a noted architect for Phil-Ellena. Our West Mt. Airy neighbor, Jon Farnham, who is Acting Historic Preservation Officer of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, told me that professional architects were not common until after the Civil War, and that wealthy men often designed their own homes. Carpenter’s draftsman, William Johnston, was a more prominent architect than Carpenter admitted. (See previous Yesterday and Today column, “Phil-Ellena; Greek Revival Palace”.)

    The presence of so many columned porches among homes in Pelham and elsewhere in West Mt. Airy is testimony to continuing Greek Revival influence at the end of the 19th century.

    In my next article, we will walk into the Phil-Ellena mansion to explore its interior.

    Burt Froom is a Parish Associate at Summit Presbyterian Church, 6757 Greene St. in Mt. Airy. This essay was originally published on the website of West. Mt. Airy Neighbors (WMAN).

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