7 Ways to Geek-Out on Greek Revival in Washtenaw County

Dec 02, 2016

Washtenaw County's Driving Tour of 19th Century historic homes gives you the backstory on places you’ve likely noticed – and maybe some you’ve not yet discovered. You can take a driving tour for yourself, check out an individual site, or visit the tour virtually by clicking here. Keep reading to learn more about Washtenaw County's wealth of classically-inspired buildings from a bygone era, and click here to see the tour for yourself.

 

1. Land of the Free, Home of the Revolutionaries

Nothing like white columns and a wide entablature for saying “don’t tread on me!” Greek Revival was the first national architecture style.  Americans associated it with the idea of independence and democracy in Classical Greek society, part of a naming trend immediately following the Revolution to honor the ideals of great Ancient Greek city-states. Many early settlers to Washtenaw County came from New York State, bringing with them strong ideals about what a city should look like, such as places like Ithaca, New York. Pictured below is Zingerman's Cornman Farms, a rustic and elegant event venue in Dexter, Michigan.

2. It’s all Greek to Me

Greek Revival architecture has its own language for describing details and parts: entablature, architrave, frieze, cornice, pediment, portico, quoins, pilaster, dentils, capital, gable . . . the list goes on and on.  This style is part of a complicated family of classical revival styles also including Georgian, Federal, Beaux Arts and Colonial Revival.  Check out our short glossary online or A Field Guide to American Houses, available at your local library.

3. Demetrius Who?

The convention of naming cities after those in Greece wasn’t limited only to New Yorkers. In Washtenaw County, Michigan, the sleepy hamlet of Woodruff’s Grove on the banks of the Huron River was looking for a snazzier name to tell the world of its cosmopolitan future. Enter Demetrius Ypsilanti. This Greek war hero had never stepped a foot on American soil when he perished in the Greek Revolution in 1832. This didn’t stop local city fathers here in Washtenaw County from using his celebrity status to get some attention. Demetrius Ypsilanti’s memory is still held bright in sculpted marble form, right next to our infamous Water Tower.

4. Proportional Response

This style of architecture relied heavily on symmetry, proportion, and scale. It often remained true to the Golden Ratio, the same mathematical proportion evident in the Great Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and even the Taj Mahal. Have you ever seen a building that had been gussied up by “adding on some architecture” and ended up looking somewhat weird? It’s probably off proportion. The popular blog McMansion Hell explains this phenomenon in hilarious detail – and makes the case for why there should probably be an ACLU for architecture. 

5. Fake it Till You Make It

Out East, many Greek Revival buildings were made of cut stone or brick masonry with stone trimmings. On the muddy and wild Michigan frontier, where the equivalent to Amazon Prime delivery was an overland journey via horseback, wooden construction from local lumber was the most popular and practical way to upgrade from a starter-home log cabin. Builders would construct the frame structure, cover it in horizontal clapboards, and feature a row of round or square columns on the front or “façade.”  Less often, fancier buildings were made from adobe brick, slathered in stucco, and then scored to look like stone blocks. Fieldstones were also sometimes gathered from tilled fields as a convenient and thrifty building material. Visit Cobblestone Farm on Packard Road in Ann Arbor to get up close to one of the best-known local examples this kind of early stone building.

6. Just Like Home. And the Church. And the Bank.  

By the 1820s and 1830s, nearly any town worth its salt was adorned with at least a handful of temple-front Greek Revival buildings. These white-columned edifices were used on anything from fine homes, and banks, to churches, town halls, and courts. Buildings were normally painted a gleaming whitewash, an affordable and effective treatment to instantly communicate refinement and status.

7. Get Your Greek On!

The Washtenaw County Greek Revival Heritage Tour covers about 40 travel miles from Gordon Hall near Dexter to the Ladies Literary Club in downtown Ypsilanti, and has so many side trips along the way! There are 30 places to see on this map, one is sure to capture your imagination.  To give it a try visit, www.ewashtenaw.org/heritagetours. And, if you snap a pic of one of these fantastic sites for yourself, use the hashtag #VisitAnnArbor to share it with us.

 



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