New York.- Vicki James Yiannias
A childhood memory of wondering why the Carnegie Stout Library building in my hometown looked like an ancient Greek temple. Good question. But a vast subject.
Many years later, however, Views of Athens in America, Greek Revival Architecture and the Iconic Athenian Models, by Dr. Theodoros Koutsogiannis, Curator of the Art Collection of the Hellenic Parliament, an illustrated lecture about ancient Athenian art’s visual, architectural, cultural and ideological references for Greek Revival architecture through time—culminating in Greek Revival architecture in America—provided many important answers to why Athenian-inspired architectural models are found in the United States, and almost everywhere else.
Expressing that it was “an honor and a delight” to be addressing his audience at Columbia University in the context of its Hellenic Studies Program (titled “Views of Greece” this year), Dr. Koutsogiannis thanked Dr. Professor Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Director of Hellenic Studies program of Columbia University and Consul General of Greece in New York, Dr. Konstantinos Koutras for presenting his lecture.
“Greek Revival architecture” means the reference to, imitation of, adaptation and re-formulation of, or creative inspiration derived from ancient Greek monumental buildings in the context of Neoclassicism, said Koutsogiannis. “This phenomenon was recorded during the second half of the 18th century in Europe, especially in England, was disseminated in Europe throughout the 19th century and then appeared on this side of the Atlantic, in the newly established United States of America, mainly between 1820 and 1860.”
We learned that the ancient Athenian monuments that are still standing today, as well as modern works of art and illustrated publications of Athens and Athenian monuments, were models for Greek Revival architecture as it evolved and was disseminated throughout neoclassical Europe, then finally received in America. Dr. Koutsogiannis chose to talk about “Athenian Revival” rather than “Greek Revival” architecture in general, feeling that “so-called ‘Greek Revival architecture’ is specifically and consciously focused on ancient Athens, not Greece in general.”
The extensively informed Views of Athens in America, Greek Revival Architecture and the Iconic Athenian Models was greatly enhanced by Koutsogiannis’ choices of gorgeous large-scale projections of iconic Ancient Greek monuments still standing, the Parthenon; the Erechtheion; Hadrian’s Library, the temple of Olympian Zeus, the Theseion, and Tower of the Winds, among them; illustrated publications of Florentine chronicles such as the “Book of Islands”, the “Nuremberg Chronicle”, the travel journals of Cyriacus of Ancona, Barthelemy d’Eyck’s “The marriage of Theseus”, Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with the Funeral of the Athenian Phocion; illustrated publications of the 16th century, and famous Greek Revival buildings including Greek Revival buildings from all over America, such as The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, the Lincoln Memorial, and the United States Treasury Department Building, in Washington, D.C., the United States Mint in San Francisco, CA, Customs Houses in Boston MA and New York, The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, several banks, exchanges, and churches, among many others. (There were even pictures of celebrity “pilgrimages” to the ancient buildings of Athens: Jayne Mansfield and John Wayne pose on the Acropolis in the 1950s). Dr. Koutsogiannis’ reminder: 22 American cities are named Athens).
In the last category of “Athenian Revival” buildings in America are two library buildings on the Columbia University campus, “an ideal place in which to approach the architectural type of the Greek Revival…”, said Koutsogianis. “The Butler Library, an excellent example, albeit late, of Greek Revival architecture, and the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library in which Talbot Faulkner Hamlin, a pioneer in the study of today’s topic, worked as a librarian, while teaching architectural history and theory and more generally serving Columbia University for 38 years.” Hamlin’s book, “Greek Revival Architecture in America”, published in 1944, remains a serious reference work and was starting point for this lecture, said Dr. Koutsogiannis.
“The large number of American buildings designed in the Athenian Revival style–if we accept the correction of the term proposed here–functioning collectively and cumulatively, finally created an ideal image of architectural expression identified with the human-centered culture and its values. From this viewpoint, the “Views of Athens in America” which we have watched as a superb expression of Greek Revival Architecture, are not merely by-products, but at the same time have lent new meaning to and updated the iconic Athenian models,” said Koutsogiannis, “If we accept this consideration, the Greek Revival buildings in America, such as the magnificent Butler Library continue to remind us of the aesthetics of classical Athenian art and architecture, to participate in classical education –as represented here by the names on the inscriptions – and to keep its timeless ideals and human values active, precisely as they are promoted by Columbia University, its humanist studies and Hellenic Studies Program,” he concluded, thanking all for their time.