Last month, I touched briefly upon the prominence of the Greek Revival style of architecture throughout our region, a topic worth fleshing out further this month.
The historic pathways along which architectural styles moved in New York state served to bring people and ideas to our area. The westward route from Albany to Buffalo, on which the Old Genesee Road, Erie Canal, and, much later, the Thruway are based, merely embraced and accommodated an earlier ancient overland trail. Travelers from New York City and New England moved up the Hudson Valley, west through the Mohawk and the aforementioned trail, and then down along the shore of Lake Erie on their way to “New Connecticut,” as Ohio was known in the very early years of our nation. With these travelers came the religious and educational ideals that were born in the homogeneous culture of New England, destined to be transformed by the more diverse landscape and populations arriving in upstate New York.
New York City, Philadelphia and other urban areas were the first places to build in the Greek Revival style, as the architects employed by the new government turned to the classical world to find inspiration. In order to create a truly “new” American architecture, they adapted ancient Roman and Greek examples to the new world. These buildings were large-scale and monumental early versions of the style, almost experimental in their tentative use of the column orders (Ionic, Doric, etc.) and trim treatments. In the 1820s, the Hudson Valley became the home of increasingly rich landowners from New York, who built their sprawling estates in the latest fashions brought from the cities. As the New Englanders crossed the Hudson and connected with these New Yorkers, the two groups moved west and merged and developed their styles. After the opening of the Erie Canal, a refined and polished type of Greek Revival architecture eventually emerged in the Finger Lakes and points further west. The stylistic attributes of the wealthy Hudson Valley mansions were scaled back, and the smaller homes and farmsteads in central New York took on more dignified and original versions.
One of the ways in which this style was disseminated so widely was by pattern books. Pattern books were printed instructions, with illustrations, for the building of homes and other structures. When travel and commerce increased with the Erie Canal, pattern books reached farther. With few architects around to accommodate the demand for new homes, carpenters went to work with their pattern books.
One of the most influential pattern books in central New York in the second quarter of the 19th century was Minard LaFever’s "The Modern Builders Guide," printed in 1833. LaFever was a carpenter in the Finger Lakes in the 1820s. He met and married his wife in Newark and may have designed many of the region’s buildings that bear his stylistic signature. One example is the house at 68 South St., at one time known as the Baldwin House. Built in 1838, the overall form of a central, two-story, four-column Ionic porch flanked by lower wings was a clear take on a design found in LaFever’s 1833 work. Also inspired by LaFever are the 1.5-story Greek Revival cottages with decorative cast iron grills over the frieze windows frequently spotted in Finger Lakes towns and hamlets. LaFever most definitely maintained upstate contacts after he left for New York City. It is likely, but not proven, that he furnished or oversaw design work at the myriad homes and barns that bear his architectural style.
Forms inspired by LaFever and other Greek Revival pattern books can found throughout the Finger Lakes. A leisurely drive along the highways between and around the lakes will reveal the sheer numbers of this type of home. Hopefully, it will also add a new dimension to the landscape, showcasing the bold effort made by skilled carpenters working from pattern books using available materials. Lumber was not purchased at Lowe's; timbers were cut and hewn by hand from nearby woods. Bricks could not be brought by the trainload from factories in Ohio, but were made from the local soil and cooked in neighbor’s kilns. Learning and understanding the evolution of the built environment teaches everything one needs to know about a landscape, the people who inhabited it, and the values they held. Those same buildings can teach us about ourselves as well, because those same values are reflected by the buildings we choose to leave standing.