Hitting the Palladian Trail

Palladio's Influence on American Architecture

Andrea Palladio is popular these days, thanks to the commemoration of his 500th birthday. But the Italian Renaissance architect was also esteemed in early America, where his genius inspired a wealth of buildings. From Thomas Jefferson's Virginia landmarks to scores of the lesser-known, they greatly influenced our architectural growth.

Why was America so keen on this distant genius? Credit Britain—starting with architect Inigo Jones, who visited Palladio's buildings in the early 17th century and used The Four Books of Architecture to shape his own designs, most famously Queen's House in Greenwich (1635). Not until the 18th century, though, did Palladianism bloom, abetted by gentleman-scholars like Lord Burlington, who modeled Chiswick House (1729) on Villa Rotonda. The new veneration led to many a Palladian country house.

It was natural for colonists to import the trend. As in Britain, Palladianism was disseminated through the Four Books and pattern guides by Robert Morris and other architects, and by skilled builders. Although Jefferson was not the first to promote Palladio in America, he became the Italian's biggest fan, owning seven editions of the Four Books, which he called "the Bible."

Palladio's work is diverse, and so is his American progeny. But it can be loosely grouped into rectangular houses with monumental porticos, cubic houses with two-tiered porticos, and linear five- or seven-part houses. Overlaps and variations occur, of course, and public structures rendered the legacy their own way. You can find Palladian buildings in most of the 13 colonies, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and South. Here are some fine examples: 

Redwood Library (1750, Newport, R.I.)

Yorkshire-born Peter Harrison, an avocational architect, based this structure on a plate in a 1736 English version of the Four Books. The classical portico dominating the library was one of the first in the colonies. Low half-pediment wings extend the slope of the portico on each side, and, to mimic stone, the wood surface is scored into blocks and coated with textured paint. Harrison also designed nearby Touro Synagogue and Brick Market.  

Mount Airy (1764, near Warsaw, Va.)

A plate in Scottish architect James Gibbs' popular 1728 guide, A Book of Architecture, inspired this stone Tidewater plantation house for the Tayloe family. The mansion's central feature is a round-arched entrance loggia on the south side, a device Palladio used on some of his villas instead of a portico. Mt. Airy's very Palladian plan links the central block via curving passageways to two end pavilions. [Private]

Whitehall (1764, near Annapolis, Md.)

One of the first American houses with a complete classical portico, Whitehall was commissioned by Gov. Horatio Sharpe and designed in part by William Buckland, a craftsman-builder from Oxfordshire who worked on many Maryland and Virginia houses, including Mount Airy. The house, which boasts fine interior detailing, consists of a single-story central block flanked by hyphens and end pavilions. [Private]

Brandon (1765, Prince George County, Va.)

The plan and massing of this seven-part villa come from a plate in Robert Morris' 1755 book Select Architecture. It is an architectural sibling of Battersea in nearby Petersburg, lengthened by the use of wings (in addition to hyphens) to flank the central block. The simplicity of its red-brick walls, unlike most Virginia colonial mansions, suggests Brandon was meant to be stuccoed. [Private]

Miles Brewton House (1769, Charleston, S.C.)

With its two-tiered portico, this in-town house is similar to both Drayton Hall and Villa Cornaro in Italy (all three resemble drawings in Palladio's Four Books). Built by a slave trader and merchant, it is one of Charleston's most famous houses. Visitors ascend to the portico on a grand pair of marble stairs and enter a finely ornamented interior crowned with a large and lofty second-floor drawing room. [Private]       

Monticello (1770-1809) (near Charlottetesville, Va.)

Any exploration of American Palladianism leads to Monticello. But Jefferson's famous house was really two houses, the second built over the bones of the first, each Palladian in its own way. The first, started in 1770 but not fully built, was a three-part structure with two-tiered portico and wings, its plan from Morris' Select Architecture and facade from Palladio. The makeover, begun in 1796 after a trip to France gave Jefferson new ideas, resulted in a long, low house with a single portico, a facade stressing the main floor, and a dome (Virginia's first). The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America calls the second Monticello "partly French, partly British, partly Italian, and mostly Jefferson."   

Jefferson's Palladian bent guided his other works—mainly Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, Va.; the Virginia Capitol in Richmond; and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (below)—and friends' houses like Bremo (below). He also submitted an anonymous proposal for the president's house in Washington, a dead ringer for Palladio's Villa Rotonda.

Hammond-Harwood House (1774, Annapolis, Md.)

This is William Buckland's last and greatest work. The large main block is distinguished by a slightly projecting central section focused on an elegantly carved doorway—showing off Buckland as a wood carver and joiner—and topped with a pediment. The asymmetrical floor plan and polygonal fronts of the end pavilions depart from typical Palladianism.

Homewood (1802, Baltimore, Md.)

Built in a then-suburban area, Homewood is a superb example of the encounter of Palladianism with the Federal style. The five-part villa, with a slender-columned portico, shows great refinement of ornament both outside and within. The floor plan is strictly symmetrical and notable for the axial hallway that connects all of the rooms. Johns Hopkins University restored the house in 1987.

Gore Place (1806, Waltham, Mass.)

With her interest in architecture bolstered by trips to England and France, Rebecca Payne Gore was likely the designer of this country mansion for herself and husband, Sen. Christopher Gore. The brick villa's hyphens and pavilions extend from both sides of a central block, marked by two widely separated entrances. The massive curving wall projecting from the rear reflects the oval drawing room within.

Bremo (1820, Bremo Bluff, Va.)

John Nielson, Jefferson's builder, designed Bremo, which architectural historian Calder Loth calls "the most Palladian house in America." Its large central block boasts a Tuscan portico on the entrance side and a columned loggia on the rear, plus side porches and long low service wings that lead to porticoed pavilions. Jeffersonian features abound, from the portico to the Chinese lattice railings. The cupola-topped brick-and-stone barn resembles those in the Veneto. [Private]

University of Virginia campus (1825, Charlottesville, Va.)

A domed library called the Rotunda, modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, is the focus of this famous design by Thomas Jefferson, which he called an "academical village." Sloping down from the library are parallel rows of dormitories interrupted by classroom and faculty pavilions. Each illustrates different versions of the classical orders, five derived from Palladio. Colonnades unify the group, and gardens separate the rows from outer rows of dormitories. The campus and Monticello are World Heritage Sites.

As the country expanded, Palladianism spread west of the mountains, especially into Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. An example:

William Morton House (1810, Lexington, Ky.)  

A wealthy merchant built this single-story house, its three hip-roofed blocks separated by two slender gabled hyphens. A tall door and two huge Palladian windows punctuate the central section of the facade, whose stucco surface is scored at the corners to resemble stone quoins. The interior flirts with, but evades, symmetry. Located in a city park, the house is slated for restoration.

Palladianism showed great staying power, and drove our enduring devotion to classical architecture. Well after the colonial and early national eras, American buildings still favored the look of ancient Greece and Rome. Classicism symbolized power and permanence, after all, and the new country wanted to convey those qualities to the world. Governments were especially fond of going classical—in capitols, courthouses, city halls, schools, and post offices. The private sector was also smitten: Think of those domed banks, temple-fronted churches, and, of course, porticoed houses.

Palladian forms—and the classical spirit—remain popular to this day, influencing post-modern architecture (and beyond). Two striking results stand in South Bend, Ind. Duncan and Ruth Stroik designed Villa Indiana (1994) after Palladian villas they visited and studied, calling the clapboarded house "a grand little building constructed out of simple materials for a small family." Thomas Gordon Smith created Vitruvian House (1990), a three-part, temple-fronted structure based on classical precepts and Midwestern Greek Revival architecture. Other buildings include Robert A.M. Stern's Darden Business  School at the University of Virginia (1996), which revisits Jeffersonian Palladianism; and Michael Graves' Team Disney Building (1991) in Burbank, Calif., at which six of the Seven Dwarfs star as huge columns (the seventh, Dopey, gets pride of place in the pediment above).

Read more: An excellent survey of American Palladianism is Palladio's Influence in America, a series of essays by Calder Loth for The Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America.


For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed