By Calder Loth
October 2, 2011
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s Advisory Council
Figure 1: The Hephaisteion as found and drawn by Stuart and Revett, Antiquities of Athens, Vol. 3, Chap. 1, Plate 1.
The Hephaisteion, the best preserved of all Greek temples, stands proudly in the Agora, the civic center and market place of ancient Athens. Completed by 415 B.C., the temple was dedicated Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and metalworking. (His Roman equivalent is Vulcan). Because several of the temple’s metopes have sculptures representing the achievements of Theseus, including his slaying the Minotaur, it was long believed that the building was originally dedicated to Theseus. Thus, the temple is often referred to as the Theseion, particularly in 18th and 19th-century literature. However, scholars have since correctly identified it as the Hephaisteion, and it will be referred to as such below. The temple was made famous by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, who recorded it thoroughly during their expedition to Greece in 1751-55.[i] However, their plans, elevations, sections, and details of the temple were not published until 1795 when the third volume of their renowned Antiquities of Athens was issued. (Figure 2) These captivating images have inspired numerous interpretations of the temple throughout Europe and America, all employing the temple’s signature element: its bold hexastyle Doric portico. The eleven examples illustrated here are just a handful of the many versions. The variety of building types is an indication of the adaptability of the form. They range from a garden folly to residences, churches, a synagogue, a school, a library, and a masonic memorial.
Figure 2: The Hephaisteion, restored elevation, Antiquities of Athens, Vol. III, Chap. 1, Plate III.
A characteristic of the Hephaisteion that few people appreciate is its diminutive size. Its column shafts are only seventeen feet high. The portico is barely forty-two feet wide. (The Parthenon portico is 101 feet wide.) However, the Hephaisteion was given visual prominence by its placement at the edge of a steep bank so that it conveys monumentality when viewed from the Agora below. (Figure 3) Most of the modern interpretations of the Hephaisteion are a larger scale. Moreover, Stuart and Revett failed to note some of the temple’s refinements. For instance, they did not detect the subtle entasis of the columns and illustrated them with tapering sides. The entasis was a later discovery. As a result, some of the interpretations of the Hephaisteion’s portico have tapered columns while others show entasis.
Figure 3: The Hephaisteion as seen from the Agora (Loth)
James Stuart provided his own version of the Hephaisteion with his garden temple for the park at Hagley, considered the earliest example of Greek Revival architecture in Britain, if not anywhere. (Figure 4) Built 1758-59, the temple was one of Stuart’s first commissions following his return from Greece in 1755. Lord Lyttelton, who commissioned the structure, wrote that Stuart was going to embellish one of Hagley’s hills with “a true Attick building, a Portico of six pillars, which will make a fine Object to my new House, and command a most beautiful View of the Country.”[ii] The temple is primarily a façade, an eye-catcher in the landscape. Because Stuart’s Hephaisteion drawings were not published until 1795, seven years after his death in 1788, only two versions of this ancient temple, both by Stuart, were built in Britain prior to publication.[iii]
Figure 4: Hagley garden temple, Hagley Park, Worcestershire, U.K. (Country Life)
Among the boldest of Hephaisteion-inspired works, and one of the first to be built following the publication of Volume III of Antiquities of Athens, is Grange Park in Hampshire, designed by William Wilkins and built in 1804-09. (Figure 5) The present composition is actually a wrapping of an existing house with a monumental Greek Revival case rendered in Roman cement. Its huge Doric portico is considerably larger than its ancient precedent. It suggests the peripteral temple form by projecting two bays rather than being prostyle (a single row of columns). Instead of sculpted metopes, Wilkins employed wreathes based on those shown in Stuart and Revett’s restoration drawing of the frieze of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus. Wilkins’ more famous work, the National Gallery on London’s Trafalgar Square, appears feeble compared to Grange Park.
Figure 5: Grange Park, Hampshire, U.K. (Loth)
Probably the most literal interpretation of the Hephaisteion is the Theseustempel in Vienna’s Volksgarten, designed by Pietro von Nobile and completed in 1823. (Figure 6) The building closely replicates the diminutive proportions of the Hephaisteion but its sides extend for only ten columns rather than the thirteen of the original. Believing at the time that the Athenian temple was built to honor Theseus, its form was chosen because the Vienna structure was to house Antonio Canova’s famous sculpture of Theseus slaying the Minotaur. The sculpture was removed from the building in 1890 and is now displayed on the stair landing in the nearby Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Figure 6: Theseustempel, Vienna, Austria (Loth)
Some of the finest Greek Revival buildings in Britain are found in Scotland where the Antiquities of Athens was the primary source of inspiration. With its several conspicuous Grecian-style structures, Edinburgh became known as the ‘Athens of the North.’ Glasgow is replete with Grecian landmarks by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson. It is not unusual, however, to find sophisticated Grecian-style works even in a small city such as Elgin. Its town center is dominated by the bold Doric portico of the 1827 St. Giles’s Church, designed by Archibald Simpson of Aberdeen. (Figure 7) Simpson mixed elements from Antiquities of Athens in his scheme. While the hexastyle portico is clearly based on the Hephaisteion, the frieze wreaths are taken from the Thrasyllus monument, and the cupola is copied from Stuart and Revett’s engravings of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.
Figure 7: St. Giles’s Church, Elgin, Scotland (Loth)
New England architect Ammi B. Young established his reputation as an accomplished designer with his Vermont State House, built 1833-38. Having learned the classical language under the tutelage of Asher Benjamin, author of several pattern books promoting Grecian forms, Young made the state house a monument of the Greek Revival style. Its dominant element was a massive Hephaisteion portico with columns of Barre granite. The Vermont State House burned in 1857, but the portico and sections of the walls survived, and were incorporated into a new, expanded state house designed by Thomas Silloway and completed in 1859. (Figure 8) Silloway replaced Young’s low saucer dome with a taller, Renaissance-style dome. Young’s design for the Boston Custom House (completed 1849) also had Hephaisteion-type porticos and a low saucer dome. Its dome was removed when the skyscraper-type tower was imposed on the building in 1915.[iv]
Figure 8: Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont (yesvy.blogspot.com)
One of America’s foremost promoters of the Greek Revival style was Nicholas Biddle, a prominent Philadelphia statesman and president of the Bank of the United States. Biddle was also a scholar of classical Greek literature and had traveled in Greece as a young man where he saw the ancient temples firsthand. Through his 1811 marriage to Jane Craig, he became the proprietor Andalusia, his wife’s family estate on the Delaware River, north of Philadelphia. With his interest in Greek architecture, Biddle commissioned Thomas U. Walter to expand the original Andalusia house, part of which was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and built in 1806. The resulting river front became one of the country’s purest evocations of the Hephaisteion, with sturdy Doric columns clasping the front portion of the mansion. (Figure 9) Walter had learned the Greek architectural vocabulary from William Strickland, who under Biddle’s patronage had designed the Second Bank of the United States, the octastyle porticoes of which are based on the Parthenon.
Figure 9: Andalusia, Bensalem, Pennsylvania (Loth)
By the 1840s, the Greek Revival style had become de rigueur in Charleston. Thus, it didn’t occur to the members of the Beth Elohim Synagogue to question the pagan symbolism of the Hephaisteion when it was presented as the model for the new building to replace the original structure lost to fire. Various architects submitted designs for a new synagogue, including Charles Reichardt, a native of Germany who had studied under Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and had introduced high-style Grecian architecture to Charleston. It is uncertain whether Reichardt’s submission was selected, nonetheless, the winning design for a Greek Doric temple was sent to Cyrus Warner in New York to be made into working drawings. (Figure 10) Completed in 1842, the building’s hexastyle portico closely echoes the Hephaisteion’s although the columns are set on a podium rather than a stereobate (a surrounding platform of three steps).
Figure 10: Temple Beth Elohim, Charleston, South Carolina (Loth)
If Charleston could have a synagogue based on the Hephaisteion, it could just as well have a Baptist Church so ordered. Architect Edward Brickell White competed with Beth Elohim nearby with his design for the Second Baptist Church, built 1841-42. (Figure 11) White’s detailing is no less academic than the synagogue’s, and faithfully conveys the virility of the ancient temple. Even though the building is prostyle, its portico is set on three graduated steps suggesting a proper stereobate, a nicety that most of its Hephaisteion-style contemporaries avoid. Nevertheless, the church lacks the dramatic siting of a Greek temple by being placed hard on a narrow urban street. The Baptists later sold the property to a Methodist congregation and the building was renamed Centenary Methodist Church.
Figure 11: Second Baptist Church, Charleston, South Carolina (Loth)
Baltimore architect Robert Cary Long, Jr. chose the Hephaisteion portico to set off the center section of his design for the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, completed in 1846 in Staunton. (Figure 12) Under the circumstances, one might think that a more user-friendly feature could have been selected. Long, however, was dedicated to the Grecian mode. He learned the style while training in New York in the circle of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, both of whom were highly influenced by Stuart and Revett’s volumes. The academic correctness of the Staunton building exhibits Long’s early mastery of the style. Considerably larger than its ancient model, the portico is the binding agent a building with very long wings for which the original contract stated: “there shall be absolute separation of the two classes.” [v] While admittedly intimidating, the powerful portico remains symbolic of the pride exhibited in state’s antebellum institutional architecture.[vi]
Figure 12: Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, Staunton, Virginia (Loth)
Appropriately enough, some of the finest of all Neo-Greek works are found in Athens. A series of public buildings erected in the years following the establishment of the Greek state in 1832 took the ancient images for their own and became icons of national identity. The most ambitious undertaking was the complex of three institutional buildings on Athens’ Panepistimiou Square, consisting of the Academy, the University, and the National Library, all designed by the Danish architect Theophilus Hansen. Hansen’s design for the National Library, built 1885-1903, drew on the Hephaisteion for inspiration, but, as with most of the temple’s modern interpretations, the building was prostyle, not peripteral like the original. (Figure 13) A singular feature of Hansen’s scheme is the sweeping double staircase leading up the hexastyle Doric portico, a remarkable essay in marble. As with several versions of the Hephaisteion, Hansen added acroteria to the pediment. Stuart and Revett gave no indication that the original was ever so embellished.
Figure 13: National Library of Greece, Athens (Loth)
Among the 20th-century versions of the Hephaisteion portico, a most conspicuous one is that marking the entrance to the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. (Figure 14) The fact that Washington was a Mason (and lived close by), motivated the nation’s Masons to celebrate it with an astonishing structure housing a memorial hall, auditorium, ceremonial rooms, museum and many other Masonic facilities. Designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett of the New York firm of Helmle & Corbett, the building was begun in 1922 and dedicated in 1932. Its towering profile is based on the ancient lighthouse at Ostia Antica, but is also inspired by the ca. 280 B.C lighthouse of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt, one of seven wonders of the ancient world. The Alexandria lighthouse reference was thought appropriate for Alexandria, Virginia. Masonic buildings typically draw from classical sources, hence the bold Greek Doric portico of pink Conway granite made a suitable base for the massive tower. The columns are 33 feet high, nearly twice the height of the Hephaisteion’s.
Figure 14: George Washington Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia (Loth)
The several examples presented here illustrate how this specific ancient temple, built some 2500 years ago, has shaped the image of an amazing variety of building types. These buildings and many others serve as demonstrations of the adaptability of Greek forms and how they can lend timelessness and dignity to buildings. We might ask whether it is appropriate to apply the Hephaisteion portico to 21st-century works of architecture. While there is certainly no law against it, it’s not likely to happen. So this raises the question: why not? Perhaps members of the ICAA and readers of the Classicist blog can offer opinions on the subject.
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