John Haviland: Playing Out the Greek Option

Washington Square South with First Presbyterian Church and the Orange Street Friends Meeting in the distance, ca. 1885. Neither one survive. (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library)

When British-trained architect John Haviland arrived in Philadelphia, some took him for a Benjamin Henry Latrobe doppelganger. But where Latrobe had been ahead of his time, introducing the architecture of ancient Greece at the turn of the century, Haviland, in 1816, was right on time.

For more than half a century, The Antiquities of Athens had been known as a library book filled with illustrations drawn from Grecian ruins by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. First Latrobe, then Haviland and eventually many others saw value in applying these design ideas, and helped them migrate from printed page to city street. Ancient Greece had been the original Democracy. So why not whet the American appetite for archeological accuracy in everything Grecian, from clothing to buildings. But there was more: in the 1820s, the Greek struggle for independence played out in the Mediterranean, yet another chapter in the millennia-long struggle between Christians and Muslims. And the United States had a stake in the outcome. When Greek independence became a reality in 1832, Americans felt more justified than ever in choosing, and celebrating, the Greek option.

At first, Philadelphians engaged in some serious tiptoeing toward what would eventually become a full-fledged Greek Revival. In 1818, the directors of the Second Bank opened a design competition calling for “a chaste specimen of Greek architecture.” Haviland had a design for just such a building—and had exhibited it at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts the year before—but that’s long lost. And not much else of that bank competition survives. As Matthew Baigell, Haviland’s biographer tells us, “some ten tons of documents pertaining to the Bank…were rendered into pulp” in the 1840s. What we do know is that William Strickland won the competition with his close interpretation of the Parthenon in Pennsylvania marble drawn straight from The Antiquities of Athens.

First Presbyterian Church, 7th and South Washington Square, ca. 1930. (PhillyHistory.org).

Haviland would have to bide his time with minor projects and his own three-volume book, The Builder’s Assistant (1818-1821), the first American pattern book offering up detailed Greek and Roman orders. When Haviland finally landed his first big commission, the First Presbyterian Church on Washington Square in 1820, his building was drawn, just as Strickland’s and Latrobe’s banks were, straight from the illustration of the Temple on the Ilissus in Antiquities of Athens. There weren’t funds to cast it in marble, so Haviland had the church’s portico constructed in red and white cedar and painted with enough sand in the mix so that it would look like marble. And no matter that it wasn’t any closer to the real thing; the First Presbyterian Church could claim the title as the first Greek Revival church in America.

Ionic temple of the Ilissus. Elevation of the portico from James Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens, 1762. (Smithsonian Institution Libraries.)

As it turned out, the new church style was popular. Two years later, and one block away, Haviland delivered another congregation a building based on the temple of Dionysus at Teos. Saint Andrews Episcopal Church survives today as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint George. Through the 1830s and beyond, the Greek option would continue to thrive.

But archeological correctness wasn’t always possible, and it wasn’t even always desirable. In 1825, when Haviland designed a building for the Franklin Institute (now the Philadelphia History Museum) he turned again to Stuart and Revett illustration of the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus. This time, Haviland made the façade his own and, as Baigell observed, and “resolved his composition more successfully than did his Greek predecessor.”

Haviland’s urge to make Greek replicas was strong, but his passion to design turned out to be even more powerful. He preferred the “Greek feeling for restraint and delicacy” wrote Talbot Hamlin, but “realized the dangers of pure copying.” Even at the First Presbyterian Church, Haviland didn’t allow the original to dictate his design. To accommodate site limitations he removed the original staircase. Sometimes, in Haviland’s published designs, he could be “free…almost to the point of eccentricity” fearlessly “combining new, creative forms with Greek detail.” And in the case of his castellated Eastern State Penitentiary, the largest, most important and influential of Haviland’s projects, here was a medieval breakaway, even if, as  Baigell wondered, “the Athenian Propylea lies somewhere in the genesis of the central portion of this design.” The drive to create lit the way: it was only a matter of time before Haviland, as well as others, would leave behind the Greek option.

What was going through Haviland’s creative imagination in the 1820s? For a hint, we turn to his portrait from 1828 by John Neagle. Next to Haviland leans a depiction of his completed penitentiary. In his right hand, a brass compass points to the inventive heart of the project, Haviland’s panopticon plan. The architect’s hand rests comfortably, if not lovingly, on his copy of the book that was the starting point for it all: Stuart’s Athens.

Once Haviland was able to convince his clients that there was more potential in invention than in archeological correctness, his creative juices, and this career, took off. So long as his buildings followed the basic principles of good design, he could dress them up in any style the occasion might require. And when these design doors flew open, Haviland would consider the Greek an option, but only one. After that, he’d choose whatever struck his fancy: Gothic, Egyptian, Japanese.

Haviland had played out the Greek option; now the eclectic possibilities for American architectural styles seemed endless.

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