Excerpts from "American Architecture" in United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1843) by Horatio Greenough
Saunders plan for a Greek Revival Custom House in Salem
The mind of this country has never been seriously applied to the subject of building. Intently engaged in matters of more pressing importance, we
have been content to receive of notions of architecture as we have received the fashion of our garments and the form of our entertainments, from
Europe. In our eagerness to appropriate, we have neglected to adapt, to distinguish,-nay, to understand. We have built small gothic temples of wood
and have omitted all ornaments for economy, unmindful that size, material, and ornament are the elements of effect in that style of building.
Captivated by the classic symmetry of the Athenian models, we have sought to bring the Parthenon into our streets, to make the temple of Theseus work
in our towns. We have shorn them of their lateral colonnades, we have let them down from their dignified platform, pierced their walls for light,
and instead of the storied relief and the eloquent statues which enriched the frieze and graced the pediment, we have made our chimneytops to peer
over the broken profile and tell, by their rising smoke, of the traffic and desecration of the interior.
At the heart of Greenough's arguement is his assertion :
...It is not the real thing. We see the marble capitals; we trace the acanthus leaves of a celebrated model-incredulous; it is not a temple.
Greenough suggests an architecture based on need and function would be more suitable.
Let us now turn to a structure of our own, one which from its nature and uses, commands us to reject authority, and we shall find the result of the
manly use of plain good sense, so like that of taste, and genius too, as scarce to require a distinctive title. Observe a ship at sea! Mark the
majestic form of her hull as she rushes through the water, observe the graceful bend of her body, the gentle transition from round to flat, the
grasp of her keel, the leap of her bows, the symmetry and rich tracery of her spars and rigging, and those grand wind muscles, her sails. Behold an
organization second only to that of an animal, obedient as the horse, swift as the stag, and bearing the burden of a thousand camels from pole to
pole! What academy of design, what research of connoisseurship, what imitation of the Greeks produced this marvel of construction? Here is the
result of the study of man upon the great deep, where Nature spake of the laws of building, not in the feather and n the flower, but in the winds
and waves, and he bent all his mind to hear and obey. Could we carry into our civil architecture the responsibilities that weigh upon our
shipbuilding, we should ere long have edifices as superior to the Parthenon, for the purposes that we require, as the Constitution or the
Pennsylvania is to the galley of the Argonauts. Could our blunders on terra firma be put to the same dread test that those of shipbuilders are,
little would be left to say on this subject.
Instead of forcing the functions of every sort of building into one general form, adopting an outward shape for the sake of the eye or of
association, without reference to the inner distribution, let us begin from the heart as the nucleus, and work outward.
Greenough had the utmost respect for the architectural accomplishments of the ancients, but challenged his countrymen to equal, not imitate their
The monuments of Egypt and Greece are sublime as expressions of their power and their feeling. The modern nation that appropriates them displays
only wealth in so doing.
If, from what has been thus far said, it shall have appeared that we regard the Greek masters as aught less than the true apostles of
correct taste in building, we have been misunderstood. We believe firmly and fully that they can teach us; but let us learn principles, not copy
shapes; let us imitate them like men, and not ape them like monkeys.