It is important to keep in mind the origins of the United States of America—the obstacles it took to gain independence and the principles upon which it was founded. This country was established through the timeless principles of liberty and order. The architecture constructed represents these principles.

The prefix neo- means “new” and classical describes the Classical Orders. Neoclassical architecture was a movement that began in Europe in the 1700s, during the development of the United States. This style was inspired by the classics of the ancient Greeks and Romans and influenced the founders of the new America.

The Founding Fathers of this nation drew upon the ideals of the Renaissance period. They were inspired by the writings of Renaissance architects, primarily of Andrea Palladio and Giacomo da Vignola, and their accounts of the well-proportioned characteristics of Ancient Greece and Rome. They identified with the image of Imperial Rome—the empire for liberty—exemplifying the nation they sought to establish.

American leaders modeled government structures after Palladian architecture, a style characterized by symmetry and proportion. The order and logic that produced its balanced geometry symbolized the principles of justice and democracy established by these Ancients. While the Founding Fathers of the United States wrote the constitution and developed this new nation, they turned to the Classics as a source of inspiration to model their government structures.

Palladio praised the temples when he wrote:  “. . . the ancient Greeks and Romans expended the greatest care on them and composed them with the most beautiful architecture so that they were built with the most magnificent ornaments and finest proportions.”

—Calder Loth, National Building Museum

NEOCLASSICAL CHARACTERISTICS AND EXAMPLES

  • Balanced symmetry of building layout, shape and fenestration—window placement
  • Columns and colonnades—row of columns
  • Pediments—triangular roof gable above the entablature
  • Entablatures—horizontal band supported by columns
  • Domes and colonnade-surrounded drums
  • Portico entries—open roofed space surrounded by a colonnade

 

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

White House

A colonnade supports an entablature below the pediment of the square entrance portico projecting from the north facade of the White House. A balcony sits between the two-story-high columns on the round portico of the south facade.

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U.S. Capitol

At the U.S. Capitol Building, balance is achieved in the symmetry of the dome and colonnades flanked by two wings of the floor plan. Atop the dome sits the bronze Statue of Freedom, a classical, female figure designed by artist, Thomas Crawford, and constructed in 1863.

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U.S. Archives

Completed in 1937 and keeping with the Neoclassic style, a colonnade of Corinthian columns surrounds the projecting entrance portico of the National Archives. Above the entablature sits a triangular pediment that contains a relief with figures borrowed from the Ancients.

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Lincoln Memorial

With an entablature supported by its colonnade, the Lincoln Memorial was constructed in the form of a Greek Doric temple.

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VIRGINIA

Monticello

The influence of the design principles used by Andrea Palladio in the Villa Capra “La Rotunda,” or Villa Rotunda, is seen in Thomas Jefferson’s iconic home in Charlottesville, Virginia, whose name Monticello means “little mount” in Italian. In 1987, Jefferson’s Monticello was named an UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with his Academical Village at the University of Virginia.

 

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