Why are there columns in front of my [Courthouse] [City Hall] [Prison] [Post Office] [Library]?

Throughout the United States – and particularly the original thirteen colonies – there is a common site in towns of all shapes and sizes: a large, monumental public building featuring multi-story columns. But why is this? Why did the architects of public buildings – whether in 1840 or 1910 – prefer to design buildings that look like they belong in ancient Greece or Rome?

In Colonial America, most architecture was simple and vernacular; that is, regional, based upon dominant group of immigrants that settled a given area. In central and Lehigh Valley, PA, as well as central MD, German colonial architecture was common. In larger cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, the English-influenced Georgian was the norm. New Amsterdam (New York) saw a preponderance of Dutch-influenced buildings, while other parts of the colonies drew a heavy influence from Spanish or French architecture.

After the American Revolution, architects shied away from the traditional Georgian style, instead preferring the refrained Federal style. And while this was in some ways an attempt to get away from the English-Georgian connotation, the Federal style was actually adapted from the designs of the British Adams brothers. This Federal (aka Adamsesque) style found its way throughout the colonies, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that a truly national style proliferated. This style is known as “Greek Revival,” and was an attempt to emulate the buildings of ancient Greece. The style had as much to do with political statement as with architectural styling: after all, this was a new nation drawn to the ideals of democracy found in ancient Greece.

In addition to being a patriot and president, Thomas Jefferson was also an architect, providing designs for the University of Virginia as well as his own home, Monticello. Jefferson was also heavily involved with designing the Virginia State Capitol, which was influenced by the Maison Carree, a Roman temple in southern France. Though Roman in design, the correlation of ancient temples to the concepts of liberty and justice was cemented.

As president, Jefferson appointed Benjamin Latrobe as Surveyor of Public Buildings of the United States. Latrobe was a practicing architect in Philadelphia, and designed the first Greek Revival building in the United States, the Bank of Pennsylvania. One of his more famous commissions was design of the Baltimore Basilica. Latrobe supervised construction of the U.S. Capitol building and added the Greek portico to the reconstructed White House.

After the War of 1812, many monumental buildings were constructed in Washington DC, incorporating Greek and Roman architectural traditions. This in turn spread to communities across the country, and city halls, county courthouses, post offices, museums, libraries, and other buildings were constructing using these classical styles. Classical Revival is sometimes used to describe the movement, with Neoclassical Revival used to refer to the architecture of the early 20th century incorporating Greek and Roman precedents. Even the lavish Beaux Arts Classicism, named for the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, utilized classical details from ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

The most popular variant of classical architecture in county and municipal buildings is a multi-story (known as monumental) portico on the front of the building, supported by columns with classical capitals (Ionic, Doric, Tuscan, Corinthian). In some cases the buildings exhibit Federal or even Georgian design features on the remainder of the building, while in other cases they mimic the “temple” design of antiquity.

So why are their columns in front of public buildings in your community? Because for 200 years the Greek ideals of democracy and Roman ideals of justice have inspired public architecture in the United States.