The Greek Revival architecture of the American one-room school is a symbolic reflection of our national democratic ideals. More than one hundred and fifty years ago reformers and educators began to claim that the schoolhouse was fundamental to the education of our nation’s young. One of the most prominent school reformers of the nineteenth-century, Henry Bernard, stated that “Every schoolhouse should be a temple, consecrated in prayer to the physical, intellectual, and moral culture of every child in the community and be associated in every heart with the earliest and strongest impression of truth, justice, patriotism and religion.” (1) By the 1820’s, our nation’s emerging prominence as a democratic republic coupled with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution helped to create the conditions which led to the common school movement. In the three decades before the Civil War, Americans looked to Ancient Greece as their inspiration.
By the 1820’s, America was a much different country than the one that our framers had known less than fifty years before. The1820’s was the harbinger of the great societal changes that would transform the American from agrarian to industrial. Although politically this may have been an “Era of Good Feeling” with little political factionalism it was a period in which significant societal changes were unfolding . Many of the societal changes were helped created by an emerging industrial revolution, increased urbanization, immigration, an agrarian revolution and rapid advances in transportation and communication. These changes had a tremendous symbiotic effect on each other.
During this ante-bellum period America was beginning to feel her strength as a nation and many Americans felt that our spirit and system of government were a rebirth of the spirit of the Ancient Greek Republic.
Around 1820 the western world became extremely interested in Ancient Greek history, art and architecture. This revival of classical Greek culture was somewhat fueled by the Greek War for Independence (1821-1831). Admiring Ancient Greek culture, and thrilling to the republican rhetoric that resembled their own Americans developed a strong sympathy for the Greek rebels “In October, 1822, the Washington National Intelligencer alleged that nothing occupied the public mind as much as Greece, and newspapers reported large pro-Greek rallies in various parts of the country.” (2) New towns in America were being named for Greek cities and heroes. Names like Cicero, Attica, Sparta, Syracuse, Troy, etc. dotted the landscape. Little Greek temples grew everywhere in the form of houses, churches, schools and public buildings.
Although it may seem more likely that the Greek Revival should have begun in America with our framers fifty years before, this would be a demonstration of revisionist history. Of course, there were certainly hints of a Greek revival at the time of the framers. Greek architectural forms were probably first known in America through the book, The Antiquities of Athens, by Stuart and Revett, in fact, Jefferson owned a copy of the first edition. Benjamin Latrobe had designed the first Greek revival style building in America, the Bank of Pennsylvania, in 1798. Architectural historian Roger Kennedy feels that the conditions at the time of the founding were not conclusive for America to embrace the symbolic significance of Classical Greece. In the Eighteenth-Century Americans talked about order. It was very important to them. “But in one area of their lives they had assaulted order and invited chaos: their politics were at a variance with their domestic behavior. They had committed symbolic patricide. The King is the father of his people and they had rebelled against him. They had committed the ultimate act of public disorder.” (3)
By the 1820 ‘s the conditions were more favorable for a Greek revival to flourish in America. England perceived as a successor to imperial Rome but America associated their experiment in republicanism with Ancient Greece.
The rapid economic, political and social changes created by the emerging Industrial revolution called for a reappraisal of the value and function ofAmerican education. The chaos created by rapid technological change had created the need for order, especially in the area of education.
The rapid changes in suffrage, industry, agriculture, transportation and immigration prompted an educational reform movement that called for a “common school” core curriculum that would be free of charge for all of our nation ‘s children.
There were economic reasons why this common school philosophy was necessary. The Industrial Revolution had created conditions that demanded an educational system that would help adapt our future workers to a “brave new world.” Free universal education would also help decrease the rising disparity of the have and have-nots by availing every child a similar educational experience.
Advances in transportation gave more opportunities for people from a wider geographical pattern the opportunity to emigrate to America. These new immigrants were somewhat different especially in language, religion and political background compared to what had been previously a fairly homogeneous Anglo-Saxon population. A common education would be needed to train the children of the immigrants in regards to the American ideals. By the 1820’s the need of a self-governing people for universal education had become an important Issue.
Previously, Thomas Jefferson had been a strong proponent for free public education, feeling that universal education was the cornerstone for a strong democracy. He felt that only an educated electorate could make reasonable choices at the ballot box. The center of Jefferson’s classical republic was his concept of ward democracy. This concept of small ward republics was influenced by his understanding of the Greek polis . Jefferson ‘s original motive for establishing ward districts was to provide mass education at public expense to ensure direct citizen participation in local community life.
In Jefferson ‘s view, the educational system of ward districts contributed to the public good by: 1) educating the people sufficiently to participate directly in community affairs and to intelligently select political leaders and representatives 2) by providing advanced learning to those capable of possessing virtue and wisdom and who were best suited to be chosen as political leaders and representatives.
Horace Mann, a prominent leader in the ante-bellum common school reform movement, agreed with Jefferson’s belief that schooling would lay the foundation for the exercise of responsible citizenship but also saw social harmony and elevated morality through education as crucial to the future of the republic. Mann felt a strong relationship between the schoolhouse and civil virtue.
Although the education of Ancient Greeks certainly stressed the political and societal intents of the republic through citizenship training, it is interesting to note that in Ancient Greece there were not many schoolhouses, in fact, much of the instruction was given in outdoor facilities.
The ante-bellum age of reform and self-improvement adopted many of the Ancient Greek concepts for perfection of spirit, mind and body. The Ancient Greek Paideia involved the training of the physical and mental abilities in such a way as to produce a broad enlightened outlook harmoniously combined with maximum cultural development. Educational historian Lawrence Cremins is of the opinion that the ”signal achievement of popular education during the first century of our republic was to help define an American paideia and teach it to a polygot population spread across a continent.” (4)
The ante-bellum period saw other Ancient Greek cultural institutions adapted in the American quest for self-improvement. The Lyceum, which originally was a gymnasium near ancient Athens where Aristotle taught, spawned a lyceum movement in America that represented our educational values through the discussion of cultural affairs. The American Lyceum was only one of the institutions that America adapted from the memory of Ancient Greece. During the same period many New England towns and cities began building private libraries called Athenaeums.
In the early decades of the nineteenth-century Americans developed somewhat of a consensus concerning what a broad-based public educational in the art of self-government should entail.
Most Americans agreed that education should center on three essential components: 1) Popular Schooling-for the purpose of conveying literacy along with a certain common core of knowledge, morality and patriotism. 2) A Free Press-to give voice to multiple views and important issues an to help form enlightened public opinion (the Penny Press was made possible at this time by more inexpensive innovations in paper making and printing along with the expansion of the postal system made this point increasingly more popular). 3) Voluntary Associations-ranging from civic organizations, political parties to agencies of government itself. (5)
Although there may have been a consensus on the common school serving as a training grounds for civic participation there was slant attention paid to what these “democratic nurseries” would look like.
A benchmark year in schoolhouse design was 1831. In that year, William A. Alcott, a school master, won a prize for his essay for his essay on the design of the schoolhouse from the American Institute ofInstruction. Alcott later expanded his essay and published his essay on the Construction of the School-House in 1832. His recommended style of design was Greek Revival.
Although Greek Revival design may have been recommended by Alcott this recommendation would have little impact on a stand design for the common school until later in the decade. There was a paucity of architects in America at this time and what few architects that will available for school construction would undoubtedly prove too costly for many communities, particularly the rural ones. What was really needed was a pattern book for school architecture that would allow local carpenters to construct schools from these patterns at reasonable cost. American communities needed architectural models that could be designed with the local materials and conditions in mind.
Henry Bernard’s School Architecture, published in 1838, became the bible of school architecture. Although Bernard led an extremely accomplished life that included serving in the Connecticut Legislature, State Superintendent of schools in Rhode Island and Connecticut and serving as the United States commissioner of Education in 1867, he is best known for his book on school architecture. This book was more than just a nineteenth-century pattern book. School Architecture was largely responsible for the widespread use of Greek Revival in School design as that was the pattern that Bernard had recommended.
“Between 1838 and 1855 more than one hundred and twenty five thousand copies of this book were printed in various forms , and copies were furnished to every town in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Indiana.” (6)
The rapidly improving ante-bellum transportation along with increasing immigration and internal migration help spread Bernard’s Greek Revival vision of the school as a temple. Two of Bernard’s own Greek Revival school designs were included in his book. These were school he had designed in Windsor and Hartford, Connecticut. (See Figures 1-3) The designs of both schools although temple-like are much more scaled down and simple. The Windsor model features a gabled roof, a large triangular pediment, an unadorned architrave with no columns and little architectural adornment.
The Hartford model features a triangular pediment, two fluted Doric columns with abacus and echimus . This design is reminiscent of both the Athenian an Massalia Treasuries at Delphi.
This style of architecture was a true symbol of Democracy and the Republic. Bernard’s pattern book encouraged a unity of style nationwide that could be adapted to local vernacular interpretation and materials. (See Figures 12-13) Although most of us have an image of the little red Greek Revival one-room schoolhouse most schoolhouses were painted white to fit the vision of the color most people thought a Greek temple represented.
The West Part School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (See Figure 5) was a village school built before 1837. This building features a perfectly symmetrical south side with wooden Doric pilasters with an abacus and echimus. The gabled roof features a large triangular pediment.
The North Branch, New York frame school (See Figure 7) is interesting in that it features two front doors. This is very common in Greek Revival vernacular schoolhouses. These doors were used as separate entrances for boys and girls.
The Barrington, Rhode Island School House (See Figure 8) is more temple like in its setting. The building features a portico, Doric columns, double pilasters and a large triangular pediment.
The One Room School in Waverly, Pennsylvania (See Figure 9) features unfluted Doric pilasters with a small triangular pediment included within the larger triangular pediment formed by the gable. The inner pediment features a fan arch with a key stone lintel.
Horace Mann, a leading educational reformer and proponent of the common school, also encouraged the Greek Revival style for school architecture. As Superintendent of Education for the State of Massachusetts, he established normal schools for the professional training of teachers These Massachusetts Normal Schools each established their own schoolhouse to enable normal school students to actually learn their profession by teaching children from the local community (See Figures 16-17). These Normal School Houses are Greek Revival in design. Although these schoolhouses are somewhat similar there are some interesting differences. The Westfield Normal School House features fluted columns with ionic capitals with a central door with an entablature while the Bridgewater School House features unfluted columns with Doric capitals and doors at each side of a central window. The doors have a slight triangular pediment.
In the Midwest, the creation of state common school systems proceeded along lines that were very similar to those in the Northeast. The Midwest benefited from the large migration ofNew Englanders and New Yorkers who brought with them notions of republican institutions with them.
As like many schools in the Northeast these schools became not only temples of democratic education but as centers of community culture. A social life developed around the schoolhouse. Entertainment such as concerts, dances and holiday celebrations took pace in these schools. Literary societies evolved from lyceums. The common school was the setting for political events such as polling places and political debates, in fact, the Republican Party was founded in a one-room Greek Revival schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 (See Figure 10).
Many schools were also used for church services. Many of the early public schools often looked like churches; reflecting the moral mission they were in charge of carrying out. Although many schools were designed as temples of learning, the sanitary facilities at these schools was paid less attention. “A New York School Superintendent in the 1840’s said that those miserable abodes of accumulated dirt and filth…..debarred the possibility of yielding to the ordinary calls of nature without violent inroads upon modesty and shame.” (7) Although the Greek Revival outhouses at the common school in Smithville, New Jersey may not be representative it reflects an architectural integrity that is certainly commendable (See Figure 15). In fairness, not all of the early school architects favored the Greek Revival style. James Johonnot in his book, County School-Houses, written in 1868,was extremely critical of this architectural style. He felt that ancient Greek architecture was developed chiefly in the construction of temples for religious worship, which was not so much for uses as in to please the eye. “An indispensable element of this architecture is magnitude. A diminutive structure can never call up the emotion of the sublime; and hence when the Greek forms are used in the construction of small buildings, the old maxim is illustrated that ‘there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.” (8)
In a more practical sense Johonnot felt that Greek Revival school design didn’t provide enough windows for light and that little attention was paid to the interior-in a school the most important part.
The Greek Revival architecture of the nineteenth-century American one-room school is a true symbolic reflection of our democratic national ideals of the time. The pattern books allowed Americans to adopt a vernacular style that could serve as a unifying symbol of our lofty democratic visions while still being adaptable to local interpretations, materials and conditions. What better way to represent the emerging Jacksonian Democracy of the common person? Although there have been other popular architectural styles for schoolhouses, Greek Revival has been etched in the American mind as to what a one room school should represent.
- Jean and Robert McClintock. Henry Bernard’s School Architecture. Teachers College Press, New York, 1970. p. 41.
- Ernest May. The Making of the Monroe Doctrine. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1975, p. 9.
- Roger Kennedy. Greek Revival America. Stewart, Tabori and Chang, New York, 1989, p. 64.
- Lawrence Cremin. American Education: the National Experience 1783-1876. Harper and Row, New York, 1980, p. 507.
- Lawrence Cremin. American Education the National Years 1783-1876. Harper and Row, New York, 1980.
- Jean and Robert McClintock. Henry Bernard’s School Architecture. Teachers College Press, New York, 1970, p.23.
- Andrew Gulliford. America’s Country Schools. Preservation Press, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 175.
- James Johonnot. Country School-Houses. Iverson, Phinney and Blakeman, Chicago, 1866, p. 43.
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