Neoclassical architecture describes buildings that are inspired by the classic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. In the United States, it describes the important public buildings built after the American Revolution, well into the 1800s. The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. is a good example of neoclassicism, a design chosen by the Founding Fathers in 1793.

The prefix neo- means “new” and classical refers to ancient Greece and Rome.  If you look closely at anything called neoclassical, you’ll see art, music, theater, literature, governments, and visual arts that are derived from ancient Western European civilizations. Classical architecture was built from roughly 850 B.C. to A.D. 476, but the popularity of neoclassicism rose from 1730 to 1925.

The Western world has always returned to the first great civilizations of mankind. The Roman arch was a repeated characteristic of the medieval Romanesque period from approximately 800 to 1200. What we call the Renaissance from about 1400 to 1600was a “rebirth” of classicism. Neoclassicism is the influence of Renaissance architecture from the 15th and 16th century Europe.

Neoclassical Characteristics

During the 18th century, the written works of the Renaissance architects Giacomo da Vignola and Andrea Palladio were widely translated and read. These writings inspired appreciation for the Classical Orders of architecture and the beautifully proportioned architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassical buildings have many (although not necessarily all) of four features: (1) symmetrical floor plan shape and fenestration (i.e., placement of windows); (2) tall columns, generally Doric but sometimes Ionic,that rise the full height of the building. In residential architecture, a double portico; (3) triangular pediments; and (4) a centered domed roof.

The Beginnings of Neoclassical Architecture

One important 18th century thinker, the French Jesuit priest Marc-Antoine Laugier, theorized that all architecture derives from three basic elements: the column, the entablature, and the pediment. In 1753, Laugier published a book-length essay that outlined his theory that all architecture grows from this shape, which he called the Primitive Hut. The general idea was that society was best when it was more primitive, that a purity is native in simplicity and symmetry.

The romanticization of simple forms and the Classical Orders spread to the American colonies. Symmetrical neoclassical buildings modeled after classical Greek and Roman temples were thought to symbolize principles of justice and democracy. One of the most influential Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, drew upon the ideas of Andrea Palladio when he drew architectural plans for the new nation, the United states. Jefferson’s neoclassical design for the Virginia State Capitol in 1788 started the ball rolling for the building of the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. The State House in Richmond has been called one of the Ten Buildings That Changed America.

Famous Neoclassical Buildings

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783 when the colonies were forming a more perfect Unionand developing a constitution, the Founding Fathers turned to the ideals of ancient civilizations. Greek architecture and Roman government were nondenominational temples to democratic ideals. Jefferson’s Monticello, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the U.S. Supreme Court building are all variations of the neoclassical — some being more influenced by Palladian ideals and some more like Greek Revival temples. Architectural historian Leland M. Roth writes that “all of the architecture of the period from 1785 to 1890 (and even much of it up to 1930) adapted historic styles to create associations in the mind of the user or observer which would strengthen and enhance the functional purpose of the building.”

About Neoclassical Houses

The word neoclassical is often used to describe an architectural style, but neoclassicism is not actually any one distinct style. Neoclassicism is a trend, or approach to design, that can incorporate a variety of styles. As architects and designers became known for their work, their names became associated with a particular type of building — Palladian for Andrea Palladio, Jeffersonian for Thomas Jefferson, Adamesque for Robert Adams. Basically, it’s all neoclassical — Classical Revival, Roman Revival, and Greek Revival.

Although you may associate neoclassicism with grand public buildings, the neoclassical approach has also shaped the way we build private homes. A gallery of neoclassical private homes proves the point. Some residential architects break the neoclassic architectural style into distinct time periods — no doubt to assist the realtors who market these American home styles.