Design New England

Around New England: Athens on the Acushnet

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The Parker House in New Bedford, Massachusetts, was designed in the popular Greek Revival style by architect Russell Warren in 1834.

The rise of New Bedford, Massachusetts, as America’s whaling capital — a trade that would briefly make the port on the state’s southeast coast the wealthiest city in the nation — coincided with the development of the Greek Revival style in architecture. During the second quarter of the 19th century, whaling fortunes were reflected in New Bedford’s public buildings such as banks, warehouses, churches, and customs house, but also in especially large mansions of the ship owners. Most of these were configured in the proportions of classical temples, complete with columns and other details borrowed from ancient Greece.

Exceptions were found in the practical and hard-working buildings such as the 1832 brick and granite Coggeshall Counting House that has been given a new lease on life as the headquarters for the Buzzards Bay Coalition featured in “A Save-Save” in the May/June issue of Design New England.


The 1832 Coggeshall Counting House in New Bedford is an exception to the popular Greek Revival style. (Photo: Peter Vanderwarker)
The Greek Revival has been called America’s first national style. The obvious reliance on the classical buildings notwithstanding, columns and blocky temple forms provided monumentality appropriate to a new republic. While American identification with the Greeks’ war of independence from the Turks is often cited as an inspiration, Greek simply worked better for public buildings than the domestically scaled English Georgian style that were inherited from the Mother Country.
Whatever the reasons, the Greek fashion became wildly popular. Courthouses, state capitols (Maine and Vermont, for example), and even Boston’s Episcopal Cathedral featured Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian orders. Untold houses from Maine to Georgia and from upstate New York to the Midwest were echoes of Laconia and Attica. In rural areas, Greek might mean something as simple as turning a house’s gable end to the front. Carpenter-builders took a lot of liberties with classical rules (much of our Greek Revival was combined with Roman details, which were less complicated to carve).


A house in Winchendon, Massachusetts, reflects the Greek Revival style that was popular from the 1830s to the 1860s.
Befitting New Bedford’s great wealth, its exercises in the Greek style were incredibly sophisticated. The Customs House of 1834 was designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the U.S. Treasury Building and the Washington Monument. Those massive civic landmarks were constructed of granite, a material that emphasized probity, as well as making New England quarries profitable.


New Bedford’s William Rotch Rodman House was designed by architect Russell Warren in 1833.
Russell Warren, a Rhode Islander and a noted practitioner of the Greek mode, created some of the grandest homes for New Bedford’s whale oil plutocracy. Yet Warren’s first Greek work in New Bedford is a temple-form granite building that housed the Mechanics and Merchants Bank. Built between 1831 and 1834, it boasted a grand eight-columned portico.


The Mechanics and Merchants Banks is notable for its hefty portico. The Ionic columns on the left are slightly thicker than those on the right.
As the epitome of Yankee thrift, two banks banded together to share a larger and more impressive building than had they gone it alone, yet, the Mechanics Bank and the Merchants Bank employed their own carpenters. As a result, the Mechanics (on the left) got Ionic columns that were slighter fatter. The Greeks discovered that subtly thickening a column about a third of the way up would make it appear straighter.
Like New Bedford itself, the twin bank struggled through hard times, its decrepit state hardly suited to its Athenian demeanor. The Mechanics and Merchants bank has been restored as part of the New Bedford Whaling National Park. Although a key example of the Greek Revival, its combination of materials, differently shaped Ionic columns, and its association with the whaling trade make it wholly New England.


Mechanics and Merchants Bank as it appeared in the 1930s.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England‘s May/June 2014 issue online!

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