Georgian design, which was characterized by an adherence to theories of order, symmetry, and proportion drawn from classical models during the Renaissance, represented a significant departure from earlier English decorative traditions. The first buildings in the colonies had irregular facades and were essentially postmedieval structures. These small houses often consisted of two simple rooms. The decoration of these rooms reflected the skill of the housewright, who embellished his labor—the house’s primary structural timbers—with basic woodworking tools. The hall from the Hart House (Ipswich, Massachusetts, 1680; 36.127) reflects this earlier tradition. The girts that frame the tops of its walls and the massive summer beam that spans the room are decorated with chamfered edges that terminate in “lamb’s-tongue” stops. The fireplace wall is paneled with simple pine boards that have been finished with a single bead along their edges. A decoratively carved lintel spans the width of the fireplace.
In contrast, the Marmion parlor, from a house built by members of the Fitzhugh family in King George County, Virginia, in the 1750s (16.112), reflects the new Georgian style. Based on the sixteenth-century designs of Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) and the theories set forth in his book I quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books of Architecture, 1570), this style spanned much of the eighteenth century, though in America the term is generally applied to the period between the ascension of George I (1714) and the end of the American Revolution by the Treaty of Paris (1783). Palladio studied classical architecture as well as the writings of Vitruvius (Roman, first century B.C.), to devise his own rules and theories for the design and embellishment of sixteenth-century Italian villas.
Palladianism was first brought to England by the architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652). It stressed the importance of an ordered facade and made extensive use of classical details like arches and columns copied from the antique. Marmion displays Palladian ideas in its symmetrical five-bay facade and highly decorative parlor. With a corner fireplace and two arched corner cupboards, the parlor’s seven sides are enhanced by fluted Ionic pilasters. These pilasters and the complete entablature they carry follow Palladio closely.
The Hewlett Room (10.183), with its decoratively paneled fireplace wall (from a house built in Woodbury, New York, ca. 1740–60), is a confetti of classical details—arches, fluted pilasters, capitals—drawn together by a local craftsman familiar with prevailing English fashions. Wealthy colonists might visit London or go on the Grand Tour of Europe, but the majority of American builders relied on English pattern books for their architectural and decorative inspiration. More than 250 architectural titles are recorded in American libraries before the Revolution. Some, like Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1715–23), were largely aesthetic works that featured attractive engravings of buildings. Others, like James Gibbs’ Book of Architecture (1728) or Batty and Thomas Langley’s The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs (1740), provided practical advice for building and decorating in the latest styles and were used by craftsmen who wished to produce au courant designs. Rather than copy directly, most colonial craftsmen, like the one responsible for the Hewlett Room fireplace wall, were guided by these books and extracted details from them, often achieving unique compositions in the process.
By the mid-eighteenth century, firsthand observation of Greek and Roman ruins, followed by their publication and wide circulation in books and prints, led to a rejection of the heavy Palladian classicism seen in the decoration of rooms like the Marmion parlor in favor of a more restrained Neoclassicism. The Verplanck Room (from a house built around 1767 in Coldenham, New York; 40.127) reflects the impact of this changing taste. A simple cornice and chair-rail-high wainscot run along three of the room’s walls and elegant crossetted moldings enhance the fireplace surround and overmantle. Fluted pilasters on the fireplace wall establish the proportion of the room and carry a simple entablature that incorporates the window surrounds as it encircles the room.
The diffusion of Rococo ornament in the middle of the eighteenth century, with its use of naturalistic ornament to circumvent strict classical conventions, also had an effect on Georgian interiors. In the Marmion parlor, swags, urns, and other Rococo motifs were added to the already richly carved woodwork. The chimney-breast in the Powel Room (from a house built in 1765–66 in Philadelphia; 18.87.1-.4) was adorned with carved foliate ornament that was painted a bright green verdigris to increase its visual impact against the room’s creamy woodwork. The naturalistic carving in the spandrels of the Van Rensselaer Room (from a house built in 1765-69 near Albany, New York; 28.143) likewise demonstrates the impact of the Rococo on Georgian decoration. Carved rosettes and swirling foliage frame the room’s arched doorway and echo the ornamental work that frames the scenes depicted on the room’s imported English wallpaper (28.224).
With the close of the American Revolution, the Georgian period ended, but its impact on design did not. The Alexandria Ballroom is a Georgian-style interior originally nestled within the 1792–93 Federal-style Gadsby’s City Hotel and Tavern in Alexandria, Virginia (17.116.1). Its designer used a simplified version of Plate L from Abraham Swan’s The British Architect (1745) for the room’s two chimney-breasts. Ordered, proportioned, and symmetrical, the space, with its scrolled-pediment doorways and chimney breasts, its fretwork chair rail, and its crossetted moldings, is not far removed from spaces like the Verplanck or Van Rensselaer rooms. In this way, Georgian fundamentals, especially a focus on theories of order, symmetry, and proportion, reached into the nineteenth century and beyond.
Ackermann, Daniel Kurt. “American Georgian Interiors (Mid-Eighteenth-Century Period Rooms).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/geor/hd_geor.htm (July 2007)
Kornwolf, James D. Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.