What is antebellum architecture? It’s a term used to characterize a style of grand residences largely found in the Southern United States, especially the Deep South, built in the 19th century. As grandiose as these intricately designed homes are, their magnificence has deep and controversial roots in slavery.
Here’s a look at these extravagant homes, their defining features, and the ongoing debate about preserving antebellum properties.
What is antebellum architecture?
The word “antebellum” simply means “before the war” (from Latin “ante” translates to “before” and “bellum” translates to “war”). In this case, the war being referenced is the Civil War fought between the Northern and the Southern states from 1861 to 1865.
“When ‘antebellum’ is attached to the description of a home, it means that the home was built before that war,” says Michael W. Kitchens, author of “Ghosts of Grandeur” about lost antebellum houses in Georgia and co-author of “Southern Splendor: Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South.”
The term “antebellum architecture” is commonly used synonymously with popular neoclassical
What is the history of antebellum architecture?
The Greek Revival style gained popularity in America in the 1820s after it became the rage in Europe.
“The style’s rise in Europe came after discoveries of ancient Greek buildings in countries along the Mediterranean, revealing the classical forms of architecture employed by the Greeks and Romans,” says Kitchens.
As a result, Americans—both in the North and the South, but particularly in the Deep South—embraced this architectural style for plantation homes and mansions.
“The columned porticos of buildings provided shade to the front of the house, which was important in hot climates found in the Southern states,” says Kitchens.
Italianate and Gothic Revival architecture was also common during the antebellum period.
What features do antebellum homes share?
According to Kitchens, whether a home was Greek Revival, Italianate, or Gothic Revival, these styles shared certain key elements that are characteristic of antebellum architecture. They all include an exterior featuring several huge pillars, a balcony that runs along the outside edge of the house, large windows, and grand entrances at the front and rear of the home.
The interiors of these neoclassical mansions were just as extravagant as the outside. Common features included enormous foyers, open stairways, grand ballrooms, and intricate plaster design work.
Examples of antebellum architecture
It’s estimated that less than 20% of the structures once dominating the South during the antebellum period remain intact. Many were burned during the war, and others were lost more recently due to natural disasters or neglect.
Nonetheless, a number of prime examples of antebellum architecture remain.
“Outstanding examples of Greek Revival structures from the antebellum period are found in the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville, GA, and Stanton Hall in Natchez, MS,” says Kitchens.
Stanton Hall takes up an entire city block. And though Union soldiers occupied the estate during the Civil War, its signature Corinthian columns and cast-iron balconies remain intact.
You can find antebellum Italianate architecture like the Hay House in Macon, GA, and homes in the Gothic Revival style include the Green-Meldrim house in Savannah, GA, and the Manship house in Jackson, MS.
Antebellum architecture’s contentious legacy
There’s an ongoing debate about preserving antebellum homes and plantations as the mansions were most often built with fortunes made from slavery. Some contend it’s not ethical to preserve houses built and maintained from fortunes created through slavery. But for others, the homes have historical significance and serve as tourist attractions exposing the public to the South’s slave-based economy.
The antebellum museum Boone Hall, for example, has the original slave cabins built between 1790 and 1810 included in its “Black History in America” exhibit.