Reviving the Past: Buildings That Borrow From History

Architecture in the 19th century commonly borrowed architectural styles from history and then reinterpreted those forms for modern use. Follow this tour to find out more.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by SmartHistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Light Shines Through Rotunda Windows, U.S. Capitol (2016-10-20) by Architect of the CapitolU.S. Capitol

On this tour we explore different buildings and the historic architectural styles that influenced the design.

Freemasons' Hall, Boston, Lincolnshire, 1860-63 (Egyptian Revival)

This is a rare surviving example of Egyptian Revival architecture.  The style became popular after the British Navy defeated the French in the Battle of the Nile at the end of the 18th century.

Though modest, this building was based on careful drawings by David Roberts in Egypt of The Temple of Dendur (now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and published in 1848— just twelve years before the hall was begun.

The sloping facade, columns with palmettes, and the winged sun with snakes, come directly from the Temple of Dendur. The inscription translates: “In the 23rd year of Her Majesty’s reign, Royal Daughter Victoria, Lady Most Gracious, this building was erected. May it prosper.”

The Church of La Madeleine, 1807-45, Paris (Neoclassicism)

Napoleon commissioned this enormous temple along with the Arc de Triomphe and the Vendôme Column to celebrate the French Army.

The style is Neoclassical, a revival of ancient Roman forms (specifically the much more modestly scaled Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France). After Napoleon was deposed his “Temple to the Glory of the Great Army,” was sanctified and became a church under the restored monarchy.

Classical forms include 65 foot tall columns. These are Corinthian in style, with elaborate capitals and deep vertical cuts called fluting. At the top is a vast pediment, the triangular gable, filled with relief sculpture depicting the Last Judgment, a post-Napoleonic addition.

Look even more closely and note that the front side has a double row of free standing columns as well as flat, decorative columns attached to the wall called pilasters. A single row of free standing columns run the length of the building.

Top Euro (Bri-E) London Churches Westminster CathedralLIFE Photo Collection

Cathedral Church of Westminster, London, 1903 (Byzantine Revival)

There is a bit of Istanbul in London. Westminster Cathedral is based on architecture of the early Byzantine (Late Roman) period.

The most famous example being Hagia Sophia, a sixth century church in what is now Istanbul, Turkey but what then Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire and the center of the Eastern Christian Church. Westminster Cathedral is the main Catholic church for England and Wales.

The church is red brick with layered stone. Domes and round arches dominate making the church feel especially solid and firmly rooted. The domed interior recalls the Byzantine San Marco in Venice and is elaborately decorated with mosaics.

Wilton Church, Wiltshire, 1841-45 (Romanesque Revival)

You’d be forgiven for thinking this church was in Italy, rather than the South of England.  It has been called England’s first Romanesque Revival building and marks the period when revival efforts were based on architectural research, rather than speculation.

The £20,000 cost was borne by the Russian-born Dowager Countess of Pembroke and her son. Ancient and medieval elements were incorporated, including 2nd century B.C.E. marble columns and French stained glass from the 12th century.

Romanesque masons looked to ancient Roman buildings. We can see round Roman arches and the facade reveals an interior with a high central hall (nave) and lower side aisles (based on a Roman basilica plan). The plain surface is typical of the Romanesque style.

The church front can be entered through three portals, a reference to the trinity. The portals are flanked by short decorative jamb columns on each side and connected above by carved archivolts (the decorative molding around the arch).

Romanesque churches typically have small windows. This ensured heavy stone ceiling was well supported. The rose window is surrounded by symbols of the four Evangelists. The narrow arches below align with the 2nd story gallery (walkway) within.

The campanile (bell tower) is a separate structure as is typical for early Italian churches. It is connected by short covered passage with arches supported by small decorative columns—all reminiscent of a cloister.

All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London (Gothic Revival)

Tucked into a tiny space (100 feet x 100 feet) in central London sits one of the great Gothic Revival churches.  All Saints, Margaret Street was inspired by the writings of the great 19th century art critic John Ruskin and the desire that the Anglican church more authentically reflect historical architecture and a spiritual past.

Ruskin was particularly interested in the architecture of Venice and we see here a style that is sometimes called Ruskin, or Victorian Gothic.

The architect, William Butterfield, welcomes visitors from the busy street under a narrow brick arch and into a secluded courtyard. Inside, the red and black brickwork is further enhanced with bands of limestone recalling the polychrome (multicolored) exteriors of Gothic Venice.

William Butterfield, the architect, chose an expensive “pink” brick that was reportedly more expensive than stone. The addition of black brick and limestone in what is called “structural polychromy” was an effort to restore the dignity of this humble material.

The large windows line the side aisle while the smaller windows illuminate the nave from above and are called a clerestory. The pointed Gothic-style arches are meant to draw our attention heavenward.

The square tower soars upward from the densely packed church below. It rises 227 feet—higher than the bell towers of the much larger and more famous Westminster Abbey. It is said to be the second tallest in London.

New Synagogue, 1866 (reconstructed), Berlin (Moorish Revival)

The highly decorative Moorish Revival style, here based on the Alhambra palace complex in Granada, became popular for large synagogues in Europe, and even in the United States in the middle and late 19th century.  The more common revival styles, Neoclassicism and Gothic Revival, were ill-suited as they were associated with polytheism and Christianity.

Moorish Revival was derived from the architecture of the Islamic occupation of Spain (al-Andalus) from the 8th to the 15th century, a golden age for European Jews.

The decorative style seen here, heavily patterned stucco and terracotta surfaces decorated with geometric forms without any figural representation conformed to the needs of both Muslims and Jews alike. The golden ribbed domes and much of what is visible has recently been reconstructed.

Berlin’s New Synagogue escaped destruction during the Nazi riots of 1938 but the vast prayer hall, with its stenciled patterns and slender iron columns were destroyed by Allied bombs. Behind the shallow front, the building’s original outline is traced on the bare ground.

Oxford Town Hall, 1893-97 (Renaissance Revival)

Henry Thomas Hare designed this flamboyant English Renaissance Revival confection at the end of the 19th century.

The style is sometime termed Jacobethan —a blend of architectural styles from the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James. The large grids of glass panes and showy roofline with high rounded gables are easy ways to spot this patriotic revival style.

The facade’s heavily articulated ornament is meant to delight but also to remind passersby of England’s noble history. This style derives largely from the enormous manor houses built by the wealthy courtiers of Queen Elizabeth I.

The ostentatious gables with engaged columns, fans, arches, scallop shells, diamonds, and more were carved by William Aumonier and are derived from simpler examples found at Kirby Hall, an Elizabethan manor house.

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