The stylistic history of Utah architecture during much of the 19th century is largely the demonstration of the enduring effects of 18th-century American Classicism. By the time of the American Revolution, Renaissance-derived ideas had permeated the colonial world and were working to transform a collection of essentially local building traditions into a single national style based on a revival of Classical principles.
Geometrical composition and symmetrical balance were the hallmarks of Classical design. Buildings everywhere had smooth rectangular facades, centrally placed doors, and evenly spaced windows. Exterior appointments would eventually change, and several important, related styles would emerge during the century, yet the overriding concern for symmetrical design and Classical decorative features would remain a consistently powerful force in American architecture.
These Classical styles were prevalent in the Midwest during the 1830s and ‘40s, and Mormon settlers carried this tradition to the Great Basin. From small, symmetrically pierced log and adobe cabins in the outlying regions to the large Greek Revival mansions of Salt Lake City, Classicism dominated Utah architecture from the pioneer period until well into the 1880s.
The important styles of this period are the Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival. The Georgian style is primarily associated with the introduction and subsequent popularity of the Georgian house, a large, central-passage, two-room-deep structure with smooth exterior wall surfaces, heavy, flat-arched window heads, and a low-pitched gable roof. These houses, built during the 18th century from Maine to Georgia, stood as conspicuous symbols of economic achievement and social standing.
The Federal style, so called because it rose to prominence along the East Coast during the early national or Federalist period between 1790 and 1820, continued many of the basic Georgian features. It is distinguished from the Georgian by the use of elliptical and round-arched windows and doors and by carved decorative ornaments, elements that played off against the rigid symmetry of the overall design.
The Greek Revival style, popular in America from about 1820 to 1870, also used the symmetrical format, but featured such Hellenic elements as full entablature, pedimented window heads, pedimented cornice returns below low-pitched gable roofs, and elaborate Classical porticos. The Greek Revival is often interpreted as sign and symbol of the flowering of American democracy during the early 19th century, and while there may be some truth to this assertion, the Greek Revival must also be viewed as part of the larger rational, symmetrical movement in American architecture that had occurred throughout the previous century.
Building forms during the Classical period were largely geometric blocks, some big, some little, but all displaying a balance in both massing and detail. Houses were based on traditional floor plans that were essentially transformations of square units, and principal façades were normally placed on the long side of the rectangular block, and reflected the room arrangement of the interior. The notable exception, however, was the temple-form type with its main entrance on the narrow side, usually below the gable.
The Classical stylistic period also saw the beginnings of the establishment of the architectural profession, but skilled builders and craftsmen continued to design most buildings. The dissemination of architectural ideas remained largely in the oral tradition, although the period did witness the appearance of such builders’ handbooks as Peter Nicholson’s The Carpenter’s New Guide (London, 1792) and Asher Benjamin’s The Practical House Carpenter (Boston, 1841), both of which were listed in the catalogue of the Utah Territorial Library in 1852.