Greek Revival architecture was used for a variety of buildings throughout the Finger Lakes, from churches to farmhouses. They’re easy to spot, thanks to typical elements that include a temple form in the main façade, complete with a portico fronted by four massive white Doric or Ionic columns. The columns support a wide entablature and heavy triangular pediment. A classic recessed entry door with side and transom panel lights is often distinguished by slender columns or pilasters that match the main columns. Several of the buildings here are made of brick, but most are wood framed using hand-hewn timbers felled from nearby forests and seasoned properly for building.
The builders who needed guidance could refer to books by Minard LeFever, Asher Benjamin and Alexander Davis. LeFever, in particular, was noted for his influence on Greek Revival buildings. His series of manuals included Young Builder’s Guide, Modern Builder’s Guide, and his masterpiece, The Beauties of Modern Architecture.
Early carpenters could assemble building components and use basic skills to produce harmonious and satisfying structures.
The mansions I write about here were selected first for their architectural significance. All of them are similar, but each one has its own unique features. In addition, they all have historical importance, defining events and conditions of the 1800s. Having survived for 175 years or more, they are landmarks to be cherished for the future.
Rose Hill Mansion – East Lake Road, Geneva
Located on the high ridge of land dividing Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, Rose Hill has commanding views of Seneca Lake, the surrounding countryside and the City of Geneva in the distance. The mansion has 26 rooms. Twenty-one are furnished in the Empire style, and many furnishings are original to the house. The property also includes a carriage house (the original Rose family home), several outbuildings, extensive surrounding grounds and a formal boxwood garden.
Rose Hill is outstanding among the many noteworthy Greek Revival structures built in the 1820s and ’30s in Geneva. Was one particular architect responsible for the multitude of exacting, opulent and classic details? No record exists, but we can guess that there was. Skilled local builders had the manuals that provided specific directions, techniques, scale drawings, proportions and mathematical formulas for construction.
Research has established an interesting similarity – within a few inches – between the center pavilion of Rose Hill and the ancient East Porch of the Erechtum temple to Diana in the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Rose Hill’s center temple form measures 50 feet wide and 45 feet deep, with a wide porch with six massive Ionic columns 22 feet-7 inches high; and 2 feet-6 inches in diameter. The wide entablature over the columns and the heavy triangular pediment measures 33 feet-22 inches to the peak. The roof is capped with a square cupola observatory. Classic one-story recessed wings extend from each side, making for a majestic, symmetrical façade looking across the sweeping grounds to Seneca Lake.
The mansion’s entrance is at the center of the porch, balancing four tall windows with three sashes of six panes each on the first floor, and five windows upstairs, all fitted with shutters. The door features a glass transom panel and narrow side panels, and is recessed between two freestanding Ionic columns, flanked by two fluted pilasters decorated top and bottom with stylized palmettos. Behind the columns is a surround with egg-and-dart molding (see glossary on page 58).
Inside, a curving, open, mahogany stairway in the front hall extends three stories to the cupola. Formal double parlors are separated by archways containing sliding pocket doors, all with intricate ornamentation. The tall west windows open onto the west portico. The music room and breakfast room are across the hall, and the magnificent Empire dining room is in the north wing.
Large, airy bedrooms on the second floor have descriptive names and décor fitting to the period. A courtyard is formed to the east by the kitchen wing, part of the original house, and the south wing, former farm offices. Two-story verandahs with sheaf-of-wheat motif spindles connect the two wings and provide access without having to enter the main house.
Rose Hill not only showcases the finest architectural features of the Greek Revival period, but also presents a glimpse at a way of life when our state and nation were changing from early Colonial days to emerging expansion and rapid growth.
Hunt House – Routes 5 & 20, Waterloo
Richard Hunt was the richest man in Waterloo when his house was built in 1940. His wealth included several farms; as a land speculator, he made 43 land purchases in Waterloo and Seneca Falls between 1823 and his death in 1856. He was also a prime investor and secretary of the Waterloo Woolen Factory.
Hunt House was constructed of bricks fired in nearby kilns. Originally, it was a rectangular structure with east and west gable ends. A handsome portico with four fluted Doric columns, supporting the entablature and pediment, was added later to the center of the south-facing façade. The front door has freestanding side and transom lights, a feature special to this house.
On July 13, 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock and the hostess, Jane Hunt, met in the house for tea and to discuss the many facets of American society, including the status of women. They drew up the Declaration of Sentiments, which was presented during the history-making First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls the following week.
The Hunt House is being readied to become the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. When restoration is completed, the house will be open to the public, a significant addition to the existing sites important to the Women’s Rights Movement in southern Seneca County.
The Mynderse Mount House – River Road, Seneca Falls
The first owner of this elegant Greek Revival landmark was Wilhelmus Mynderse, land agent for the Bayard Company and a wealthy early settler of the town. It was built in the 1860s along the Seneca River/ Cayuga-Seneca Canal when the Greek Revival period was at its peak.
The house combines many classic elements, including the wide portico with four massive Doric columns supporting the frieze band and pediment on the north façade. The one-story west wing has a porch with slender columns supporting a slanting roof.
After several years of neglect, it was bought in 1960 by local attorney Victor Mount, who restored it in fine fashion.
The Kinne Getman House – Route 96A, Ovid
In 1804, Elisha Kinne acquired a large farm in Ovid. Until he had accumulated enough money to build his handsome Greek Revival home, Elisha and his wife lived in a cave-like structure under a north hill on the property, later the site of a set of big yellow barns.
A small building was constructed first, in an area that later became the garage. Next came the kitchen addition, then a larger kitchen with a bedroom over it. A washroom was built that included an access door to a roomy outhouse. The large stone basin there was convenient for farm workers. A one-story porch with slender pillars came later.
In 1830 the grand main section was completed, bringing the total to 14 rooms, many with 10-foot ceilings. The center hallway is distinguished by a semi-circular open stairway with large parlors adjoining.
The front porch features three massive square pillars that support a substantial entablature and triangular pediment. According to the house history, one of the pillars was removed in order to improve the view of Seneca Lake. It was never replaced, giving the façade an unusual identity. A charming frame playhouse is located in the side yard, enjoyed by many grandchildren and their friends.
South of the house is an artesian spring with a well that was dug 15 feet deep and 8 feet wide. It provides a constant, plentiful supply of water for household use, and for watering the extensive showplace gardens. It flows into a brook bordering the grounds.
Colonel Ralph Smith House – Route 96A, Lodi
Ralph Smith was born September 20, 1801, in Ovid to early settlers who survived the Wyoming Valley Massacre, a military battle of the American Revolutionary War. More than 300 Americans died at the hands of Loyalist and Iroquois raiders in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley.
Ralph Smith married Eliza Hawkins in 1829, and they had three children. In 1845 Smith purchased 440 acres of prime farmland on Military Lot 26 where he built a handsome Greek Revival house. It was a time of rapid growth and prosperity in the small towns of the Finger Lakes, and many older houses date back to this era.
The gable end of the house facing the street has four Doric fluted columns on a stone porch, with wide surround and pediment. The recessed doorway has side and transom lights, with slender side pilasters and heavy top support. The simple, framed single story to the south has two large windows rather than a porch with smaller columns.
A latticed well house no longer sits in the front yard, but otherwise, the Ralph Smith mansion looks much the same as it appeared in The 1876 History of Seneca County.
Kime Farm House – Kime Road, Fayette
The majestic Kime Farm is one of several properties owned by the Kime family in Seneca County. The brick house has a wide porch with four Ionic columns on the north-facing façade, supporting the triangular pediment over the enclosing entablature. A welcoming recessed front entryway has classic sidelights with freestanding columns and pilasters at the sides. Large windows complete the first story. An unusual feature is an elliptical window placed vertically rather than horizontally in the high-gable end. The south end of the house has two smaller attached wings.
The Cole-McDaniel House – Route 96, Covert
The stately Greek Revival mansion known for years as “The Pillars” is a memorable landmark on Route 96 in the tiny hamlet of Covert. It was built by Minor Thomas Coburn; construction began in 1851 and was completed in 1854. It cost the remarkable amount of $1,000. The wood used came from trees harvested on the Coburn farm.
The house displays the finest Greek Revival details: fluted columns across the wide front porch and a handsome front door opening into a spacious hallway outfitted with heavy plank floors. An elegant railing graces the sweeping, curved staircase. The glass in the tall windows is original and wavy. Detailed moldings above doors, fireplaces and windows are found in the large, airy rooms. The wing to the west has a distinctive side porch sheltered by lattice panels. Shutters are attached to all the windows. Century-old pine trees grace the roadside, and numerous colorful flowerbeds and mature plantings surround the grounds.
The property remained in the family until 1949. After that, it changed hands many times and fell into disrepair. A major restoration has been taking place, thanks to the efforts of Rich and Gretchen McDaniel, who purchased the mansion in 1986. The rotting front porch and pillars have been restored, along with numerous structural elements. The original parts of the house have been put back faithfully, and again the structure is sound and majestic.
The Sniffen Ferrand House – Route 96A, Interlaken
Joseph H. Sniffen purchased farmland on parts of Military Lots 40 and 49 in Interlaken in 1854. There is some question today as to what features of the house were built by the previous owner Isaac Brokaw, and which ones were added by Sniffen. He may have added the second story and its eyebrow windows, which duplicate the classic high-style main section.
Among the home’s typical Greek Revival features on the exterior are massive fluted Doric columns on the porch. Inside, the basement has its own fireplace with a Dutch oven and dumb waiter. The basement extends under the entire house.
The Steele House – Seneca Street, Romulus
The main section of this stately Greek Revival mansion has a two-story, three-bay façade with a wide portico supported by four fluted Ionic columns. The classic front door is at the left side of two windows that reach down to the floor, and below three windows with shutters that face the street. A massive triangular pediment tops the wide entablature over the distinctive pillars.
To the left of the main part of the building is a one-and-one-half story wing, thought to be the original house built by Robert Steele in 1822. Steele was a member of the New York State Assembly and president of the Geneva, Ithaca and Sayre Railroad Company. The house was known as an important stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Warmth from fireplaces and a Dutch oven in the kitchen traveled up the chimney to the attic, where fleeing slaves took refuge.
How to Spot a Classic
To help you better understand the different elements of Greek Revival architecture, here is a short list of terms and definitions from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. For a more complete list, visit www.nyc.gov.
Capital: The topmost member, usually decorated, of a column or pilaster.
Cupola: A small dome on a base crowning a roof.
Doric Column: Recognizable by its simple capital. The Greek Doric column has a fluted shaft and no base.
Egg and Dart: An ornamental band molding of egg forms alternating with dart forms.
Entablature: In classical architecture, a major horizontal member carried by columns or pilasters.
Façade: The main exterior face of a building, sometimes distinguished from the other faces by elaboration of architectural or ornamental details.
Gable: The upper portion of an end wall formed by the slope of a roof.
Eyebrow window: A roof dormer having low sides; formed by raising small section of roof
Ionic Column: Characterized by capitals with spiral elements called “volutes,” a fasciated entablature, continuous frieze, dentils in its cornice and elegant detailing.
Pediment: 1. In classical architecture, the triangular space forming the gable end of a roof above the horizontal cornice. 2. An ornamental gable, usually triangular, above a door or window.
Pilaster: An engaged pier or pillar, often with capital and base.
Portico: A small porch composed of a roof supported by columns, often found in front of a doorway.
Surround: The ornamental frame of a door or window.
by Alta Boyer
For years, Alta Boyer has written feature articles and had a weekly column for the local Free Press in Trumansburg.