The words “Antebellum home” evoke visions of the grand, opulent mansions that often served as plantation homes throughout the Deep South. They’re homes like Gone With the Wind’s palatial Tara with its stately columns and broad, covered veranda. While certain traits characterize the Antebellum architectural style, the term covers a wide variety of Southern homes built before the American Civil War. It’s this variety and historical significance that makes the style so interesting to study.
Symbols of a Burgeoning Economy
Antebellum homes are the mansions built, typically as part of a plantation, in the South during the Antebellum period between 1820 and 1860, before the Civil War broke out in 1861. Antebellum is a Latin term meaning “before war.” These homes can be found throughout the Southern states, but they’re most common in the Deep South states of Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi.
As such, the Antebellum architectural style isn’t a specific set of features, but rather a time and place often called the Old South. These impressive residences owe their existence to the wealth of the plantations that thrived at the time.
With Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, more Europeans set out to try their luck in America. Many of these immigrants bought land to produce in-demand crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar, and indigo or became traders of these crops, kicking off the South’s great plantation era. They also brought in a slave labor force, which allowed the plantation owners to keep most of the profits for themselves.
Their wealth was further fueled by the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution that peaked between 1820 and 1860, overlapping the Antebellum period. New farm machinery made agriculture more productive while the growing railway system made it more profitable to ship goods around the country. The result was an unprecedented boom in commerce.
Plantation owners poured much of their wealth into grand mansions. The styles the recently arrived English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants favored, however, were largely new to the area. Before their arrival, the region was populated by Spanish and French settlers, as well as by native people such as the Natchez and Creek, who each built in the styles of their own cultures.
The newcomers brought their interest in Classical Revival architecture, particularly Greek Revival, which became popular in Europe after new architectural finds in Greece in the early 19th century. Seen as a symbol of rationality and national pride, the style quickly gained traction in North America after 1820.
It’s easy to assume these ostentatious Southern mansions were built merely out of self-indulgence and the opportunity to flaunt newly acquired wealth. In reality, they were often intended as demonstrations of love and devotion. At the time, it was common for a wealthy man to have his bride’s dream house built as a wedding gift.
As beautiful as they might be, Antebellum plantation homes are tainted with the terrible history of the slave trade from which they grew. Some believe the buildings should be razed entirely on the basis that it’s unethical to continue enjoying the products of slavery. Others, however, would prefer to preserve them to educate future generations on a dark aspect of the nation’s past.
Historians estimate less than 20 percent of these once-prevalent mansions remain in usable condition. Many were burned during the Civil War, and others have since been destroyed by natural disasters such as hurricanes. Still, others have simply fallen into neglect. Some, however, live on and serve as hospitality or educational facilities.
Classical Grandeur With a Southern Flair
The Antebellum architectural style draws from a variety of building traditions, but the Neoclassical Revival movement was the prime source of inspiration for builders of these homes. Antebellum homes often exhibit features of the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate styles as well as the French Colonial and Federal styles.
These styles share key features that came to characterize Antebellum architecture. The typical Antebellum home is grand in scale with an overall blocky form. The symmetrical facade features large, evenly spaced windows and stately Greek-style columns or pillars. Porticos with triangular front pediments shelter both the front and rear entrances. Spacious balconies and covered porches encircle nearly the entire exterior. The roof is typically hipped or gabled and crowned with roomy central Italianate cupola, or onion dome, that formerly offered a view of the plantation grounds.
It’s no coincidence architectural elements from the Mediterranean became popular in the American South. Features common to the Antebellum architectural style were chosen to keep the inhabitants comfortable throughout the long, hot Southern summers.
Deep roof overhangs shield the home’s interior from the region’s intense sunlight. The numerous wide windows can be opened on all sides of the house to make the most of cooling breezes. The covered balconies, verandas, and porches offer an essential escape from the heat. Even with the windows open, the interiors became unbearably hot for much of the year. Sheltered outdoor areas provide plenty of shaded, airy spaces for family and friends to gather in relative comfort. Porches often consisted of multiple levels to neatly partition the space for different purposes.
Other features are mostly for show. The massive Corinthian, Ionic or Doric columns are designed to grab attention and lead the eye upward, creating the impression of expansiveness and opulence. By recalling the dignity of the ancient Greek temples, they lend the mansions a sense of import.
Intricate embellishments signal fine craftsmanship. These might include the cornices and friezes of the Greek Revival style, the carved bargeboards of the Gothic Revival style or the balustrades of the Italianate style.
Although the original Antebellum architectural style’s time has passed, if you’re a fan, you can still adapt the style to a modern home. Large windows, a central portico supported by columns, and a carved balustrade can give a contemporary home an Antebellum touch. Limiting embellishments, such as by choosing straight, square columns over ornate Corinthian columns, can further update the Antebellum look. Even if the style isn’t for you, there’s a lot to be learned from understanding how these luxurious residences came to be.