by Calder Loth
Senior Architectural Historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and a member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America‘s Advisory Council
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James Stuart’s and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens vies with Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libri for being the most influential of architectural treatises. Their three-volume work is the fruit of the pair’s painstaking recording of Greek ruins, a project that extended from 1751 to 1755.[i] The impact of their publication can be seen in the forms and details of architectural works throughout the world and especially in America. Among the ruins receiving copious illustrations and detailed description in Antiquities of Athens is a small octagonal edifice in the Roman Agora, near the base of the Acropolis, which they identified as the Octagon Tower of Andronicus Cyrrhestes (fig.1).[ii] Probably built around 40 BC, the structure is also known as the Horologion of Andronikos because it originally housed a complex water clock.[iii] Today, the building is better known as the Tower of the Winds, a name derived from its striking bas-relief frieze sculptures personifying the eight winds (fig. 2). These sculptures were noted by Vitruvius when he discussed winds in Book 1 of his Ten Books of Architecture, written in the mid-20s B.C.
The Tower of the Winds was half buried when first encountered by Stuart and Revett. Only fragments remained of the two small porticoes sheltering the tower’s entrances. Enough pieces survived, however, for them to make the reconstruction drawings, which included the tower’s porticoes. As noted in their text, the depiction of the porticoes’ capital was made from “a fragment of a capital . . . found on digging about this Building.” [iv] Although the current whereabouts of this fragment is uncertain, Stuart and Revett’s reconstruction drawing, published as Plate VII in Chapter III of Volume I, is the design source for thousands of capitals employing this distinctive order (fig. 3).
With its single row of acanthus leaves surrounding a single row of palm leaves, the capital is a simplified version of the Greek Corinthian order, and has become known commonly as the Tower of the Winds order. The order is not unique to the Tower of the Winds. Indeed, Stuart and Revett stated: “Such Capitals are frequent as well at Athens as in other Parts of Greece. Altho’ we do not find, that any example of them has been hitherto published.”[v] However, because Turkish occupation made travel to Greece very difficult, the order for years was known in the west only though Stuart and Revett’s illustration. Interestingly, several ancient versions of the order today are on display near the tower (fig. 4).
The Tower of the Winds order became especially popular for domestic works in the 19th century. A full Greek Corinthian capital was costly and difficult to produce, and was overly monumental for most houses. The Tower of the Winds capital, however, had the elegance of the Corinthian order but was more restrained and delicate. Hence, it is not unusual to see the order employed for a small portico or porch such as that added in the 1830s to the 1813 Virginia Governor’s Mansion (fig. 5). While the ancient order was quite small, its scale could be expanded to make more stately columns, as those on the 1856 Sturdivant Hall in Selma, Alabama (fig. 6). Alexander Jackson Davis employed finely executed Tower of the Winds capitals to embellish the House of Representatives chamber in his North Carolina State Capitol of 1840 (fig. 7). The order was not limited to buildings. An articulate example in cast iron decorates a 19th-century mausoleum in the Episcopal cathedral cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina (fig. 8). We even find miniature Tower of the Winds capitals on a mantel in an 1831 farmhouse in Buena Vista, Virginia (fig. 9).
The use of the Tower of the Winds order continued well into the 20th century. We can see versions of the capitals in most any American city. Strolling down New York’s Madison Avenue, we spy a building entrance with column and pilaster capitals in marble, but using somewhat diminished acanthus leaves (fig. 10). From the 1900s on, building supply companies turned out thousands of Tower of the Winds capitals in wood, composition, and other materials for front porches across the land. Typical are those on a 1910s porch in Richmond, Virginia (fig. 11). Tower of the Winds capitals in different sizes are readily available today from numerous firms specializing in classical details. An architecturally informed tourist can enjoy spotting them in unlikely places, not the least of which is Graceland, the 1939 mansion known the world over as the home of Elvis Presley (fig. 12). We would like to think that the handsome use of the order here was one of the features that attracted Elvis to this house.
Visitors to the ICA&CA headquarters in New York might take a moment to admire the plaster cast of a Tower of the Winds pilaster capital in the institute’s collection of casts (fig. 13). Click here to learn more about the Institute’s Historic Plaster Collection.
[i] Volume I of Antiquities of Athens was published in 1762. Volume II appeared in 1789, and Volume III in 1795. A handsome reprint of the three volumes was published in 2008 by the Princeton Architectural Press.
[ii] The Tower of the Winds is illustrated and described in Volume I of Antiquities of Athens.
[iii] The term horologion is derived from horology, which is the science of telling time.
[iv] Volume I, op. cit., footnote i, p. 19.