Antebellum homes are estates and mansions built in the Southern United States in the years preceding the American Civil War. Associated with both the height of high-society Southern graciousness and the depths of pre-emancipation America, these homes hold a melancholy and unique place in architectural history. Antebellum homes draw from a variety of European styles and are often a spectacular mishmash of stylistic influences.
Before the ravages of the Civil War, the wealthy population of the South was famous for magnificent dwellings that were built with entertaining in mind. The term antebellum, a Latin word for “before the war,” was given to these plantation homes later on, commemorating the sad grandeur of the Old South. While it is impossible to consider the historic homes without acknowledging the slave labor that often built them and the tragic conditions that lay behind the sumptuous style, the architectural significance of antebellum homes remains a major influence on modern American design.
Several architectural styles influenced the design and materials for antebellum homes. Many are notable for their nods toward Greek revivalism, seen most clearly in the iconic columns that adorn home entrances. These enormous pillars served several purposes; in addition to adding grandeur to the exterior, they allowed for the construction of wide, shady balconies and porches, often on multiple levels. In the days before air-conditioning, these cool stone escapes were often the only relief from the sweltering humidity and heat of the South.
The balconies and porches of antebellum homes are often surrounded by exquisitely detailed barriers and low fences, usually wrought from iron or other metals. These fences were meant to prevent people from entering, but also add considerable beauty to the exterior of the house. The metal work often depicts flowers, leaves, and vines.
Symmetrical, shuttered windows, often referred to as “plantation windows,” were borrowed from a variety of styles, including classicism and the federalist styles of the northeastern United States. These windows were often narrow rectangles that center around the central door to the house, sided with exterior shutters painted in a contrasting color.
The most famous of all antebellum homes is Tara, the magnificent mansion depicted in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. This iconic Hollywood image was only a facade, but firmly established the pinnacle of antebellum architecture in the minds of many. Tara is famous not only for its style but for its metaphorical representation of the beauty of the pre-war South.