The Gothic Revival style, popular in America from the 1830s through the 1860s, could be seen as a mere revival of medieval motifs, but peer beneath the scrolls and trefoils that animate this style and one finds more profound meaning.
In the last half of the eighteenth century, the long held authority of the Renaissance was challenged by the empiricism of the Neo-classical age. Archeological investigations began to reveal an architectural diversity not present in the Renaissance works that had guided architecture well into the eighteenth century. Architects felt a freedom to look to a variety of models for specific imitation. In addition, romantic sentiment, such as seen in the literary works of Shelley and Byron or equally in music and art, portrayed an idealized past: sometimes found in the golden aura of Greece and Rome but more often in the dark mysteries of the Middle Ages. Romanticism appealed to the emotional rather than the rational.
Nobody evokes this ideal better than Horace Walpole in his villa in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, which has recently undergone a substantial restoration. A short video introduction may be seen here: http://www.strawberryhillhouse.org.uk/video1.php. Unlike his mid-eighteenth century neo-Palladian contemporaries, Walpole looked to the Gothic for inspiration for his renovations to transform a few cottages into his “little gothic castle.” If you’re a researcher and can’t make it to England, you might enjoy learning more (by appointment) at Yale University’s Lewis Walpole Library, a research library for eighteenth-century studies and the prime source for the study of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill.”
Later English architects and theorists would argue the moral superiority of the Gothic over the classical. In A.W.N. Pugin’s Contrasts (1836) and then in The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) the Gothic is presented as the true Christian architecture, rather than the pagan Classical architecture of the Greeks and Romans. John Ruskin extends these arguments, connecting architecture and morality, in his books The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851 – 1853).
The Gothic Revival is complexly rooted in the divergent forces of the newfound freedom of the modern age and a corresponding nostalgic yearning for the past. In Hugh Morrison’s Early American Architecture he describes the shift in American 19th Century architecture as being brought on by “scientific archeology [having] destroyed the theoretical bases of Renaissance architecture, while Romanticism [destroyed] its taste.” Roughly paralleling the Greek Revival in America, the Gothic Revival found its popularity in houses, particularly rural ones. Books such as Andrew Jackson Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) sold some 16,000 copies promulgating the taste for the romantic residences set in picturesque landscapes.
Buildings of the Gothic Revival style fulfill Romantic ideals with picturesque, asymmetrical massing and plans. Buildings formed of varying heights and projections; capped by multiple, steeply pitched gables; lit by angled bay windows and leaded glass casement pointed arched windows, often paired; shadowed by entry towers and wide porches gave the effect of some distant mysterious past and touched the emotions. Elaborate scroll-sawn verge-boards decorate gables; scrolls and finials, trefoils and quatrefoils, brackets and pendants are everywhere to be found.
Perhaps the most quintessential American Gothic Revival house is Andrew Jackson Davis’ Lyndhurst, located in Tarrytown, New York. Begun in 1838 Davis doubled its size from 1864-65 for its second owner, George Merritt. Though Lyndhurst is built of stone, many Gothic Revival houses were built of more affordable and easier-to-work wood. In many cases, earlier Georgian homes were fashionably updated with new porches or other decorative Gothic-inspired details.
Houses in the Gothic Revival style range far and wide across the country, whimsical and lovely. When they were built, they were about far more than their appearance. In The Architecture of Country Houses, Downing describes why his countrymen should have good houses: “A good house (and by this I mean a fitting, tasteful, and significant dwelling) is a powerful means of civilization. A nation whose rural population is content to live in mean huts and miserable hovels, is certain to be behind its neighbors…But, when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country we know that order and culture are established.” An excellent book looking at the taste for the Gothic in America is The Only Proper Style: Gothic Architecture in America, by Calder Loth and Julius Trousdale Sadler, Jr.
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