Continuing our journey through America’s architectural heritage takes us all the way back to the 12th century, as far afield as Spain and the rest of Europe. One of the most iconic styles in pop culture today has steep, deep roots in our aesthetic and cultural past. This week’s American Style brings us Gothic Revival architecture, but specifically Carpenter Gothic.
The youth today can be forgiven for thinking American Gothic is strictly a contemporary phenomenon, since it’s the name of a hit horror TV series.
But if they could follow in movie icon Ferris Bueller’s steps and take a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, they’d soon come across one of the most iconic American paintings ever made — “American Gothic” by Grant Wood.
Strong and resolute
You know the painting, of course. Two steely-faced elderly farmers stand full forward, pitchfork in the man’s hand. There, in the background, stands the peak of a classic Gothic Revival home in the American Midwest. Painted in 1930, “American Gothic” represents a time when the nation was crumbling under the weight of the Great Depression. Its heroes would be those who could keep their homesteads afloat with an American ethos, the picture of stoicism — strong and resolute.
But that’s Gothic Revival, Carpenter style. To have a “Gothic Revival,” they had to have “Gothic” in the first place. For that, we head east, to Europe.
From the 12th to the 16th century, Gothic architecture flourished across Europe. Today we see know them for excess and indulgence, like the frequent use of “flying buttresses,” which had structural support leading away from the building, not inside it. By the time its the Gothic spell was over, Gothic architecture would be found throughout the continent, from England to Spain.
Gothic meant everything was accentuated and grand. From spires and pinnacles to rib vaults and towers, their ornate façades have rarely been bested by any style. Windows were large and often employed “tracery,” ornamental stonework found at the top. For an example of tracery, look at the Limoges Cathedral.
Those turning to Gothic architecture used it in the biggest, grandest ways. From early universities to all the largest cathedrals around, to government buildings of all sizes from town halls on up — they all celebrated the lavish awe-inspiring designs found in Gothic builds.
In the 18th century, a revival would begin. By 1840, construction had begun on the new Houses of Parliament in England, and the new Gothic Revival had reached the highest office in the land.
But it had also reached the Americas.
An American gothic revival
Gothic sailed the Atlantic and soon became the chosen design for most small churches and grand cathedrals. They were defined by their steep pitched roofs, castle-like towers and parapets, buttresses, finials, turned posts, gables, and pointed arches and windows.
The style found fans from coast to coast. Even where I live, on the West Coast of Canada, I can show you many Gothic Revival buildings within just blocks of me, including the city’s oldest church and all the cathedrals, dating as far back as the 1850s here.
The Gothic style of Europe was almost garish in its indulgently ornate façades. This would change overseas, as “American Gothic” style, known as “Carpenter Gothic,” took hold in communities. Many structures would use the pointed windows and arches, steep roofs, traceries, bargeboards, and even some buttresses, but they’d forego some the “entirely elaborate” exteriors you’d find on the epic cathedrals in Europe. To say American Gothic would be “unadorned” is a bit rich, but comparatively speaking against their European predecessors, it was often far more subdued.
When they were more decorative, it was because scrollwork became a key factor in many Carpenter Gothic homes and churches. Steam-powered jigsaws were a building breakthrough technology, and now allowed for amazing details and more uniquely designed exteriors with features never seen on homes before.
Gothic grows up
Even today you can buy Gothic Revival housing plans on the internet. While Gothic churches were built in large numbers through the 1940s, and are still being erected today, it’s the Carpenter Gothic homes that seem to capture our imagination the most.
Many are now protected heritage sites. Look at the Aaron Ferrey Home, on the National Register of Historic Places, located in Kent, Ohio. It’s a beautiful example of architect Andrew Jackson Downing’s passion for building stately Gothic homes.
It’s ornate, but not overly so. There are lots of traditional elements of flourish and tradition throughout, but used with great balance. See the pointed arch window above the lavish front door, the batten siding embellishments, and the exposed wood beams. It’s asymmetrical, as Gothic homes usually were, and has a few lovely porches, all enhanced with rich woodworking.
Another fine example is E. St. Julien Cox House in St. Peter, Minnesota. Here you’ll find all the extravagance Carpenter Gothic can offer. Wherever Jackson Downing restrained himself in the Ferrey Home, the unknown architect of the Cox House took a walk on the wildside. Exaggerated bargeboards, arched windows, traceries, towers, pinnacles, complete lack of symmetry, varying pitches on the roof, and so much more all combine to make this home a must-have for the National Register of Historic Places.
Windows, trim, roof-pitch, and little flourishes throughout the design are what make the Gothic style so whimsical and timeless. It’s a style that’ll likely never go away, and it continues to influence architecture and design on a frequent basis. After all, the British Arts & Crafts Movement was born of Gothic style. Arts & Crafts in turn influenced Art Nouveau as well as the American Craftsman Style, both of which spawned Art Deco. Without Gothic and its predecessor Romanesque, the world would be a much less pretty place, indeed.
Anything but a horror story
From Disneyland’s famous “Haunted House” to television’s Addam’s Family and the movie Psycho’s Bates Home and The House on Haunted Hill, popular culture is littered with references to scary places that are textbook Gothic homes. Slap black paint on with grey trim and you turn any Gothic home into a nightmare in the making.
Thankfully, bright and varied colors are common in Gothic Revival homes. With its timeless appeal and dramatic appearance, for most architecture fans, Carpenter Gothic’s lavish design, indulgent feel, and its popping personality make them far more a dream than a nightmare.