Gothic Revival and American Gothic Style and Decor

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We’ve spent the last few weeks building up to Halloween. And now, it’s right around the corner waiting to yell “boo!”

In that time, we’ve talked a lot about Halloween decor, and our properties. And we’ve talked a bit about the origins of some of the designs we now associate with the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious, the spooky, and the altogether ooky (boomers and generation Xers will get that reference!). One of those streams of design is what’s been called Gothic revival, or Neo-gothic.

What is it about this tradition that is now so closely associated with the macabre? And what are some of the broadstrokes of this architectural category?

Here’s a helpful graphic to give you the skinny on the subject of …

AmericanGothic copy

Maybe the graphic puts gothic revival into a bucket of being a bit on the creepy side. But, is there more to this design style than that whole haunted house sort of effect? Well, to answer that question, maybe it makes sense to find out where it came from.

History of gothic revival architecture

Gothic revival architecture began to become a popular trend around the time of the Industrial Revolution, specifically Europe in the 1740s. The original gothic design was from the medieval period. You can tell in some of the pictures above that a lot of castle-like elements are used; turrets, battlements, and carvings. That’s classic medieval architecture. So, what inspired the revival?

In some ways, neo-gothic design was a reaction against the progress of the times and the mechanization of industry. It was meant to be a return to more human, and spiritual values that were thought to be opposed to the wheels of industry, science (kind of a new thing in the 1700s!), the Enlightenment, and the “rational”. This may be why gothic architecture is thought of as being connected to the supernatural, and the superstitious.  And it is a tradition that endured for literally centuries, and could be seen in Victorian and Edwardian architecture, too. It was imported from Europe to North America too, but more on that in a minute. Wherever it was found, there are some common threads to be found in every example.

Beauty in the details

The emphasis with gothic revival is in the intricate approach to details. The architectural philosophy was that any part of the design may be observed at any time. So, let’s make each angle, each carving, each individual architectural element something of a work of art. So, door knockers, sculpture, lighting fixtures, the combination of different shapes that contrast each other, the mixture of stone and glass and wood and wrought iron, straight lines and curved were all hyper-realized in a stylized way and in the finest detail.

Also, there is a sense of scale with this tradition. High-ceilings, steep angles, roofing and siding flourishes like widow’s walks and gables and fish-scale siding shingles, intricate and even mythological carvings made a part of functional elements like the staircase pictured above. Each detail was made to be admirable in itself even as it contributes to the overall effect. This is the same approach to what inspired the artisans of Europe in the middle-ages; that each detail was a tribute to the divine, and eventually benefiting finished building, too into something more than just a church or a public building. It was made into something more like a tribute.

American gothic design

When you (if you) think of the Addams Family house, you’re thinking of American gothic architecture.  Sometimes, it’s referred to as “carpenter gothic”, applied to houses and buildings that are usually set in rural locations (which is perhaps why Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting is so closely associated with rural life!)  and fashioned more out of wood, then out of the stone of an old medieval church. But, this same approach when it came to detail, scale, and contrast was certainly applied when it came to building homes and churches in the United States in the mid-to-late 1800s and into the early 20th century.

This kind of leads to effects other than “mysterious” and “haunted” (although those are still in place!), and begins to look more like “country charm” and “old-timey”. So we’re not just dealing with spooky, kooky, and ooky when it comes to American gothic design. It spills over into a sort of return to the simple life effect, too. It depends on how you look at it.

What do you think?

So, what’s your take on gothic revival and American gothic design? Is it spooky, or artistic? Is it both?

What are your favorite design elements in this tradition?

Are there American gothic homes and buildings near where you live?

Tell me all about it in the comments section!



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Rob Jones

Rob served as Editor-In-Chief of BuildDirect Blog: Life At Home from 2007-2016. He is a writer, Dad, content strategist, and music fan.