Victorian Gothic House Styles: History and Pictures

01
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The First Gothic Revival Homes

Eighteenth Century Strawberry Hill, Gothic Revival Home of Sir Horace Walpole
Eighteenth Century Strawberry Hill, Gothic Revival Home of Sir Horace Walpole. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In the mid-1700s, the English author Sir Horace Walpole decided to redo his country home with details inspired by medieval churches and cathedrals—a 12th century architecture now known as Gothic. Walpole's house, located at Strawberry Hill near Twickenham, became a model for Gothic Revival architecture.

Gothic Revival architecture has many of these features:

  • Pointed windows with decorative tracery
  • Grouped chimneys
  • Pinnacles
  • Battlements and shaped parapets
  • Leaded glass
  • Quatrefoil and clover-shaped windows
  • Oriel windows
  • Asymmetrical floor plan

02
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Romantic Gothic Revival

Gothic Revival Home in Bath, England
Gothic Revival Home in Bath, England. Photo ©2006 Steven Lewarne

Most Gothic Revival homes in the 1800s were romantic adaptations of medieval architecture. Delicate wooden ornaments and other decorative details suggested the architecture of medieval England. These homes did not try to replicate authentic Gothic styles—very few flying buttresses were structurally necessary to hold up the Gothic Revival building.

However, the great Victorian philosopher and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) believed that man's highest spiritual values and artistic achievements were expressed in the elaborate, heavy masonry architecture of medieval Europe. His books outlined principles for design that used European Gothic architecture as the standard.

The ideas of John Ruskin and other thinkers lead to a more complex Gothic Revival style often called High Victorian Gothic, or Neo-Gothic.

 

03
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High Victorian Gothic Revival

High Victorian Gothic architecture Victoria Tower (1860), Palace of Westminster in London
Palace of Westminster, Victoria Tower - Sir Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin, architects. Photo by Mark R. Thomas/Axiom Photographic Agency Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Between 1855 and 1885, John Ruskin and other critics and philosophers stirred interest in recreating a more authentic Gothic architecture, like buildings from centuries before. The 19th century buildings, called High Gothic Revival, High Victorian Gothic, or Neo-Gothic, were closely modeled after the great architecture of medieval Europe.

Perhaps the most famous example of High Victorian Gothic architecture is Victoria Tower (1860) at the royal Palace of Westminster in London, England. A fire destroyed most of the original palace in 1834. After lengthy debate, it was decided that architects Sir Charles Barry and A.W. Pugin would rebuild Westminster Palace in a High Gothic Revival style that imitated 15th century Perpendicular Gothic styling. Victoria Tower is named after the reigning Queen Victoria, who took delight in this new Gothic vision.

High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture has many of these features:

  • Masonry construction
  • Patterned brick and multi-colored stone
  • Stone carvings of leaves, birds, and gargoyles
  • Strong vertical lines and a sense of great height
  • Realistic recreation of authentic medieval styles

Not surprisingly, Victorian High Gothic Revival architecture was usually reserved for churches, museums, rail stations, and grand public buildings. Private homes were considerably more restrained. Meanwhile in the United States, builders put a new spin on the Gothic Revival style.

 

04
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Gothic Revival in the USA

Gothic Revival details on Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York
Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York. Photo ©Urban licensed under GNU Free Documentation License, via Wikimedia Commons

Across the Atlantic from London, American builders began to borrow elements of British Gothic Revival architecture. New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) was evangelical about the Gothic Revival style. He published floor plans and three-dimensional views in his 1837 book, Rural Residences. His design for Lyndhurst (1838), an imposing country estate overlooking the Hudson River in Tarrytown, New York, became a showplace for Victorian Gothic architecture in the United States.

Of course, most people could not afford a massive stone estate like Lyndhurst. In the U.S. more humble versions of Gothic Revival architecture evolved.

 

05
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Brick Gothic Revival

Victorian Gothic House in Fredericksburg, Virginia
Victorian Gothic House in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Photo: Jupiterimages Corporation

The earliest Victorian Gothic Revival homes were built of stone. Suggesting the cathedrals of medieval Europe, these homes had pinnacles and parapets.

Later, more modest Victorian Revival homes were sometimes constructed of brick with wooden trimwork. The timely invention of the steam-powered scroll saw meant that builders could add lacy wooden bargeboards and other factory-made ornaments.

 

06
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Gothic Revival Farmhouses

Victorian Gothic House
Victorian Gothic House. Photo: Jupiterimages Corporation

A series of pattern books by popular designer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) and Lyndhurst architect Alexander Jackson Davis captured the imagination of a country already swept up in the Romantic movement. Timber-framed houses across North America, especially in rural areas, began to sport Gothic details.

On America's modest wooden farmhouses, Gothic Revival ideas were suggested in the shape of the roof and window moldings. On the house shown here, slightly pointed window moldings and a steep center gable reflect the Gothic Revival influence.

In towns, homes were often more highly decorated, such as the brightly colored Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Connecticut. Industrialization and the availability of machine-made architectural trim allowed builders to create a frivolous version of Gothic Revival known as Carpenter Gothic.

 

07
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Carpenter Gothic

Board-and-Batten Siding on a Victorian Era Carpenter Gothic Style Home in Hudson, New York
Board-and-Batten Siding on a Victorian Era Carpenter Gothic Style Home in Hudson, New York. Photo by Barry Winiker/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The fanciful Gothic Revival style spread across North America via pattern books such as Andrew Jackson Downing's popular Victorian Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). Some builders lavished the fashionable Gothic details on otherwise modest wooden cottages.

Characterized by scrolled ornaments and lacy "gingerbread" trim, these small cottages are often called Carpenter Gothic.

Homes in the Carpenter Gothic style usually have these features:

  • Steeply pitched roof
  • Lacy bargeboards
  • Windows with pointed arches
  • One story porch
  • Asymmetrical floor plan

Some Carpenter Gothic homes have:

 

08
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Gothic Cottages

Pinish purple Carpenter Gothic, steep gables, white gingerbread trim, ornate
Carpenter Gothic Cottage in Oak Bluffs, an old Methodist camp meeting town on Martha Vineyard, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images (Cropped)

In the United States, the Gothic Revival styles were seen as most suitable for rural areas. Architects of the day believed that the stately homes and austere 19th century farmhouses should be set in a natural landscape of rolling green lawns and profuse foliage.

However, smaller and more ornate cottages were often built in populated areas. A few religious revival groups in the American Northeast built densely clustered groupings—small cottages with lavish gingerbread trim. Methodist camps in Round Lake, New York and Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts became miniature villages in the Carpenter Gothic style.

Meanwhile, builders in towns and urban areas began to apply the fashionable Gothic details to traditional homes that were not, strictly speaking, Gothic at all. Possibly the most lavish example of a Gothic pretender is the Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk, Maine.

Carpenter Gothic Example:

Church of the Redeemer
Built in Biloxi, 1874, this wooden, Carpenter Gothic Revival church is said to be where Jefferson Davis worshiped. It was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.

 

09
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A Gothic Pretender: The Wedding Cake House

Ornate Victorian embellishments on the Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk, Maine
The Wedding Cake House, 105 Summer Street, Kennebunk, Maine. Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group Collection/Getty Images (crop)

The "Wedding Cake House" in Kennebunk, Maine is one of the most photographed Gothic Revival buildings in the United States. And yet, it is not technically Gothic at all.

At first glance, the house may look Gothic. It is lavished with carved buttresses, spires, and lacy spandrels. However, these details are merely frosting, applied to the facade of a refined brick home in the Federal style. Paired chimneys flank a low, hipped roof. Five windows form an orderly row along the second story. At the center (behind the buttress) is a traditional Palladian window.

The austere brick house was originally built in 1826 by a local shipbuilder. In 1852, after a fire, he got creative and fancied up the house with Gothic frills. He added a carriage house and barn to match. So it happened that in a single home two very different philosophies merged:

  • Orderly, classical ideals - Appealing to the intellect
  • Fanciful, romantic ideals - Appealing to the emotions

 

10
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Gothic Gives Way to Queen Anne

Queen Anne Home
This Queen Anne Style home has a pointed window in the gable. Photo © Forum Member "savannahlady"

By the late 1800s, the fanciful details of Gothic Revival architecture had waned in popularity. Gothic Revival ideas did not die out, but they they were most frequently reserved for churches and large public buildings.

Graceful Queen Anne architecture became the popular new style, and houses built after 1880 often had rounded porches, bay windows, and other delicate details. Still, hints of Gothic Revival styling can often be found on Queen Anne houses. For example, notice the gable window on this Queen Anne home from our House Helpline Gallery. The pointed molding suggests the shape of a classic Gothic arch.