An Introduction to Gothic Revival Architecture

Photo of Grant Wood's Painting "American Gothic" Held up in Front of the Gothic Revival House in Disrepair
The Gothic Revival House from the Grant Wood Painting "American Gothic". Photo by David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)
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Romantic Gothic Revival

The Victorian Era Wolf-Schlesinger House (c. 1880), now the St. Francisville Inn, north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The Victorian Era Wolf-Schlesinger House (c. 1880), now the St. Francisville Inn, north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo by Franz Marc Frei/LOOK-foto/Getty Images

Most American 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—no flying buttresses were needed to hold up the Gothic Revival homes found throughout America.

Between 1840 and 1880, Gothic Revival became a prominent architectural style for both modest residences and churches throughout the United States. Here is an introduction to the much-beloved Gothic Revival stylings, eye-catching 19th century architecture with many of these characteristics:

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

 

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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

American Gothic architecture was imported from the United Kingdom. In the mid-1700s, the English politician and writer Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797) decided to redo his country home with details inspired by medieval churches and cathedrals—a 12th century architecture known as "Gothic" was "revived" by Walpole. The well-known house, located near London at Strawberry Hill near Twickenham, became a model for Gothic Revival architecture.

Walpole worked on Strawberry Hill House for nearly thirty years beginning in 1749. It is in this house that Walpole also invented a new genre of fiction, the Gothic novel, in 1764. With Gothic Revival, Sir Horace became an early proponent of turning back the clock as Britain led the Industrial Revolution, full steam ahead.

The great English philosopher and art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was more influential in Victorian Gothic Revival. Ruskin believed that man's highest spiritual values and artistic achievements were expressed not only in the elaborate, heavy masonry architecture of medieval Europe, but also that era's working system of guilds, when craftsmen formed associations and coordinated their non-mechanized methods in order to build things.  Ruskin's books outlined principles for design that used European Gothic architecture as the standard. A belief in Gothic guilds was a rejection of mechanization—the Industrial Revolution—and an appreciation for the hand-crafted.

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

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High Victorian Gothic Revival

Looking up the High Victorian Gothic Victoria Tower (1860) in London, The Houses of Parliament
Looking up the High Victorian Gothic Victoria Tower (1860) in London, The Houses of Parliament. Photo by Mark R. Thomas/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.

One of the most famous examples 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 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. Because this style is generally a realistic recreation of authentic medieval styles, telling the difference between Gothic and Gothic Revival can be difficult. If it was built between 1100 and 1500 AD, the architecture is Gothic; if it's built in the 1800s, it's Gothic Revival.

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.

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Gothic Revival in the United States

Gothic Revival Details on Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York
Gothic Revival Details on Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York. Photo by Erik Freeland/Corbis via Getty Images (cropped)

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. Lyndhurst is one of the grand mansions built in the US.

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.

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Brick Gothic Revival

The Lake-Peterson House, 1873, a Yellow Brick Gothic Revival home in Rockford, Illinois
The Lake-Peterson House, 1873, a Yellow Brick Gothic Revival home in Rockford, Illinois. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

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.

 

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Vernacular Gothic Revival

Gothic Revival Rectory c. 1873 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Gothic Revival Rectory c. 1873 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Photo by Barry Winiker/Getty Images

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 vernacular farmhouses and rectories, local variations of Gothic Revival ideas were suggested in the shape of the roof and window moldings. Vernacular is not a style, but regional variations of Gothic elements made the Gothic Revival style of interest throughout America. On the house shown here, slightly pointed window moldings and a steep center gable reflect the Gothic Revival influence—along with the quatrefoil and clover-shaped designs of the porch banister.

 

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Plantation Gothic

Rose Hill Mansion Plantation in Bluffton, South Carolina
Rose Hill Mansion Plantation in Bluffton, South Carolina. Photo by akaplummer/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.

Gothic Revival was a wonderful style to bring elegance to the main house without the expensive grandeur found in some of the Neo-classical antebellum architecture. Rose Hill Mansion Plantation shown here was begun in the 1850s but may not have been completed until the 20th century. Today it is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Bluffton, South Carolina.

For property owners of a certain wealth, whether in towns or American farms, 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.

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Carpenter Gothic

Victorian Era Carpenter Gothic Style Home in Hudson, New York
Victorian Era Carpenter Gothic Style Home in Hudson, New York. Photo by Barry Winiker/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 this style usually have steeply pitched roofs, lacy bargeboards, windows with pointed arches, a 0ne story porch, and an asymmetrical floor plan. Some Carpenter Gothic homes have steep cross gables, bay and oriel windows, and vertical board and batten siding.

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Carpenter Gothic Cottages

Pinkish purple Carpenter Gothic cottage, steep gables, white gingerbread trim, ornate
Carpenter Gothic Cottage in Oak Bluffs, Martha Vineyard, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (Cropped)

Cottages, smaller than plantation homes,  were often built in populated areas. What these homes lacked in square footage was made up in a more ornate decoration,  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.

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A Gothic Pretender: The Wedding Cake House

Ornate Victorian embellishments on the Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk, Maine
he Wedding Cake House, 105 Summer Street, Kennebunk, Maine. Photo by Education Images/UIG/Getty Images (cropped)

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

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, like a pointed molding that suggests the shape of a classic Gothic arch.

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Craven, Jackie. "An Introduction to Gothic Revival Architecture." ThoughtCo, Jun. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/victorian-gothic-house-styles-178207. Craven, Jackie. (2017, June 16). An Introduction to Gothic Revival Architecture. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/victorian-gothic-house-styles-178207 Craven, Jackie. "An Introduction to Gothic Revival Architecture." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/victorian-gothic-house-styles-178207 (accessed December 13, 2017).