American Gothic

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Many of the visitors who admire the classic calm of Monticello would be startled if they knew of the original intentions of Thomas Jefferson. In 1771, after he had begun work on the estate, he seriously contemplated building a battlemented tower on a neighboring mountain; and he also planned, though he did not actually erect, “a small Gothic temple of antique appearance” for the graves of his family and retainers. As usual, the master of Monticello was ahead of the times. Some sixty years would pass before such things were fashionable in America.

The notion that the Gothic Revival was fashionable would, incidentally, have greatly distressed the leaders of the movement in the United States. They were men of principle, and there was nothing frivolous in their arguments. They labored, in the thirty-odd years between Jackson’s first term and Lincoln’s, in the hope that America would one day acquire a fine medieval look. They were disappointed, as we know, but they tried hard. They saw to it that many of our prisons were Gothic; they built a Gothic capitol in Louisiana; they could point, in Graniteville, South Carolina, to a completely Gothic mill town; and before they grew old, they had the satisfaction of knowing that every self-respecting suburb in the land had a castle or at least a cottage in the Gothic style. Finally, when it came to ecclesiastical architecture, they won a victory that no one could dispute. Even in our day there are those who believe that a non-Gothic church is the height of eccentricity, very like a wedding without the march from Lohengrin .

A certain frivolity did mark the beginning of the movement in eighteenth-century England. There might have been a Gothic Revival without Horace Walpole, but it would not have been half so entertaining. “I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill,” he wrote Sir Horace Mann, the British minister at Florence, in 1750. “If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms, or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you. I can’t say I remember any such things in Italy; but out of old chateaus, I imagine, one might get it cheap, if there is any.” No one could ignore the amusements of a Walpole, and by 1764, when he wrote The Castle of Olranto , the first of the Gothic novels, the craze for Gothic villas could not have been halted even by an act of Parliament.

Of Walpole’s imitators, the most splendid was William Beckibrd, the gorgeously rich son of the Lord Mayor of London. In 1796 he began the building of Fonthill Abbey, the great tower of which rose 276 feet. The tower was none too solid; it eventually crashed into a noble ruin, but this was after Beckford had disposed of his abbey to gunpowder merchant John Farquhar for £300,000.

Americans with money to spend could not resist the charm of Strawberry Hill and Fonthill, and by 1799 the first Gothic villa had been built in the United States. This was Sedgely, the respectable cottage of merchant William Crammond in Philadelphia. Sedgely has disappeared, but its architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, will not be forgotten, for he was the man most responsible for the design of the United States Capitol.

Although Daniel Wadsworth, the cultivated son of an Army commissary general, Jeremiah Wadsworth, insisted on Gothic trim for the frame house he set down on top of a hill near Avon, Connecticut, about 1800, and although that highly respectable Philadelphia fishing club The Castle of the State in Schuylkill made its headquarters Gothic as early as 1812, the new style did not become a national phenomenon until shortly after Andrew Jackson entered the White House in 1829. Before the architects could perform, the critics had to seduce.

The first of our Gothic prophets was Congressman Gulian Crommelin Verplanck of New York, who was as devoted to the progress of the fine arts as he was to the formation of a sound tariff policy. When Verplanrk was invited to lecture before the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1824, he could not resist expressing his disgust for the work of Samuel Mclntire, the Massachusetts woodcarver-architect who built many of the notable houses of Salem, and the other practitioners of what we call the Federal style He was frankly bored, said Verplanck, by “that corruption of the Roman, or rather Palladian architecture, which delights in great profusion of unmeaning ornament, in piling order upon order, in multitudes of small and useless windows, columns, and mean and unnecessary pilasters.”

 

It was time, the congressman hinted, for America to set out on the Gothic quest. Verplant k wondered if even the temples of Greece were as inspiring as the Gothic cathedrals with “their peculiar and deeply interesting associations which, I know not how, throw back the architectural remains of the Middle Ages to a much remoter antiquity in the imagination than those of Rome and Athens.”