American Gothic

PrintPrintEmailEmail

This was a telling argument. Verplanck had introduced the fourth dimension, time itself, as an essential element of architecture, and the day would come when even a prosaic stockbroker, radiant at the thought of retreating to the Tudor era at eventide, would decide on a Gothic house for his family. Perhaps if Verplanck had not had the tariff problem constantly on his mind, he might have become the leader of the Gothic crusade. As it was, the distinction passed to the young Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape gardener from Newburgh, New York, who had an entire magazine, The Horticulturist , in which to promote his views.

Downing was a worthy standard-bearer, earnest in preaching the Gothic, impatient with the Grecian heresy. The Greek Revival, which had been imported from England by Latrobein the year in which he built Sedgely, was, to tell the truth, much more popular than the Gothic. To Downing this was more than regret-table; it was inexcusable. “The Greek temple disease has passed its crisis,” he hopefully reported in 1846. “The people have survived it.”

Like all great prophets Downing kept his admirers at a distance. One of them wrote, “He had a natural fondness for the highest circles of society—a fondness as deeply founded as his love of the best possible fruits.” Downing appreciated the magnificent ring the Queen of Denmark forwarded in homage to his writings, but his gratitude was muted, since he was “marked by the easy elegance and perfect savoir-faire which would have adorned the Escorial.” Except for a pile of letters on his desk he tolerated no sign of labor in his Gothic home.

Labor he did, however. But for his efforts and those of William Gullen Bryant, Central Park might not have been saved for New Yorkers a century ago (not that it is out of danger yet). Downing had the good sense to insist that the beauties of nature were not too fine for the average citizen. He also had the intelligence—or prescience—to talk like Frank Lloyd Wright when discussing the nature of materials. “When we employ stone as a building material, let it be clearly expressed,” he urged. “When we employ wood, there should be no less frankness in avowing the material.”

For Downing, architecture must fit the client, if not the other way around: “To find a really original man living in an original … house is as satisfactory as to find an eagle’s nest built on the top of a mountain crag, while to find a pretentious, shallow man in such an habitation, is no better than to rind the jackdaw in the eagle’s nest.”

Downing made plain that he was not writing for the timid. “There is something wonderfully captivating in the idea of a battlernented castle, even to an apparently modest man, who thus shows to the world his unsuspected vein of personal ambition,” he declared. “But unless there be something of the castle in the man , it is very likely, if it be like a real castle to dwarf him to the stature of a mouse.”

Here was a message— i.e. , no turrets for the Walter Mittys of the nineteenth century—that any architect could understand. No one, however, was more alert in tracking down the clients that Downing dreamed of than the architect A. J. (Alexander Jackson) Davis, who had the privilege of contributing a number of illustrations to Downing’s handbooks besides being puffed in the pages of The Horticulturist . Although Davis was guilty of more than one design in the Grecian manner—the capitol of North Carolina was perhaps the most famous these were lapses that could be forgiven. He was, as everyone knew, a Goth at heart.

Davis was a brilliant draftsman, and in the informal, irregular plans of many of his Gothic castles he delivered so fierce an attack on the formal planning America had inherited from the eighteenth century that he has every right to be considered one of the founders of modern architecture. Unlike any modern architect that we have heard of, he entered the profession through a trap door.

All his life, his diaries reveal, Davis was a conscientious reader of Gothic novels. As a boy, enchanted with the unhappy heroines of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s tales, he lived for the hours in which he could steal to the attic and sketch the mountainous retreats where those ladies were imprisoned. For days he would puzzle over the plans of “some ancient castle of romance, an anging the trap-doors, subterraneous passages and draw bridges.” It was only when an older brother urged him that he would pry open a book of history or attempt to solve the riddle that was mathematics.