American Gothic

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No such plea could be advanced in the case of the destruction of Walnut Wood, the villa at Bridgeport, Connecticut, of the leather dealer H. K. Harral. When the last coat of plaster was applied to the façade, it was obvious that Davis had almost reached the heights of Lyndhurst. The plan at least was nearly as commodious. With all its Gothic furnishings Walnut Wood was lovingly preserved by the last owner, Archer C. Wheeler, who was so public spirited that he deeded the mansion to the city. However, Mr. Wheeler was scarcely buried when the house was torn down in 1958. The public protest was immense, but futile.

Searchers after the Gothic in America will be reassured to learn that there are a number of examples by Davis beyond the grasp of the demolishers of this world. The original clubhouse of the New York Yacht Club, which stood first in Hoboken and then at Glen Cove, Long Island, has been recently removed to the security of the grounds of the Marine Historical Association at Mystic, Connecticut. A whimsical frame cottage with ornament dripping from the eaves, this was an ideal place in which to toast the winners of the America’s Cup. We should be happy, too, that the fine old office building of the nursery firm of Ellwanger & Barry is still standing in Rochester, New York. Quite unlike any office building that we know of, it could be taken for the gate lodge of a Tudor castle. Safe, too, are a couple of lyrical frame cottages: that in Rhinebeck, New York, of the local banker Henry Delamater, and that in New Bedford, Massachusetts, of mill owner W. J. Rotch. Finally, the grim but noble stones of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford are in no apparent danger and, indeed, were unobtrusively wedded to a new four-story annex in the late 1960’s.

 

Nor has Davis been discarded by the South. The towering, crenellated brick-and-stone buildings on the campus of Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, ravaged in the Civil War, were promptly rebuilt as Davis intended —possibly because V.M.I. cadets had served under Stonewall Jackson. And Belmead, the spectacular plaster-finished castle of General Philip St. George Cocke in Powhatan County, Virginia, has been saved from the wreckers by conversion into a Roman Catholic school for Negroes.

 
 
 
 
 

No one, incidentally, was more devoted to Davis than Cocke. It was he who insisted that Davis must be in charge of the building program at V.M.I. He once wrote the architect, “If I was autocrat or even emperor (like Louis-Napoleon in France), I should delight with your aid to build up the waste places, repair delapidation … and beautify the goodly and glorious heritage of our Rip Van Winkle people. But recollecting that I am but a democratic unit, I must limit and control these flights of fancy.”

Another devoted client was the wholesale druggist Llewellyn Haskell, whose passion for romantic scenery led him to found Llewellyn Park at West Orange, New Jersey—perhaps the most sensible real-estate development in American history. Davis was the creator of the ambitious stone gate lodge that still defends the domain. Although only one frame Gothic cottage in the park today stands undefiled to proclaim the architect’s intentions, he will always be associated with the ravines therein. “We thank Mr. Davis, the Michel Angelo of his time, for what he has done for us,” exclaimed a critic in 1859. “No other man could have combined nature and art.”

The “Michel Angelo” of the hour was not, of course, the only outstanding practitioner in the Gothic style. Churches, which he rarely attempted, were the particular province of Richard Upjohn and James Renwick, Jr., two architects who could scarcely be overlooked in the most cursory survey, especially when the weight of the Gothic legacy in church building is given its due.

“Distress,” Upjohn noted in his journal on the way from his native England in 1829, “is not a proper subject for merriment or topic for invective.” This high-minded Anglican, who was a wretchedly worried man in his first years in the New World, apparently had no time for the Gothic novels that were Davis’ evening indulgence. Although he fashioned a sturdy stone Gothic castle for Robert H. Gardiner, of Gardiner, Maine, and a particularly charming frame Gothic cottage at Newport for Gardiner’s son-in-law from Savannah, he vastly preferred ecclesiastical commissions. To him they meant peace on earth.