American Gothic


Describing his ambition, Upjohn declared, “The object is not to surprise with novelties in church architecture, but to make what is to be made truly ecclesiastical … such as will fix the attention of persons, and make them respond in heart and spirit to the opening invocation: ‘The Lord is in His Holy Temple; let all the earth keep silence.’” This was his frame of mind when he conceived Trinity Church, New York, the greatest of all his churches and one of the rarely challenged monuments of the Gothic Revival. Perhaps this serious-minded man should be forgiven for his doubts concerning denominations other than the Church of England. He once designed a Presbyterian church—but with misgivings. A rival reported that although he did it “conscientiously,” he believed that “Presbyterians were not entitled to architecture.”


Upjohn’s rival James Renwick, Jr. was a talented man, even if not so loyal to principle. He was the only American architect to keep two steam yachts, one for fishing off the Florida coast, the other for cruises in more distant waters. He insisted on the high style becoming an artist, a frame of mind aptly illustrated in the alarming castle he designed in 1851 for C. T. Longstreet of Syracuse, a merchant who had the wit to send the first ready-made suits to the West Coast after the gold rush. Built of stone, the castle looked like a fortress in the moonlight. It was annihilated by Syracuse University following World War n, after many years of service housing the School of Journalism.


Although Renwick was the creator of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, his finest achievement was Grace Church, farther downtown. Completed in 1846, when the architect was only twenty-eight, Grace made a favorable impression even on Philip Hone. As Hone correctly noted, “This is to be the fashionable church, and already its aisles are filled (especially on Sundays after the morning services in other churches) with gay parties of ladies in feathers and mousseline-de-laine dresses, and dandies with moustaches and high-heeled boots; the lofty arches resound with astute criticisms upon Gothic architecture from fair ladies who have had the advantage of foreign travel, and scientific remarks upon acoustics from elderly millionaires who do not hear quite as well as formerly.”


There were others, naturally, besides Davis, Upjohn, and Renwick who worked their Gothic will on America in the years between Jackson and Lincoln. There was, for example, John Haviland, the architect of stone prisons such as the Egyptian-style Tombs in New York. His most imposing work, designed in 1821, was the Eastern State Penitentiary at Philadelphia, which one local critic insisted was “the only edifice in this country which is calculated to convey to our citizens the external appearance of those magnificent and picturesque castles of the Middle Ages which contributed so eminently to embellish the scenery of Europe.”