American Gothic

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A fairly comprehensive Gothic tour would have to include nearly every state that was in the Union on the eve of the Civil War. If you happened to be an aficionado of the revival, you would not waste much time at Washington Irving’s Sunny-side, for that heavily advertised villa at Irvington, New York, remodelled with the help of the artist George Harvey, has too coy an interior to please anyone who has surveyed the spacious plans of A. J. Davis. You would be more likely to linger over Roseland, the winsome frame cottage—Gothic inside as well as out—at Woodstock, Connecticut; once the home of publisher Henry C. Bowen, it is now owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Roseland was the work of Joseph Collins Wells, the contriver of New York’s First Presbyterian Church. Then there is Staunton Hill, the brick-and-plaster seat in Charlotte County, Virginia, of Charles Bruce. Now the residence of David K. E. Bruce, our former chief negotiator at the Vietnam peace talks in Paris, Staunton Hill was designed by an engineer named John Johnson. And in Baton Rouge is the capitol planned by James Harrison Dakin, once a student in Davis’ office; its central hall is overwhelming even today.

Harvey, Wells, Johnson, Dakin—these are names that only specialists would remember. Which makes it more than evident that the Gothic Revival was too popular to be merely the preserve of the leading architects of the nation. In fact, many of the most delightful Gothic remains are the work of artisans whose identity may never be discovered. No one knows, for example, who plotted the small but grim stone castle of the actor Edwin Forrest at Riverdale on the Hudson—now an administration building of a Roman Catholic college, Mount St. Vincent. Or who built the amusing frame cottage for John Schoolcraft,Jr., at Guilderland, near Albany. Or who thought of the unusual frame villa and teahouse of the California statehood leader Mariano Vallejo, in Sonoma, built about 1850 and now a museum. Nor is there much hope of finding out who slipped a Gothic veil sometime about 1850 over an essentially undistinguished brick dwelling in Kennebunk, Maine, making the Wedding Cake House a thing extraordinary. And although the records of William Gregg’s mills at Graniteville, South Carolina, have been searched by scholars, no one has emerged with the name of the craftsman who made Graniteville a Gothic village.

To those who believe that the history of architecture is the history of common sense, the names of these designers may be facts not worth ferreting out. But architecture has always been an art of uncommon sense. A. J. Davis may have convinced more than one client that the Gothic was ideal because of its associations. This was make-believe. Was it immoral? Had he not invoked the fourth dimension, time itself, he might never have accomplished what he did to make the plans of American houses flexible, irregular, and practical.

The Gothic Revival was, to use an accurate but ungraceful word, important. Born out of boredom with the perfection of the Renaissance and its emphasis on the proper proportions, it led to the rediscovery of the Middle Ages. When the monuments of medieval times were studied, architects could not help insisting that design and engineering, married so successfully at Chartres, should again be one.

There has, of course, been more than one Gothic Revival in the United States. When Ralph Adams Cram began preaching his crusade in the 1890’s for churches that were monuments of archaeology, the Gothic of the decades between Jackson and Lincoln was dismissed as so much gingerbread. Commenting on the spontaneity of a Davis, an Upjohn, or a Renwick, Cram, the master builder of All Saints’ Church in Ashmont, Massachusetts, left no doubt of where he stood: “The sheer savagery of these box-like wooden structures, with their toothpick pinnacles, their adventitious buttresses … and their jig-saw ornament, finds no rival in history.”

There was, as we know, a time when Cram’s Gothic was smothered with respect. Today he is only a bore to critics who insist that there was more to the toothpick pinnacles than caught his eye. In fact, Cram is so far out of date that there is serious danger he may be revived before the century is over. Taste would not be taste if it did not change.