- Historic Sites
The Gothic Awakening
The medieval look that swept America a hundred and fifty years ago wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia for pointed archways and crenellated towers; it was also the very model of a modern architectural style
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
When several local businesses denounced the New York firm of Bowen and McNamee for failing to support the fugitive slave law in 1850, Henry Chandler Bowen replied in the papers that “we wish it distinctly understood that our goods, and not our principles, are on the market.” The threads of idealism and materialism formed the fabric of Henry Bowen’s life, but only rarely could they be disentangled as neatly as Bowen’s announcement suggested.
Bowen set out from his native Woodstock, Connecticut, in 1834 at the age of twenty-one. Armed only with experience clerking in his father’s general store, he went to New York and found a job in the silk-wholesaling firm of Lewis Tappan, one of the major financiers of the emerging antislavery movement. Within the next dozen years Bowen had opened his own silk-wholesaling and dry goods company with Theodore McNamee and married Tappan’s daughter, Lucy Maria. He became the primary founder of an antislavery weekly journal called The Independent and of the Congregational Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. By 1846, his valise full of banknotes and his mind filled with reforms, he was able to return to Woodstock, with plans for a grand summer home. He called it Roseland, for the splendid rose gardens that would surround it.
Built on three acres at the crest of a hill, in the newly popular Gothic Revival style, Roseland perfectly reflected the spirit of its age, when everything, even a house, had to have some moral purpose. In Britain the building of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill in 1749, the writings of the architectural critic John Ruskin, the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and the movement begun by Oxford theologians for religious forms and ceremonies closer to those of the medieval church gave rise to an architectural style based on medieval church building. In America the works and publications of Alexander Jackson Davis (Rural Residences) and Andrew Jackson Downing (The Architecture for Country Houses) influenced a score of other architects. Among them was Joseph C. Wells, the English-born builder of Roseland.
The Gothic house made its first American appearance in 1799, and by the mid-nineteenth century no American town could be considered up-to-date unless it had at least one house, church, or public building that displayed some combination of pointed arches, vergeboards, board-and-batten siding, trefoil or quatrefoil windows, hood or label molding, stained glass, or crockets and finials (see glossary at right). The dramatic effect of the architecture was not solely dependent on its external decoration, however; with its asymmetrical juxtaposition of mass and its complex use of space, it seemed that the Gothic Revival house was purposely designed to be confusing.
The symmetrical facades and austere geometry of an earlier age’s neoclassical architecture summarized the Enlightenment belief that man could understand, control, and organize nature, but builders in the Gothic style saw with foreboding the dark future that such prideful certainty might produce. Gables that pointed toward the heavens, shadowy corners, meandering wings, grotesque gargoyles—all these hinted at humanity’s uncertain standing in a greater, nonmaterialistic world. Born at the start of the modern industrial age, Gothic Revival architecture romanticized a time before factory whistles called women and children to twelve-hour days in textile mills.
With every bedpost and chair back shaped to resemble a church in miniature, some of the style’s popularizers worried that it had grown, as the architect Andrew Jackson Downing wrote, “too elaborately Gothic.” Even the sun was pressed into the service of the design, as light sifted through diamond-shaped panes of window glass to cast moody heraldic patterns on the floor.
At first acquaintance the Gothic Revival appears to be an architecture that echoes with age, that murmurs the praises of a divinely inspired social order. Yet, for all that, the style exemplified a spirit that was altogether modern. Its reformist message, however conservative, was wholly in tune with its time. The Gothic Revival house fitted right into a tumultuous nineteenthcentury social landscape that included movements for temperance, women’s rights, and antislavery and calls for educational reform and better treatment of the blind, the disabled, the insane, and criminals, as well as such quasiscientific practices as homeopathy, hydrotherapy, phrenology, mesmerism, and spiritualism.
Technologically the Gothic house depended on the development of new building techniques, such as the balloon frame, whose narrow timbers and nailed joints allowed for more intricate floor plans than the traditional postand-beam construction. This proliferation of rooms, nooks, closets, and wings was encouraged by the development of cast-iron stoves and centralheating devices that allowed warmth to be spread relatively evenly around the house. Even the curlicued surface decoration required the operation of new lumber mills and scroll saws that could cheaply replicate almost any pattern. Too, the Gothic Revival owed much to the popular press, which published not only the new designs by architects but also the novels and stories that inspired them.