- 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
As one of this country’s few surviving examples of rural Gothic, Roseland has undeniable architectural merit: “an original and joyous house,” writes the architectural historian William H. Pierson, Jr., “singing of its independence in a brilliant convoluted line against the subdued tones and slower rhythms of the gentle Connecticut countryside.” It is equally important for its historical associations as the summer home of a man who helped shape the issues in mid-nineteenth-century America.
While the carpenter’s hammers were still being heard and before the bright pink paint on Roseland was dry, Henry Bowen was busy in Brooklyn. In 1847 Bowen brought to Plymouth Church the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, who was just beginning to make a name for himself as one of America’s foremost antislavery advocates. By speaking from Bowen’s pulpit and writing in Bowen’s paper, The Independent, Beecher soon became America’s best-known and most popular preacher; some even called him America’s St. Paul.
Although the Gothic style for homes fell out of fashion, its influence continued in a variety of public buildings, where the desire to celebrate a kind of secular power seemed to call out for Gothic’s quasihistorical authority and for an affirmation of its exuberant skyward lunges. Collegiate Gothic arches and spires of carved stone are familiar to generations of students. From Cathedrals of Learning architects turned to Cathedrals of Commerce, as the technological advances that permitted the skyscraper seemed to perfectly suit the Gothic style. The examples shown at left and below testify to Gothic’s continued vitality.
In the last few years before the Civil War, Bowen and Beecher were joined in their endeavors by Theodore Tilton, a youthful New York journalist, who was assigned to transcribe Beecher’s sermons. In short order Tilton became a member of Plymouth Church, quit his paper, and joined the staff of Bowen’s paper, where he rose to the position of managing editor. Before long people were referring to Bowen, Beecher, and Tilton as the Trinity of Plymouth Church.
At the war’s end their alliance began to crumble. Within months of Appomattox they became locked in a struggle over issues that ranged from Reconstruction policy to local politics, from religion to theories about the family. Then in 1875 came a six-month trial in which Beecher was accused of adultery with Mrs. Tilton. It ended in a hung jury, but not before the Beecher-Tilton affair had become one of the greatest scandals of the era. After the trial Beecher continued to preach, but many in his audience now came not to listen but to gawk.
Henry Bowen’s Roseland seemed miles away in time and place from such troubles. (The home of the Bowen family until 1971, with much of its original furniture and decor remarkably intact, it is today under the care of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.) Starting in the 1870s, Roseland’s social calendar was topped by lively Fourth of July celebrations attended by thousands of local visitors and national dignitaries, including five U.S. Presidents. In honor of the four who were overnight guests—Hayes, Harrison, Cleveland, and McKinley—the northeast bedroom was named the President’s Room. These events were regularly reported in the nation’s press.
The July Fourth procession, not unlike a medieval pageant, would work its way to the park Henry Bowen had reclaimed from a swamp and donated to the town for the 1876 Centennial. Rows of dignitaries and scholars, merchants and tradesmen reproduced the symbolic order of the village community. Honored guests recited patriotic speeches under flag-draped canopies, and brass bands played until fireworks lit the night sky. Some of the traditions had been recently invented, but the message was an old one. The forms and ceremonies of an antique past once again gave comfort to a community of believers.