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American Gothic

June 2024
15min read

The revival in the nineteenth century of medieval motifs in architecture extended from villas and furniture to farmhouses and vineries

Many of the visitors who admire the classic calm of Monticello would be startled if they knew of the original intentions of Thomas Jefferson. In 1771, after he had begun work on the estate, he seriously contemplated building a battlemented tower on a neighboring mountain; and he also planned, though he did not actually erect, “a small Gothic temple of antique appearance” for the graves of his family and retainers. As usual, the master of Monticello was ahead of the times. Some sixty years would pass before such things were fashionable in America.

The notion that the Gothic Revival was fashionable would, incidentally, have greatly distressed the leaders of the movement in the United States. They were men of principle, and there was nothing frivolous in their arguments. They labored, in the thirty-odd years between Jackson’s first term and Lincoln’s, in the hope that America would one day acquire a fine medieval look. They were disappointed, as we know, but they tried hard. They saw to it that many of our prisons were Gothic; they built a Gothic capitol in Louisiana; they could point, in Graniteville, South Carolina, to a completely Gothic mill town; and before they grew old, they had the satisfaction of knowing that every self-respecting suburb in the land had a castle or at least a cottage in the Gothic style. Finally, when it came to ecclesiastical architecture, they won a victory that no one could dispute. Even in our day there are those who believe that a non-Gothic church is the height of eccentricity, very like a wedding without the march from Lohengrin .

A certain frivolity did mark the beginning of the movement in eighteenth-century England. There might have been a Gothic Revival without Horace Walpole, but it would not have been half so entertaining. “I am going to build a little Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill,” he wrote Sir Horace Mann, the British minister at Florence, in 1750. “If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms, or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you. I can’t say I remember any such things in Italy; but out of old chateaus, I imagine, one might get it cheap, if there is any.” No one could ignore the amusements of a Walpole, and by 1764, when he wrote The Castle of Olranto , the first of the Gothic novels, the craze for Gothic villas could not have been halted even by an act of Parliament.

Of Walpole’s imitators, the most splendid was William Beckibrd, the gorgeously rich son of the Lord Mayor of London. In 1796 he began the building of Fonthill Abbey, the great tower of which rose 276 feet. The tower was none too solid; it eventually crashed into a noble ruin, but this was after Beckford had disposed of his abbey to gunpowder merchant John Farquhar for £300,000.

Americans with money to spend could not resist the charm of Strawberry Hill and Fonthill, and by 1799 the first Gothic villa had been built in the United States. This was Sedgely, the respectable cottage of merchant William Crammond in Philadelphia. Sedgely has disappeared, but its architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, will not be forgotten, for he was the man most responsible for the design of the United States Capitol.

Although Daniel Wadsworth, the cultivated son of an Army commissary general, Jeremiah Wadsworth, insisted on Gothic trim for the frame house he set down on top of a hill near Avon, Connecticut, about 1800, and although that highly respectable Philadelphia fishing club The Castle of the State in Schuylkill made its headquarters Gothic as early as 1812, the new style did not become a national phenomenon until shortly after Andrew Jackson entered the White House in 1829. Before the architects could perform, the critics had to seduce.

The first of our Gothic prophets was Congressman Gulian Crommelin Verplanck of New York, who was as devoted to the progress of the fine arts as he was to the formation of a sound tariff policy. When Verplanrk was invited to lecture before the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1824, he could not resist expressing his disgust for the work of Samuel Mclntire, the Massachusetts woodcarver-architect who built many of the notable houses of Salem, and the other practitioners of what we call the Federal style He was frankly bored, said Verplanck, by “that corruption of the Roman, or rather Palladian architecture, which delights in great profusion of unmeaning ornament, in piling order upon order, in multitudes of small and useless windows, columns, and mean and unnecessary pilasters.”


It was time, the congressman hinted, for America to set out on the Gothic quest. Verplant k wondered if even the temples of Greece were as inspiring as the Gothic cathedrals with “their peculiar and deeply interesting associations which, I know not how, throw back the architectural remains of the Middle Ages to a much remoter antiquity in the imagination than those of Rome and Athens.”

This was a telling argument. Verplanck had introduced the fourth dimension, time itself, as an essential element of architecture, and the day would come when even a prosaic stockbroker, radiant at the thought of retreating to the Tudor era at eventide, would decide on a Gothic house for his family. Perhaps if Verplanck had not had the tariff problem constantly on his mind, he might have become the leader of the Gothic crusade. As it was, the distinction passed to the young Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape gardener from Newburgh, New York, who had an entire magazine, The Horticulturist , in which to promote his views.

Downing was a worthy standard-bearer, earnest in preaching the Gothic, impatient with the Grecian heresy. The Greek Revival, which had been imported from England by Latrobein the year in which he built Sedgely, was, to tell the truth, much more popular than the Gothic. To Downing this was more than regret-table; it was inexcusable. “The Greek temple disease has passed its crisis,” he hopefully reported in 1846. “The people have survived it.”

Like all great prophets Downing kept his admirers at a distance. One of them wrote, “He had a natural fondness for the highest circles of society—a fondness as deeply founded as his love of the best possible fruits.” Downing appreciated the magnificent ring the Queen of Denmark forwarded in homage to his writings, but his gratitude was muted, since he was “marked by the easy elegance and perfect savoir-faire which would have adorned the Escorial.” Except for a pile of letters on his desk he tolerated no sign of labor in his Gothic home.

Labor he did, however. But for his efforts and those of William Gullen Bryant, Central Park might not have been saved for New Yorkers a century ago (not that it is out of danger yet). Downing had the good sense to insist that the beauties of nature were not too fine for the average citizen. He also had the intelligence—or prescience—to talk like Frank Lloyd Wright when discussing the nature of materials. “When we employ stone as a building material, let it be clearly expressed,” he urged. “When we employ wood, there should be no less frankness in avowing the material.”

For Downing, architecture must fit the client, if not the other way around: “To find a really original man living in an original … house is as satisfactory as to find an eagle’s nest built on the top of a mountain crag, while to find a pretentious, shallow man in such an habitation, is no better than to rind the jackdaw in the eagle’s nest.”

Downing made plain that he was not writing for the timid. “There is something wonderfully captivating in the idea of a battlernented castle, even to an apparently modest man, who thus shows to the world his unsuspected vein of personal ambition,” he declared. “But unless there be something of the castle in the man , it is very likely, if it be like a real castle to dwarf him to the stature of a mouse.”

Here was a message— i.e. , no turrets for the Walter Mittys of the nineteenth century—that any architect could understand. No one, however, was more alert in tracking down the clients that Downing dreamed of than the architect A. J. (Alexander Jackson) Davis, who had the privilege of contributing a number of illustrations to Downing’s handbooks besides being puffed in the pages of The Horticulturist . Although Davis was guilty of more than one design in the Grecian manner—the capitol of North Carolina was perhaps the most famous these were lapses that could be forgiven. He was, as everyone knew, a Goth at heart.

Davis was a brilliant draftsman, and in the informal, irregular plans of many of his Gothic castles he delivered so fierce an attack on the formal planning America had inherited from the eighteenth century that he has every right to be considered one of the founders of modern architecture. Unlike any modern architect that we have heard of, he entered the profession through a trap door.

All his life, his diaries reveal, Davis was a conscientious reader of Gothic novels. As a boy, enchanted with the unhappy heroines of Mrs. Ann Radcliffe’s tales, he lived for the hours in which he could steal to the attic and sketch the mountainous retreats where those ladies were imprisoned. For days he would puzzle over the plans of “some ancient castle of romance, an anging the trap-doors, subterraneous passages and draw bridges.” It was only when an older brother urged him that he would pry open a book of history or attempt to solve the riddle that was mathematics.


The son of the editor-publisher of a Congregationalist review in New York, Davis may have been a worry to his parents, for he gave every indication of going on the stage. While setting type for his brother, who ran a newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia, he joined a “philodramatic” society composed so he told an aunt—“of the most respectable young men” and more than once appeared behind the footlights. But he also created the sets for Bertram , a Gothic drama, and later, after returning to New York, he realized that his mission was to be an artist. Toying with that old sketching tool, a camera obscura, he suddenly began “designing streets in Venice, conjecturing the fashions of gondolas, and planning interiors for churches, palaces and prisons.” Told by Rembrandt Feale that he was meant to be an architect, hi: got his first training in the studio of John Trumbull, an artist who believed he had mastered the fundamentals of the architectural profession in his afternoons off from painting the American Revolution.


In 1828, when Davis was barely twenty-five, he earned the opportunity of a lifetime. Ithiel Town, a prosperous bridge builder and architect, invited him to be his partner. When Town went off on a grand tour of England and the Continent in 1829, Davis was left in charge of the office. Six years later, when Town retired, the younger man was already in the midst of the most successful career of any romantic designer. Indeed he had so many commissions that he could afford to ask Town back into the firm in 1842 and 1843. And when his good friend Downing perished in the sinking of the Hudson River steamboat Henry Clay in 1852, Davis was so well established that he could face the future without a qualm.

Davis may have suffered only one major disappointment: he was not given the chance to design a castle for Jay Gould. This was most unfortunate, since the lord of the Erie Railroad was a dedicated student of the Gothic. The perfection of Gould’s taste was evident in the map of Albany’County that he drew up and peddled as a young man; along its borders were portrayed a number of Gothic villas, and any architect should have realized that the young surveyor had the makings of a serious client.

In the end Gould paid his tribute to Davis by buying the greatest of all his castles, Lyndhurst, at Tarrytown. Originally planned in 1838 for William Paulding, the brother of Van Buren’s Secretary of the Navy, this was too ambitious a house in the opinion of diarist Philip Hone, mayor of New York in 1825-26. Unmoved by its graceful asymmetry and complex masses, Hone decided that it was “an immense edifice of white or gray marble, resembling a baronial castle, or rather a Gothic monastery with towers, turrets, and trellises; minarets, mosaics, and mouse holes; archways, armories, and air holes; peaked windows and pinnacled roofs, and many other fantastics too tedious to enumerate, the whole constituting an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it; great cost and little comfort, which, if I mistake not, will one of these days be designated as ‘Paulding’s Folly.’ ”

Mayor Hone may be entitled to his opinion, but no lover of the Gothic Revival could possibly agree. The plan, in all of its irregularity, provided not only for comfort but for a really generous scale of living. Fortunately, Lyndhurst’s attributes can now be shared by the well-to-do and commoner alike; after several years of litigation over the will of Gould’s daughter, Anna, Duchesse de Talleyrand-Périgord, who died in 1961, the great mansion came under the aegis of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is now open to the public. [See “The Realms of Gould,” in the April, 1970, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .]

However, many other brave designs by Davis in the Gothic manner have been the victims of neglect, greed, or impudence. Perhaps it was logical (though scarcely admirable) of New York University to destroy the great marble halls of the old campus on Washington Square; perhaps it was excusable for a real-estate speculator to pull down the House of Mansions, an imposing crenellated row of houses—this time of brick surfaced with plaster—that stretched from the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street; perhaps it was inevitable for some other’developer to demolish Murray Hill, the lovely brick villa at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street once owned by stockbroker W. H. Coventry Waddcll; perhaps it was just as inevitable that the inviting villa of C. B. Sedgwick in Syracuse, New York, would be demolished after being used to house an advertising agency.


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.

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.”

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.

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