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The Gothic Awakening

June 2024
5min read

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



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.


Architectural Details Come Indoors

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.

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.

A Style That Still Persists

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.


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