The Gothic Revival began in England and was the result of new investigations of antique buildings. The Gothic had been overshadowed for more than two centuries by Renaissance and classical styles, but in Britain countless spectacular Gothic buildings survived. Westminster Abbey was among them, yet even a national monument like the Abbey remained a mystery, with little hard knowledge about the evolution of the Gothic style or what portions of the building had been built when.
Decades were required for researchers to sort it all out and, in the meantime, a not-so-scholarly but highly popular variation on the Gothic theme came into vogue. A writer named Horace Walpole published one of the first Gothic romances and proceeded to Gothicize his country house, Strawberry Hill. The domestic style he and his advisers pioneered became an overnight sensation in England but, initially, it didn’t travel to the United States. When it did, it was thanks to an architect named Alexander Jackson Davis and a landscape designer named Andrew Jackson Downing.
When it comes to popular taste, timing is everything and the arrival of the Gothic is no exception. The Gothic was primarily a rural style, as is suggested by the titles of Davis’s 1837 book Rural Residences and Downing’s immensely popular Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). These books illustrated not only parts of houses, as Asher Benjamin’s had done, but added floor plans and even atmospheric perspective drawings of the houses set amid verdant settings. These books were popular among homeowners as well as builders, and led to the appearance of Gothic “cottages” from Maine to California.
Technology played an important role in the emergence of American Gothic, as the decade of the 1830s was a time when the steam-powered scroll saw was developed. Early versions of this saw look like a large sewing machine, though the device had a reciprocating blade rather than a needle. It was this tool that made the Gothic Revival possible in the United States and gave it a character different from its English forebear.
While most English Gothic homes had been built of stone, in America the material of choice, as usual, was wood. The scroll saw made it possible to cut elaborate wooden trim into curved patterns that echoed the tracery work on Medieval Gothic windows. The bargeboards or vergeboards that decorated the rooflines, along with the porch, window, and doorway trim, came to be known as gingerbread. Downing didn’t like the term because, as he put it, “gingerbread” made the decorations sound as if they were “flimsy and meager decorations which have a pasteboard effect.” Despite his objections, however, the name stuck and, though this and other Victorian decorations were for many years dismissed as grotesque and even ugly, more recently homeowners have come to admire the elaborate detailing that often decorates the roof line of the Gothic Revival House.
Earlier house designs tend to sit solidly on their sites, as if a low center of gravity was basic to their design. In contrast, the Gothic house seems to reach for the sky. Verticality is the word architecture critics like to use to describe the effect of buildings that direct the eye upward. The spires of Medieval Gothic cathedrals convey this sense very directly, but there is a similar effect in American Gothic houses. The steep inverted-V of the gable ends are frequently topped by finials. Window trim and even the windows themselves may have the characteristic pointed top of the Gothic arch. American Gothic buildings aren’t especially tall, however, usually one and a half or two stories in height.
Another innovation found in the American Gothic house is an asymmetrical floor plan. Like many of the Greek Revival houses built in the same era—these styles overlapped in the United States—the Gothic Revival house often had an L-shaped floor plan.
REMODELER’S NOTES. Gingerbread is back—more than a few new developments across the country have reintroduced Victorian styling and put elaborately sawn trim to effective use. Conserve the original gingerbread where possible, replicate it where necessary, and use its shape to unify new additions to older structures.
Symmetry is no longer a watchword: In fact, Downing himself characterized the ideal rural residence as having “… a style marked by irregularity of form and outlines, a variety of effect and boldness of composition.”
In earlier houses, clapboards were the rule, but the American Gothic house popularized board-and-batten siding. This siding method used vertical boards, nailed to the frame of the house, with narrow boards (called battens) applied over the joints between the boards. One good strategy is to use the detailing of the original house when remodeling.