Carrie Ann Powell / 1995

The Gothic Revival's Survival in the United States


The United States has always been a melting pot of different cultures from all over the world. For centuries, people and ideas have migrated to the United States to start over. The new people merged into the American culture, and the ideas brought with them did the same. The cultures that arrived gradually became imbedded into the American society. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was an influx of architectural styles from Europe. Styles such as Roman, Greek, Gothic and Egyptian were brought into American culture. Immediately upon arriving in the New World, the immigrants began using the architectural styles used in the cultures from whence they came. "They attempted to transport their architecture just as they had transported their cows and pigs and seeds" (Rutman, 42). Gothic architecture, one of the most wide spread styles of architecture, came to the United States around 1800. While many styles that were found in the United States could only be found in either small amounts, such as Egyptian, or concentrated mainly in one region, such as Greek and Roman, Gothic architecture could be found in both the North and South in numerous projects. Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe has been referred to as the father of the Gothic architectural style in America. Latrobe brought the style with him when he moved to Philadelphia from England around 1798. However, the arrival of Latrobe was not the beginning of Gothic architecture in the United States. Gothic architecture had been one of the exotic styles of decoration used in eighteenth century England, and sparingly in colonial America. This style never died out in England, in fact many pseudo-Gothic buildings could be found in England from the close of the Middle Ages to the opening of the Gothic Architecture Revival. Gothic architecture was brought to the United States when the English set up colonies. In Virginia, enough architectural remnants survive to indicate that the Gothic architecture had a place in the colony's architecture (Loth and Sadler, 5). However, the style did not really reach any great height of popularity until the 1830's. This has been attributed to the famous Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott. Through his romantic detailed writings of Gothic buildings, he opened American eyes to the grandeur of the Medieval Period. It is also said that the Gothic Architecture Revival occurred first in literature in the writings of Alexander Pope and David Mallet.

Who brought the Gothic Revival to the United States is not the question. The real question is why did the Gothic Revival come to America and prosper as it did when everything was against this style. The religion of the North often made the Northerners reject the Gothic architectural style because of its association with the Roman Catholic Church. Many immigrants came to the United States, most to the North, seeking relief from the persecution coming from the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the Southern planters refused to use the Gothic architectural style because they preferred the effect of the classical styles. The classical styles are mainly the Greek and Roman architectural styles. Both were known for their columns and symmetry. At that time, one of the most important elements to the architects was symmetry. Greek and Roman architectural styles could provide this; however, Gothic architecture and symmetry did not go hand in hand. Also, Gothic architecture had always been considered a style mainly for ecclesiastical structures. However, the Gothic architectural style did thrive in the United States. There were reasons for this to occur. One was the American obsession with English culture. Another was the great symbolism behind Gothic architecture.

Background on Gothic Architecture

During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, England began to realize the importance of the Middle Ages. "The Gothic past offered an acceptable, if inferior, option for study by educated gentlemen; and Gothic began to be an acceptable alternative for country houses" (Girouard, 180). This was the Gothic Architecture Revival. As Gothic architecture became more popular, the style came up against stiff competition from Chinese architecture. In the end, Gothic architecture prevailed over Chinese architecture, because Gothic was native to England, therefore examples could be found all over England. Gothic architecture was probably one of the most important styles all over the world. The style could be found at one time or another in Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean as well as the United States. Gothic architecture was born in Paris, France, but made its way to England sometime in the early 1170's. The Gothic style probably arrived in England because of contact with France (Grodecki, 99). In England, the style began in the southwestern region, and then spread out to the rest of the country. As time passed, England evolved its own style of Gothic architecture due to an isolation from the rest of Europe during the first half of the thirteenth century (Kidson, 108).

The most important Gothic architectural structures throughout the world were the cathedrals. These were beautiful buildings with buttresses, pinnacles, and gargoyles decorating them. "In England Gothic had always been perceived primarily as a means of transforming thick walls into rich and lively decoration" (Wilson, 191). In other words, Gothic architecture was a style used mostly for decoration, especially in the Cathedrals. The Gothic style was first used in England in 1174 when the choir of Canterbury Cathedral was rebuilt after a fire. Canterbury Cathedral “exerted substantial influence beyond the Channel, not only by virtue of its double-shell walls, false-beddings, and multicolored marbles, but also by virtue of its two transepts and its single axial chapel” (Grodecki, 99). Before the use of the Gothic style at Canterbury, “no religious structure deserving of the label Gothic” could be found in England (Grodecki, 97). Wells Cathedral is located in western England. The Cathedral’s construction extended from 1230 to 1240. From this time period, only the westernmost bays have survived. However, “the nave, which dates from the early thirteenth century, is somewhat more recent” (Grodecki, 102). “The west front of Wells is developed along its breadth: its two massive towers stand outside the central volume, and the decoration is spread over two stories” (Grodecki, 104). The western side of the cathedral remained the prototype of broad, richly decorated English facades for years and influenced other cathedrals from Salisbury Cathedral to Exeter Cathedral. The Gothic architecture that evolved in England was the same that was brought to the United States. Other architectural styles as well as ideas of future architects grew from the Gothic Architecture Revival (Davey, 6).

Once the Gothic Architecture Revival began in England, the gentry saw the elegant and elevated qualities of the style. Some of the landed gentry would build imitation ruins in parks because of the picturesque quality of the Gothic architecture. This was the same style that had been used in many of the churches built in the Middle Ages. There was a lapsing in interest in the seventeenth century, but by the eighteenth century Gothic architectural relics had become "a prized, if eccentric, curiosity in the landscaped parks" (Jenner, 24). Because of the beautiful quality of the Gothic architecture, the style became popular once again. On their land, they built gardens in which they also built imitation Gothic style ruins. They placed the structures at strategic points in the gardens. Bristol High Cross in England still conveys a powerful impression of the effect these magnificent Gothic style monuments once created as the focal point of cities and towns (Jenner, 205). The ruins in Hagley Park were "constructed in 1747 and placed at [the first Lord] Lyttelton’s request on a prominent hill to be seen from the house and to appear as though it has survived from medieval times" (Mahoney, 27). The ruins are more than seventy feet long with one complete tower and three partial ones. These ruins could be found all over England and appeared as signs of gentility. While cathedrals and other churches were the more popular buildings built with the Gothic architectural style in mind, many other sorts of buildings, such as homes, were also design that way. In the United States, armories, prisons, schools, and hospitals were built in the Gothic Architecture Revival style in addition to churches.

Factors that Inhibited the Growth of Gothic Architecture

When the Gothic Architecture Revival first came to the United States, one of the many reasons Gothic architecture was rejected was that the builders and owners wanted their buildings to be symmetrical. At the time, symmetry was one of the most prized elements in the architecture found in the United States. Those buildings built in any particular architectural style were usually built in Greek or Roman architectural styles. Both styles allowed for the use of symmetry. The Gothic architectural style did not allow for symmetry. Gothic architecture "was without commitment to symmetry or level skylines, so it could be as broken as desired" (Girouard, 226). The symmetrical buildings in the classical styles were preferred in the South. The Southern planters felt that these buildings had an air of monumentality about them. Later in the century, when porticoes and other classical elements began to symbolize arrogance and authoritarianism, the architecture of American buildings began to move away from the classical styles. While the architects moved away from classical structures, they were moving towards the Gothic asymmetrical structures. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century a more Romantic form of domestic architecture began to make its way from England to the United States. The new Gothic architecturally styled earth-colored villas were informal, asymmetrical, and came to replace the earlier symmetrical designs (Lane, 277).

In England, the Gothic architectural style was perceived as a strictly ecclesiastical style of architecture. "For churches, as a postclassical institution, the Gothic style came to viewed as uniquely suitable" (Severens, 132). Because of this classification, Gothic architecture was used in the construction of Roman Catholic Cathedrals. In fact, the Gothic style became the Church's own style (Kidson, 108). When the Gothic Architectural Revival began in England, the English architects began to remodel the idea of the neoclassical structures of the colonial and Federal eras. These neoclassical structures were boxy and filled with light. The new Gothic buildings were to be darker, narrower and more mysterious. Through these elements, the Gothic buildings would reflect the mysteriousness of the Medieval Period. "Within a few years, American reformers adopted these concepts on this side of the Atlantic" (Lane, 268). These churches were built in cities, towns, and in the country. Often in the middle of nowhere, country churches could be found with modified or simplified Gothic architecture. After England began once again to use the style in domestic structures, the United States had its first Gothic architecturally styled homes built. Later, hospitals and prisons were built in the Gothic architectural style, because of the symbolism behind such a style. However, "the Gothic Revival revolved itself into a style in which to design churches and residences," with churches being the dominant Gothic architecture structures (Newcomb, 10).

"Gothic architecture was foreign to the taste of most seventeenth century Americans" (Loth and Sadler, 5). Being known as the Roman Catholic Church's style hurt the Revival of Gothic architecture in the United States. Especially in the North, the immigrants came to the New World to escape the influence of the same church. Therefore, the immigrants, and their ancestors, did not openly embrace Gothic architecture. Puritans had very little inclination to employ such a style. Even the Maryland Catholics did not use the style as much as they would have been expected to. "The Catholic settlers of Maryland probably had some affinity for the symbolic architectural tradition of their Church, but archaeological research indicates that although the chapel at St. Mary's (ca. 1635) had a cruciform plan, and a mullion brick from the structure survives, little further architectural evidence from the early days of the Catholic colony exists to confirm this notion" (Loth and Sadler, 5). When the Gothic Architecture Revival made its way to the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these people associated with these religions still had reservations about Gothic architecture. An example of the northern prejudice toward Gothic architecture can be found with one of Latrobe's designs for the Baltimore Cathedral. Latrobe submitted two designs for this Cathedral. One was a classical design, and the other was Gothic. The first was chosen, probably because of the general Northern dislike for the style because of its old relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.

Factors that Helped the Growth of Gothic Architecture

Ever since the first settlers came to the New World, they made sure that they were still recognized as English. They wanted to improve their lot in life. "Notably this desire for improvement did not entail any desire for broad changes in the English way of life" (Rutman, 42). These settlers set out recreating England in America. They brought with them everything they knew about institutions such as marriage, government, law, and religion. These things were referred to as cultural baggage and came with them like the material baggage such as tools and clothes (Rutman, 42). Along with the rest of the institutions, architecture was also brought over. Proprietors of the Southern colonies recreated the life of provincial country squires at home in England (Lane, 22). The Reverend Hugh Jones said of the Virginia planter in 1724: "They live in the same neat manner, dress after the same modes, and behave themselves exactly as the gentry in London" (Lane, 22). Despite the proclamations of independence during the Revolution and the protests of the War of 1812, the United States remained dependent upon England through British commerce and culture throughout the better part of the nineteenth century (Lane, 97). Builders in colonial Virginia and Maryland built smaller versions of the English country houses that reflected the temple-like quality sought in the English houses.

Another example of the United States' dependency on England is found in the Masonic brotherhood revival. In the eighteenth century, there was a revival of the Masonic brotherhood in England. The Masons went about renewing the traditions of the medieval craft guilds. The meeting halls often had a Gothic architectural design. The Masonic revival spread to the United States, and in 1810, architect William Strickland designed the Philadelphia Masonic Temple in the Gothic architectural style and set a precedent that was spread to other cities (Newcomb, 10). In other cities throughout the country, old Masonic halls were redone in Gothic. In 1823, the Huntsville, Alabama temple added pointed windows and other decorations to the pre-existing boxy, gable-roofed hall. Later, more temples in Athens, Georgia, Franklin, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky followed. The Masonic Hall renovations done in the United States were caused by the revival of the medieval traditions in England.

When Gothic architecture became popular again in England, it was brought into the United States through commerce, the same commerce that brought material objects to the United States. However, Gothic architecture took awhile to get a foothold. This can be attributed to the fact that Americans were very conservative when it came to architecture. Latrobe's design for the Baltimore Catholic Cathedral was probably the first Gothic design for an important American church (Newcomb, 9). Until the close of the eighteenth century, the traditional style for the building of the majority of the churches was the Georgian style. Upon the design of his cathedral, "Latrobe not only broke with the tradition of Georgian churches, but also challenged the idea of stylistic unity within a given age" (Severens, 57). This means that when Latrobe designed the Gothic architectural version of the Baltimore Cathedral, even though it was not built, he challenged the conservative ideas about American architecture. American architecture was split up into eras, each era having its own different styles. When a new era began, the style had to challenge the old style in order to create a new era. When Latrobe's design was submitted, it challenged the old style, Georgian architecture.

Often when Gothic style buildings were built, "the workmen did not pursue any particular style as an end in itself, but simply used forms with which they were familiar, erecting a building that emphasized cultural dependence on the mother country" (Severens, 49). However, when a certain style was desired, professional architects were called in to do the project. The first of these professional architects came mainly from England. The American-born architects often went to England to research the Gothic architecture found there. John McMurty was one of these architects, and he went to England in order to study Tudor Gothic architecture. Often, the structures built in America were copies of structures built in England. For example, the Church of Nativity in Union, South Carolina was copied from a small Gothic nineteenth century church in the village of Isleworth, England (Severens, 62).

During the earlier period, the Gothic architecture of the United States was not near as advanced as the structures being built in England. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located in New York City, is a principle example of the Gothic architectural style in the United States. The architect of the cathedral was James Renwick, Jr., one of the more famous architects in the latter part of the nineteenth century. St. Patrick’s, began in 1858, is an immense two-towered structure and was based mainly on English and German Gothic influences. St. Patrick's occupies a special place in the American Gothic Architecture Revival because it was the first project in the United States "of a magnitude comparable to anything being done in Europe" (Loth and Sadler, 67). Before St. Patrick nothing had been built nearly as big or as beautifully done as the buildings designed and built in England. The first truly Gothic style church in the United States was the Chapel of the Cross. The church is located in Mannsdale, Mississippi. "That design was unmistakably adapted from a twelfth century stone church in England" (Lane, 270). The same design was replicated all over the country in other churches. The design for the Chapel of the Cross was found in a collection of Gothic designs for churches that were replicated from English churches.

Gothic architecture had always been considered a style mainly for ecclesiastical structures; however, the first Gothic style design in America seems to have been Sedgely, a residence erected around 1800 by Latrobe. While Sedgely was symmetrical, it was the first building built that incorporated Gothic architectural elements. This building was the birth of the Gothic Architecture Revival in the United States. However, the first domestic Gothic style structures are often not recognized to have been built before the 1830's. "Robert Gilmor is credited with building the first truly Gothic house in America" (Mahoney, 170). He traveled to France as an attaché to the American embassy after graduation from Harvard. While in Europe, he visited Sir Walter Scott. Upon returning to America, commissioned a firm to build a replica of Abbotsford, "Scott’s romantic baronial castle on the River Tweed in Scotland," and named it Glenellen, after his wife (Mahoney, 170). In England, after the popularity of classical structures began to wane, domestic Gothic architecture began to unfold. Of course, after being done in England, domestic Gothic architecture made its way to America. The Southern plantation house was a variation on the theme of the English country house. "Its architecture was influenced by English taste, its manner of living defined by English fashion" (Severens, 65). However the two structures were different because of indigenous factors like climate or topography. These were both very different from the English landscape. While it is true that many Southern homes were done in classical styles, after the second quarter of the nineteenth century more domestic Gothic architecture was built throughout the country. In the Gothic architectural mode, these homes were built with steeply pitched gabled roofs. Also, the "roof lines were further enlivened with tall clustered chimney stacks, towers, crenellated parapets, finials and crocket ornaments" (Lane, 277). "The facades were embellished with trellised verandahs, clustered columns, bay and oriel windows, pointed arches, stone tracery, and corner buttresses with weatherings" (Lane, 278). These building were meant to be private, personal, sentimental, and a little quirky. This style of domestic architecture flourished in the Hudson River Valley in New York.

The structures built in the Gothic architectural style had such of a powerful effect because of the symbolism behind them. The Gothic architecture design was used to symbolize permanence and authority for public buildings. Because of the writings of Pugin and Ruskin, Gothic architecture was increasingly associated with both Christianity and truthfulness (Girouard, 273). The cathedral was supposed to be the image of the Christian Universe. The cathedral was the “House of God, the dwelling place of his mystical person” (Grodecki, 14). The multicolored stained-glass windows have been compared to the precious stones encrusted in the walls of the New Jerusalem. In the nineteenth century, the full blooded Gothic Architecture Revival sought to revitalize Christian society by a return to the cultural values of the Middle Ages (Jenner, 24). In the 1830's, church reformers in England sought to revive the Anglican liturgy by modeling new buildings in the style of the medieval parish churches. "These simple solemn buildings were intended to fuse function and symbolism by representing in wood and stone a holierness, less secular kind of religious life, the theology and tradition of ancient church cleansed of eighteenth century rationalism" (Lane, 208). Every medieval church was supposed to be an evocation of the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the saved, to be established after the completion of the Last Judgment (Wilson, 8). In England, the Gothic house stood for good principle and good cheer.

Gothic architecture survived well in the South because it was considered a romantic style. Greek and Roman architectures were classical styles. When Greek architectural elements, such as porticoes, acquired unwelcome connotations of arrogance, authoritarianism and ostentation, Gothic style houses began to be built in America. There was a struggle between "the classical tradition and the romantic spirit for supremacy over the Southern mind" (Eaton, 299). The victory went to the Romanticism style, but even classical culture was viewed in a romantic and unhistorical light. For that reason, Gothic, Greek, and Roman styles were all popular in the South. The Romanticism style went so far in the South as to reach the actions of the people. For example, Southern gentlemen were known for being chivalrous. These gentlemen could be compared to Medieval knights, rescuing the Southern damsels. The South was built on symbolism and the architecture found there reflected that symbolic nature. Gothic architecture was, while on one hand, particularly a reaction against industrialization. On the other hand, the elaborate ornament in wood and metal used in Gothic architecture was facilitated by steam-powered sawmills and iron foundries. This is why Gothic architecture could be found heavily in the North. Gothic architecture was popular in both regions, but in the North the style could be achieved easier.


Gothic architecture was quite an influential style. Throughout the world, beautiful buildings were built with the buttresses, pointed arches and tracery that made Gothic such a popular style. Many of these buildings still stand today, filling viewers with awe at the sight of the tall and ornate structures. In England and France, Gothic architecture eventually died out, but this architectural style died much slower there than in the Mediterranean, Spain, and Italy. In all three of these places, Gothic architecture was a foreign style. In the United States, even though it faced many adversities, Gothic architecture was a popular style that could be found throughout the country. In both the North and the South, the Gothic architectural style was used for public buildings, domestic buildings, and churches. No other architectural style accomplished this feat.

The early 1800's marked the beginning of the Gothic Architectural Revival's popularity surge. Throughout the entire United States there was only one major building built before the turn of the nineteenth century that used the Gothic style. This was New York's second Trinity Church. "Even minor essays in the Gothic taste, such as garden houses, outbuildings, or interiors, were rarely seen until after the turn of the century" (Loth and Sadler, 19). Throughout the period before the Gothic Revival reached America, the Federal Era, "the Gothic style was still looked upon as somewhat daring, and its rare appearances occasioned comment" (Loth and Sadler, 19). America remained relatively architecturally conservative. New styles had a hard time of gaining a foothold, even though Americans were curious about Medieval architecture. "They remain a significant milestone in the history of American taste and architectural development" (Loth and Sadler, 28). "Had Latrobe's Gothic Baltimore Cathedral been built, it would have fulfilled a deep ambition for its designer, been the first Gothic style cathedral since the Middle Ages, and might have advanced the revival of Gothic architecture for ecclesiastical use by more than a quarter of a century" in America (Loth and Sadler, 29). As it stood Gothic architecture took years for the Gothic architecture style to reach the heights of which it was capable. Gothic architecture did reach this place, but the style would never had gotten the chance if the United States had not been infatuated with England. Gothic architecture found a place because of the symbolism behind it. The style is one that is known worldwide and will continue to be found throughout the world for ages to come.