When the Gothic Revival movement emerged in Europe, the buildings constructed displayed the same carved stone features as their Gothic predecessors. While many of these design features soon carried across the Atlantic, they were more likely to be hewn from wood. The result is a style known as Carpenter Gothic, also called Rural Gothic and American Gothic. Arriving in the mid-19th century and still loved today, the Carpenter Gothic style has become one of the most captivating aspects of the American architectural landscape.
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European Design Meets American Carpentry
Europe’s high Gothic period ran from the mid-12th century through the 16th century, but in the late 18th century, the style gained renewed interest, sparking the Gothic Revival movement. Once again, buildings with steeply pitched roofs, arched windows, and flying buttresses were popping up all over the continent.
By 1840, the style had finally reached the Americas, but with one major difference: the use of wood rather than stone. The stone used to construct Gothic Revival buildings in Europe wasn’t as readily available in North America and working it required more heavy, painstaking labor than builders at the time found practical.
Wood, however, was in abundant supply. Better yet, new woodworking tools, in particular the steam-powered scrollsaw, let carpenters recreate elaborate Gothic decorative features in wood at a fraction of the cost and time it took using traditional wood carving tools. Lumber mills could now mass produce decorative wooden parts and ship them around the country, making them widely and cheaply available.
The style spread around the country and soon became the first choice for new churches and cathedrals. American architects didn’t merely copy their European colleagues. Whereas European Gothic Revival buildings often displayed ostentatious facades lavished with decoration, Carpenter Gothic took a more subdued approach. Many Carpenter Gothic structures feature the typical Gothic vertical lines and decorative elements, but they’re overall less elaborate than their European counterparts.
Examples of Carpenter Gothic buildings are found in nearly every state, although they’re concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, and rarer in the Southwest. The style reached its peak between the 1840s and the 1860s, and gave rise to the Stick Style architecture of the late 19th century. In the 1940s, it saw a second resurgence and hasn’t gone fully out of style since then. Even today, plans for modern Carpenter Gothic homes are easily available.
Lofty Heights and Intricate Embellishments
Although built almost entirely from wood, Carpenter Gothic structures can still be recognized by the same features as high Gothic buildings. Most structures built in this style are churches or houses, with the houses being reminiscent of churches or castles. They’re typically two-story buildings designed with an emphasis on height and vertical lines.
Like high Gothic buildings, Carpenter Gothic buildings are highly asymmetrical with varying, steeply pitched roof angles and gables. Cross-gabled roofs, in which the roof ridges form a cross, are common. Towers, parapets, pinnacles, and spires add variety and verticality to the roof lines.
Windows and doors are typically tall with pointed arches, taking inspiration from the windows of English Gothic cathedrals. Oriel windows occasionally appear on Carpenter Gothic buildings, although less often than on European Gothic Revival structures.
A spacious front porch is another important part of the Carpenter Gothic home. Porches feature square posts or spindle railings decorated with elaborate scrollwork. Unlike in later architectural styles, such as Queen Anne, Carpenter Gothic porches are usually limited to the front, ground-level of the house.
What really gives Carpenter Gothic buildings their character, though, are the numerous intricate ornamentations that grace the facades. Although carved from wood, they take their design cues straight from the high Gothic style. The arched windows are embellished with delicately cut traceries featuring trefoils and quatrefoils. The ends of the gables feature prominent bargeboards or vergeboards with elaborate open scrollwork. The roof’s fascia boards carry similar scrollwork. Collectively, these lacy carvings are often called gingerbread trim.
The diverse Carpenter Gothic style let carpenters take full advantage of their new saws to express their individual creativity, so builders’ options for ornamentation were nearly unlimited. Both decorative structures, such as towers, and trim were frequently included on the designer’s whim with no obvious cohesive theme or relationship to the main structure. In Arizona and New Mexico, brick Gothic Revival building were more common than Carpenter Gothic ones, but even these buildings received their share of decorative wood trim.
Builders didn’t always have free reign, though. The Ecclesiological Society in England put forth guidelines for Gothic Revival churches which were taken up by some American architects, such as Alexander Jackson Davis. These guidelines were established partly because many Gothic architectural features hold meaning in Christian symbolism. The trefoil, for example, signifies the holy Trinity.
Vertical board and batten siding is the favored cladding for Carpenter Gothic buildings, particularly the taller structures. This cladding isn’t from the Gothic tradition, but rather from the cabin construction traditions of Norway, Sweden, and other parts of northwestern Europe. It worked well with Gothic-style buildings because in addition to protecting the structure from rot, it also leads the eye upward to make the building appear taller. As a bonus, it imparts a homey, rustic look that high Gothic buildings lack. For smaller buildings, clapboard siding is often used.
Despite their showy trim, Carpenter Gothic buildings were typically painted in muted, natural colors such as gray, brown, beige, dark amber, and green. Today, owners of these homes often favor light gray or yellow, although darker greens and reds are also popular.
American architects, carpenters, and builders might not have had the material or the need to recreate Europe’s grand cathedrals, but that didn’t stop them from using what they had to interpret the Gothic style for themselves. By translating high Gothic’s vertical elements and gingerbread detailing from stone into wood and by reigning in the style’s flamboyant tendencies, they developed one of America’s most iconic architectural styles.