The Carpenter Gothic House
Carpenter Gothic is an American domestic architectural approximation of the international Gothic Revival. Thin, inexpensive, often decorated with turnings, the Carpenter Gothic can be strictly Puritan or prettily libertine. Popular for the better part of one hundred years (1840–1930) the style can be found coast-to-coast.
Quickly built with balloon framing (stick-on-stick, one floor above the other) in the early days of industrialization, these houses profited from machined details and intricate moldings. Cheap and available to all, John White, author of Rural Architecture: Ornamental Cottages and Villas (1845), said of the Gothic style that it was “of such a character as to accommodate the various ranks of society, the price being so moderate as to bring it within the reach of the humblest mechanic.”
Pattern of Building: Home and Character
You might say, “the Carpenter Gothic is a style of the pattern-book”, the books of Alexander Jackson Davis (Rural Residences*, 1837) and Andrew Jackson Downing (Cottage Residences**, 1842, et cetera) foremost among them. These pattern-books featured plans, elevations, and details that anyone might produce (in those days, most men accomplished the manly art of building), and the style appealed to the handy self-starter.
And there was a moral element to the style, as you will find in these quotes from A.J. Downing:
“A good house will lead to a good civilization.”
“There is a moral influence in a country home.”
“A good home will encourage its inhabitants to pursue a moral existence.”
“People’s pride in their country is connected to pride in their home. If they can decorate and build their homes to symbolize the values they hope to embody, such as prosperity, education and patriotism, they will be happier people and better citizens.”
No accident that the style was strengthened by the moral camp revivals, the educational camp meetings, especially the Chautauqua.
Summer Camp to Summer Home
A decade following the War to End Slavery (1861-1865), the nation united in a project of moral and educational improvement, the Chautauqua, a Methodist summer camp meeting where campers could learn of many things, history, philosophy, literature, God, and this between concerts, exhibitions, meeting old friends, and making new friends. Year-after-year for half-a-century, ambitious campers would put up tents and settle into a home-away-from-home. Soon, people chose to stay year-round, and the temporary tents became permanent houses. With little imagination you can see the flappity medieval’ish tent morphing into a wood-thin Carpenter Gothic house.
By 1900, most chautauquas boasted staff and permanent buildings. By 1915, some 12,000 communities had hosted a chautauqua. It is estimated that up to 40 million Americans attended a Chautauqua, annually. Throughout the period, 1873 to 1930, the chosen style for the Chautaqua house was Carpenter Gothic. In one community alone, Bay View, Michigan (founded, 1873), there are 440 Gothicesque cottages, mostly Carpenter in style.
Carpenter Gothic Characteristics
Picturesque in the extreme, cute beyond reason, “so small” said Downing, “that the household duties may all be performed by the family”, and we know what this means: the War had, in fact, ended slavery.
Some Carpenter Gothic houses attempted to approximate stone cathedrals, yet these are rare and reserved to the more ambitious stone, brick, and clapboard Gothic Revival. The Carpenter Gothic is
usually sided in board and batten;
its windows and doors are Cathedral style;
its bargeboards and scroll work is fancy;
it most often sports a pinnacle;
its turrets, spires, and pointed arches are exuberantly applied without academic reference or structural necessity;
and it most often offers an expansive porch where friends, family, neighbors might meet to discuss history, philosophy, arts and theology in the friendly occupation of community improvement.
Keep in mind the Gothic Cathedral (“Gothic”, a term coined by Raphael to describe the style descriptive of Germans, “Goths”, whom he thought to be the barbarians who destroyed classical Rome, a Rome that he and others were reviving [the Renaissance, the “rebirth” of Classive civilization]), an ecclesiastical structure, a home for God and His children, aspirational in height, inspirational in beauty, transcendent and divine. Picture also the castle in the clouds, the rural church standing bright against the dark forest, and you will see the appeal.
The Gothic ornament stands out in prickly independence, & frosty fortitude, jutting into crockets, & freezing into pinnacles; here starting up into a monster, there germinating into a blossom; anon knitting itself into a branch, alternately thorny, bossy, and bristly, or writhed into every form of nervous entanglement; but even when most graceful, never for an instant languid, always quickset; erring, if at all, ever on the side of brusquerie. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1853
It is difficult to overstate the influence of John Ruskin on the Anglo mind. Artist, critic, geologist, teacher, gifted writer and philosopher, Ruskin wove the disparate threads of civilization into a spiritual whole. As Tolstoy observed, Ruskin was “one of those rare men who think with their hearts.” An absurd statement, yet descriptive of a time when people studied everything to understand the transcendent divine.
There was Ruskin, and there was our Emerson and Thoreau, and our John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed, disciple of the transcendental prophet-scientist, Swedenborg. We have been an independent, deeply religious people since first we were a people in Plymouth Colony. With little imagination, and steam-powered lathes, you can imagine our seriously Gothic, Plymouth houses becoming the joyfully sentimental houses of our Carpenter Gothic, as that they did.
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A. J. Davis, Rural residence, etc.: consisting of designs original and selected, cottages, for farmhouses, villas, and village churches: with brief explanations, estimates, and a specification of materials, construction, etc., 1837
A. J. Downing, Cottage Residences: or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Adapted to North America, 1842.
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Featured image: Rose Hill, Bluffton, South Carolina, 1858.
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