Louisiana Architecture: A Handbook on Styles
The Gothic Revival Style
by Donna Fricker
Click the pictures above for 9 examples of Gothic Revival Architectural styles
Regarded by its proponents as "truthful" and inherently Christian, the Gothic Revival emerged in America during the 1840s as a popular alternative to the Greek Revival. To those unconcerned about its moral implications, the style conjured up romantic images of medieval England. Indeed, in disparaging one "sham" Gothic castle, the Louisiana Statehouse, Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott, who had "run the people mad" with his "medieval romances."1
Like the Greek Revival, the Gothic Revival was embraced for a wide range of buildings, from churches, to residences, to schools, to prisons. There was even a Gothic doghouse built in Maine!2 A notable deviance in Louisiana from the national norm was the unpopularity of the style for residences. Like Southerners on the whole, Louisianans clung tenaciously to the beloved white- columned Greek Revival.
Of course, any analysis of the Gothic Revival must begin in the country of its origin. England turned to its Gothic past with renewed interest in the mid-eighteenth century. At first the style was not a serious one, being confined largely to garden pavilions and an appreciation of ruins. Indeed, if a gentleman did not have a genuine Gothic ruin on his estate, he could construct one, complete with hastily planted ivy and overgrowth-in short, instant antiquity. It was Strawberry Hill, the Gothic fantasy house of wealthy and influential Horace Walpole, that gave the style social standing. By the turn of the nineteenth century it was one of various exotic styles fashionable for a gentleman's residence.3
In the 1830s the Gothic Revival in England came to be looked on "not as a style, but as a religion," observed Kenneth Clark. This moral phase provided the enduring notion that Gothic is a Christian style per se, and as such, is singularly appropriate for churches. This idea was part of an overall reform effort in the Anglican church known as the ecclesiological movement. Ecclesiologists looked to the Middle Ages as a sublime period in the nation's history. It was the Age of Faith when devout and good people built "good buildings." Hence, these "good buildings" (medieval Gothic churches) were by definition Christian. As one proponent explained: "A Gothic Church, in its perfection, is an exposition of the distinctive doctrines of Christianity, clothed upon with a material form. . . ." In an 1839 statement of purpose the ecclesiologists noted that Gothic was indeed the only Christian style.4
A principle goal of the ecclesiologists was to encourage the study and preservation of England's medieval churches and to promote them as models for new churches. And not just any Gothic church should be the inspiration. Ecclesiologists specifically advanced parish churches from the Early English and Decorated phases of the Gothic as the most appropriate (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries). The last phase, the Perpendicular, was over ornamented and hence decadent. Very importantly, the ecclesiologists insisted upon historical accuracy in neo-Gothic church construction. They were also architectural missionaries in the sense that a major goal was to spread the word to what they termed "the colonies." In 1847, a separate but parallel organization was founded in America, the New York Ecclesiological Society.5 In England the movement was tied to the Anglican church, and in America to its counterpart, the Episcopal church.
Louisiana has two churches directly influenced by the ecclesiological movement: Christ Church in Napoleonville and St. Stephen's in Pointe Coupee Parish. Both were built in the 1850s from designs supplied by Frank Wills, the official architect of the New York Ecclesiological Society.
St. Stephen's is a good case study of the fundamental elements of a Gothic Revival church. The overall emphasis is upon verticality, a hallmark of the style. Like its medieval prototypes, the nave (main worship space) and chancel (altar area) are clearly differentiated on the exterior. Windows and other openings take the form of a pointed arch, the feature most closely associated with the style. Piers called buttresses provide structural support. A handsome three-stage entrance tower culminates in projections (in this case, of a simple pointed variety) called pinnacles. The tower is finished along the top edges with indentations known as crenelation or battlements. Originally battlements were placed atop castle walls for defensive purposes; later in the Middle Ages the device became purely decorative. In the Gothic Revival battlements were found on everything from churches to houses to state capitols.
Of course, other Gothic Revival churches built throughout Louisiana by various denominations represent the ecclesiological movement in its largest sense. As its proponents wished, Gothic was the style that immediately came to mind when thinking of building a new church. In short, it was the Christian style, a thought that is still with us today, with the mere sight of a pointed- arch window conjuring up heavenly images.
The Gothic Revival remained a popular design choice for churches in Louisiana well into the twentieth century, in one form or another. Most examples are of wood construction, reflecting a distinctly American phenomenon known as "carpenter Gothic." An excellent example is Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Hammond, built in 1876. Striking verticality is achieved through a bell tower with a soaring spire and the use of board-and-batten siding culminating in miniature pointed arches.
Other Gothic features, besides the signature pointed-arch openings, are pinnacles defining the edges and a trefoil design in the front gable. Sadly, the church has lost one of its most delightful Gothic features, an elaborate barge-board of small arches accenting the front gable and the tower's gabled projections. Also, originally the front gable and second stage of the tower were covered with shingles instead of the present clapboards.
As has been mentioned, churches certainly did not have a corner on the Gothic Revival market, although they are the most numerous in Louisiana. The state's most famous example of the style is the Old State Capitol, Mark Twain's "sham castle," built between 1847 and 1852. Dramatically sited on high ground on the banks of the Mississippi, the old statehouse is a virtuoso performance by James H. Dakin. The style chosen by the architect is termed "castellated Gothic" because of its obvious parallels with a feudal castle. On the river elevation ninety-foot crenelated octagonal towers flank a massive pointed-arch window filled with stained glass. Pointed arches and quatrefoils are everywhere one looks. What a vision this must have been to steamboat travelers. The interior of the old statehouse is also Gothic Revival, dating from William A. Freret's early 1880s "restoration" of the building, which had been gutted by fire during the Civil War.
The Old State Capitol is the only surviving institutional example of the Gothic Revival in Louisiana. Three other large castellated examples are long gone: the United States Marine Hospital, 1838-49, located near New Orleans; the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Baton Rouge, 1852; and a railroad station (1851) in Carrollton, once a separate city but now a part of New Orleans.6
As alluded to earlier, Gothic Revival residences in Louisiana are a rarity. Andrew Jackson Downing, the extremely influential landscape architect turned architectural theorist who directed American taste toward Gothic "cottages," had little influence in the state. Seeking to promote a type of house in harmony with its setting, Downing felt that the "tasteless temples" of the Greek Revival were deceitful when used for domestic architecture. "A dwelling house should took like a dwelling house," he wrote.. His immensely popular books Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) were replete with drawings of recommended designs that he felt were more "truthful." While many of the designs reflect other styles, Downing's preference was for Gothic, and his name has become synonymous with the style in its domestic form.
There were only a handful of Gothic residences ever built in Louisiana. Some, like the Wilkinson House in New Orleans, are similar to the Gothic cottages advocated by Downing, while others are traditional houses with applied Gothic detailing, usually on the gallery. The state's most extravagant Gothic residence, Afton Villa in West Feliciana Parish, burned in 1963. A late example of the style is the striking Ardoyne Plantation House in Terrebonne Parish, built c. 1 894.
The Gothic Revival was also a popular choice for above-ground tombs in New Orleans, which is entirely appropriate given its Christian overtones. Metairie Cemetery, founded in 1872, is an excellent place to view late nineteenth-century examples of the style. Because large, elaborate above-ground tombs reached their zenith at this time, Metairie has various spectacular examples as well as a Gothic receiving chapel. The very grandest tombs are in effect small Gothic chapels, complete with buttresses and spires thrusting heavenward. The most unusual is the Egan tomb, built in the form of a ruined Gothic chapel.
This young ancient ruin brings us full circle to the beginnings of the Gothic Revival in England. While enthusiasm for what has been called "the pointed style" was not as fervent in Louisiana as in the Northeast, it nonetheless produced some extraordinary buildings, some of which have been lost. The delightful examples that remain remind us of a style with a profoundly moral foundation style that to Downing was "truthful" and to the ecclesiologists was inherently Christian.