American Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Graig Delany

Graig teaches Architecture, Construction and Engineering Courses and has a Master of Architecture Degree

American Gothic Architecture, also known as Carpenter Gothic, is a style of architecture dating from around 1840-1870, which utilized wood instead of stone in the building of houses and churches.

The Painting and the Architecture

Perhaps the most well-known example of this architecture is in the painting, American Gothic, by Grant Wood. The painting shows a farmer holding a pitchfork standing beside a woman, and behind them is a white wood house with some of the quintessential elements of American Gothic architecture: pointed arches, steep gables and decorative wooden elements. Before we get more in depth about this architecture, we have to understand a little about Gothic architecture.

American Gothic by Grant Wood
American Gothic by Grant Wood

Precedent

Evident largely in churches, Gothic Architecture is a European architectural style that was influenced by Romanesque Architecture. From around 1100-1500, these churches loomed over their respective towns with towering spires and pointed arches. The stone that made these towers was pushed to its limit as builders worked to build ever taller towers. Stained glass windows allowed sunlight to pour into these skeletal structures. The stonemasons adorned them with ornamentation that, in many cases, told biblical stories. Gargoyles, whose primary function was to carry rain water away off the roof of the structure, decorated the buildings in fantastic, and sometimes, scary ways.

Gargoyles and Saints, Siena Cathedral
Gargoyles and Saints, Siena Cathedral

Setting

So as the Gothic Revival was happening hundreds of years later in the 1800s and the need for housing was growing in America, carpenters, not stonemasons, took up the form. The growing working class could not afford stone houses, so they opted for less-expensive and readily-available wooden houses. American carpenters of the time already possessed great knowledge and skill in light-frame construction, which literally serves as the skeletal structure of the style. This allowed for multiple stories, openings for windows and steep roofs. Technological advances, including the steam-powered jig saw, allowed for the production of the gingerbread ornamentation that would define this style on an industrial scale. Although gargoyles were not used, pinnacles were added to accentuate gables and continue the idea of verticality essential to Gothic cathedrals. Fancy scrollwork on bargeboards, carved porch rails and other ornate trim and moldings satisfied a desire people had to replicate the ornamentation of Gothic churches.

Zion Memorial Chapel, New Hamburg, New York
Zion Memorial Chapel, New Hamburg, New York

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