Collegiate Gothic Architecture: Style & History

Instructor: Stephen Taul

Stephen has master's degrees in both architecture and city planning and has taught architecture design studios.

Learn about the architectural evolution from medieval Gothic to Gothic Revival to Collegiate Gothic. Explore the style's characteristic features and noteworthy buildings, as well as some of the prominent architects of the style.

Origins of the Collegiate Gothic Style

Colleges and universities have long sought to project a certain image through the buildings on their campus. Buildings that have certain characteristics that reference the past and were built on college campuses during the late 1800's and 1900's are described as being designed in Collegiate Gothic style. The style has its roots in the medieval Gothic style, which was revived in the middle of the 18th century. This new style, termed Gothic Revival, was frequently used in the 19th century for academic and governmental buildings due to its reference to morality and rigidity.

Collegiate Gothic buildings were frequently designed to look weathered and aged, but solid enough to endure time and the elements and ornate enough to exude prestige. In this lesson, we will learn about the characteristics of Collegiate Gothic architecture and why many universities constructed buildings in this style.

Early History

During the 1800's, many colleges lacked a central plan which resulted in the construction of buildings with an assortment of architectural styles. While many of the American universities were influenced by the buildings of the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge in England, the Gothic style of the 1860's and 1870's lacked consistency and was often a mix of similar, but different design elements.

Gore Hall (1848) at Harvard University
Gore Hall

After designing Pembroke Hall in 1894, the firm Stewardson & Cope was commissioned to design many other buildings for schools who were inspired to follow their interpretation of the Gothic style. Blair Hall on Princeton's campus is one such building. This was the beginning of Collegiate Gothic as a frequently reproduced style.

Blair Hall at Princeton University

Beginning of the Style

Buildings in the Collegiate Gothic style began to appear in the early 1900's as many well-known universities added buildings to their campuses. The difference between these buildings and earlier academic buildings was the use of modern materials. While on the exterior they still appeared to be part of the Gothic Revival style, on the inside they were built using steel, plaster, clay tile and gypsum board.

Model of the Memorial Quadrangle for Yale University
Yale Quadrangle

The exterior materials of brick and stone represented a feeling of stability and permanence which was a perfect image for these academic institutions. In addition, since many of the schools were owned by religious groups, the style also pointed to an ideal of ethics and moral discipline.

Characteristics of the Style

Many key architectural elements are characteristic of Collegiate Gothic architecture. In general, Collegiate Gothic structures have a rectangular plan. Arches are used extensively and are typically pointed as they were in early Gothic cathedrals. One way in which arches are used is for recessed entrances which are framed by several arches, each one smaller than the other.

Buttresses are commonly seen on facades and originally were needed as support to allow for larger windows to be placed in the wall. At the top of a buttress, a finial might be carved in stone to mark the top.

Brookings Hall at the University of Washington
University of Washington

On the flat roof sections of buildings in this style, the parapet or facade that extends above the roof often contains spaces in a series. This type of wall treatment is called crenelation, first used in medieval castles. On the top of a spire, a decorative fleche could be employed.

Tracery, or stone carved in curved geometric patterns, is often used between sections of glass in a predominant window. Other windows along the facade were often tall with small panes of glass divided by wood or lead.

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