Gothic Revival: Architecture & Characteristics

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen a house with windows that end in a pointed arch? How about a house with towers or turrets? In this lesson, explore Gothic Revival architecture and some of the characteristics that identify it.

What Is Gothic Revival architecture?

Inspired by medieval architecture, Gothic Revival architecture developed in Britain in the nineteenth century. It also became popular in North America, especially in the United States.

It's called 'Gothic Revival' because it echoes Gothic architecture, which developed in France in the twelfth century. Gothic was a style for churches, where it was meant to emphasize the divine and involved precise mathematical calculations and proportions. But Gothic Revival transformed it into a decorative, fanciful style with little connection to past function.

Why did nineteenth century architecture glance back at the medieval past? Gothic Revival developed not long after authors like Horace Walpole and Sir Henry Scott started writing novels and gothic tales that conjured a romantic, nostalgic vision of the distant past, including things like haunted castles, knights and armor. In fact, Walpole's home, Strawberry Hill, on which he added turrets, cloisters and other flourishes, is one of the first documented examples of Gothic Revival.

Strawberry Hill, home of Horace Walpole
Strawberry Hill in London

By the 1820s, architects began incorporating elements of Gothic architecture into wealthy country estates and upper class homes. It also became a popular style for colleges and universities, as well as other large structures. The British Parliament (1840) is an excellent example.

British Parliament building
British Parliament

In the United States, the first example of Gothic Revival appeared in a home in Baltimore in 1832, and the style quickly spread. It was a welcome contrast to the other popular revival architecture at the time, the cool, ordered Greek Revival style. An example of early Gothic Revival in the United States is Trinity Church in New York City, built in 1840.

Early Gothic Revival structures were built without regard to authenticity, but later phases of Gothic Revival in both Britain and the United States incorporated a bit more scholarship and archaeological study into accurate recollections of the original style.

So how can you identify a Gothic Revival building?

What Are its Characteristics?

Gothic Revival architecture has several distinct characteristics.

One of the most obvious, especially for residential structures, is a steep-pitched roof that ends in a high, narrow point. Tall windows with pointed arched tops echo the roof's thrust. They are often (but not always) cross-gabled, meaning that two roof sections of the building intersect to form the shape of a cross; this creates a more complicated floor plan. All of these elements emphasize a sense of the vertical.

Detail, example of a steep gable roof and tall windows with pointed arches
Steep gable roof and arched windows

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