The act of building one's own home and choosing a housing style for it is often an exercise in indulging one's fantasy life. Of course merely owning one's own home may be a fantasy for many, but especially as the costs rise along with the number of stories, number of square feet, and the number of luxury options, so too do the embodiment of personal fantasies. Today's fantasies can vary as widely as living in some sort of electronic, utopian dream world to quite the opposite, a back-to nature existence in a frontier-like log cabin...provided it has four bedrooms, three baths, a Jacuzzi, and Jenn-Aire range.
Minus the Jenn-Aire, there's nothing new in all this. People of all eras have poured out their personal fantasies and fortunes to their architects, then watched them take life before their very eyes. As I've discussed in earlier domestic architecture instalments, early Americans mostly fantasised about living back in the Neo-classic elegance of comfortable old England, or perhaps, in some sort of Romantic illusion of noble Greek or Roman tranquillity (never mind the fact that neither society was ever very tranquil for very long). As these fantasies began to grow tiresome, there were new ones to take their place, dreams of knights and their ladies fair jousting around before Medieval, crenelated castles or Gothic manor houses. It would be nice and neat to say that all Greco-Roman fantasies ended in 1830 when the Gothic ones began, but in fact the two styles (and their associated fantasies) competed with one another for the hearts and hearths of nineteenth century Americans for perhaps twenty years or more before the Gothic (especially in rural America) gradually won out. Then having done so, it was abruptly nipped in the bud by the Civil War when all architectural fantasies ceased in the face of grim, economic and social reality.
Gothic Revival architecture in this country is a little easier to get a grip on than the evolutionary Classic Revival style which came before it and lingered near death long after it. Gothic Revival had no incubation period and saw a quick, painless demise with the Civil War. It basically occupied the period 1830 to 1860. Architect Andrew Jackson Davis, was its primary pusher and like his comic Greek Revival log cabin complete with tree trunk columns, his Gothic Revival catalogue of designs ranged from a very modest, front-gabled two-room design, which one might easily mistake for a country church, to Jay Gould's palatial Lyndhurst near Tarrytown, New York. Most were fairly modest frame dwellings with gables on either end of the main structure and one or two more facing forward, soaring up in their steep-roofed magnificence over a wrap-around front porch sporting enough jigsawed "ginger bread" to float a riverboat. And always there were the pointy windows, sometimes even doors, to remind the visitor that just inside was probably a fake suit of armour standing guard before an equally dubious, ancestral, heraldic crest.
As the wealth of the owner increased, so too did the authenticity of his fantasy architecture, replete with towering, comically, conically crowned towers, crenelated roofed bastions, stained glass bay windows (in singles, doubles, or triples), shaped parapets, vertical board and batten siding, highly contrasting painted vergeboards (the jigsaw stuff I mentioned earlier), and for the very rich, polychromatic stone masonry as the style veered from cathedral-ish to castle-ish. The Gothic revival never caught on in the cities. With its spacious porches, predominantly wooden construction, and English manor estate ambience, it was ill-suited for the narrow lots and crammed up together urban existence demanded by high real estate prices. As you might gather in reading this, Gothic fantasies and their associated revival architecture are not my personal favourites. I prefer to do my jousting verbally before a glowing monitor; and I'm much more comfortable with Frank Lloyd Wright than Andrew Jackson Davis.