From Spires to Stiles: Translating Gothic Revival Architecture into Decorative Arts in 19th Century America
David Scott Parker, David Scott Parker Associates
This program is free to members of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco who generously cosponsored this event with funds from the Micki Ryan Memorial Education Fund.
The newly minted United States desperately needed direction and identity in the early 19th century. Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852), a landscape designer, editor of The Horticulturist magazine (1846–1852), architectural theorist, author and arbiter of taste, helped fill that gap in America’s consciousness. He insisted that only “fitting, tasteful, and significant dwelling[s]” could establish the societal culture and order necessary to unify and improve the young nation. This “proper style,” as it came to be known, was Gothic Revival, an adaptation of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal designs, evocative of the romanticized nobility that early Americans, both middle-class and wealthy trendsetters, strove to emulate.
Downing ignited America’s interest in the Gothic style, although it was his friend and collaborator, architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), whose ingenious Gothic designs captivated the nation and ushered in a new era of imaginative architecture and decorative arts. They collaborated on Cottage Residences (1842), a bestselling pattern book. Its numerous editions popularized the relationship between domestic virtues, morality, health and good citizenship that were fostered by Gothic homes, with Gothic furnishings, located in a country or suburban, setting.
Before Davis and Downing, Gothic had been reserved for edifices of wealth and worship. The style’s papist English lineage was also unwelcome to the largely Protestant nation which had only recently won its freedom from the British monarchy, perceived to be Anglo-Catholic. Although the Gothicism of Davis and Downing was undeniably rooted in English precedent, it soon transcended its religious connotations.