Its Melancholy, Long, Withdrawing Roar vs. Homegrown Goth

Disoriented during the Industrial Revolution, English architects harkened back to Gothic architecture to stem the tide of mechanization and pagan classicism.

Architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries manifests the tensions of the age – between faith and reason, conservatism and liberalism, between nature and burgeoning cityscapes, between feudal agriculture and industrial production.

Toledo, OH, circa 2009

Notably, the competition between Gothic revival and Palladian architecture mirrors political developments.  Gothic architecture’s connotations of medieval purity and spiritual tranquility were favored by conservatives seeking historical roots, whereas Palladian styles were associated with the rationality and expanding scientific knowledge of the humanistic era.  In the case of England’s parliament building, the Goths won decisively.

Romantic-era literature also illustrates the tensions.  Lord Tennyson, like Horace Walpole and Sir Walter Scott, rhapsodized about King Arthur et al, but he sourced ancient myths to write Tithonus and Ulysses.

The William J. Rotch cottage in New Beford, MA.

In America, the efflorescence of Gothic Revival architecture occurred much later, circa 1840.  It found full expression in the then-affluent whaling empire of New Bedford, Massachusetts and other New England centers, but homier and more domesticated variants are found across the Midwestern plains.  Grant Wood’s American Gothic was based on this home in Eldon, Iowa.

American Gothic Revival architecture shares a few common features: intricately detailed bargeboards on the eaves of gables and dormers, board-and-batten siding, ridges that are ornamented with finials, steeply pitched roofs, pointed arches (often with tracery), and playful woodwork affixed to verandah railings and cornices.

Old Methodist Camp in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard
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Dueling McLellan Homes

Unlike hapless counterparts such as Vegas or Orlando, Portland dodged the housing market bust in 2008. But it hasn’t always been so lucky. The war with Britain between 1812 and 1815 cut off vital trading routes, plunging the economy into a severe depression. Without its bustling wharves, Portland was more or less an economic amputee.
Portland shipping magnates Hugh and Stephen McLellan certainly felt the pain. In 1800, each brother purchased a $20,000 home designed by John Kimball. When the economy cratered, both brothers were left in financial ruin. Hugh’s home was sold for a pittance, $4,050, to Asa Clapp, a future congressional representative from Maine.

Today, the home is part of the Portland Art Museum. It represents a halfway point between Georgian architecture and full-blooded Neoclassicism.

It retains some defining elements of Colonial/Georgian style: a symmetrical floorplan, a central door enframed by pilasters and a fanlight, brick composition, and a shallow-pitched roof. But the seasoning is more than mildly neoclassical. The portico’s slender, fluted columns and its tastefully decorated frieze and cornice allude to Hellenic prototypes. The Palladian window marks a self-assertive stylistic shift from more modest New England traditionalism.

Hugh McLellan’s home announced to his contemporaries that he was a successful merchant. According to a curator I spoke to at the museum, its sheer size at the time would have seemed extravagant to most Portlanders. Its monumentality proclaimed affluence. Hugh’s architect-in-chief surely capitalized on this feature of the home. The elongated first floor windows and roof-level balustrade accentuate the height of the building.

Newport, RI

Abigail and I recently visited with family in Newport, Rhode Island.  The estival season was upon us, so we resolved to hit the beach. Amid Coleman coolers and garish beach towels, we ensconced ourselves near the top of the slope where the dune grass grows.  As a native Floridian, I refuse to swim in the Atlantic anywhere north of the 30th parallel, but my wife is trying to convince me that people actually swim up here.

I obliged and we waded in.

Because I’ve worn flip-flops all summer, the dorsa of my feet have outlines of dowsing rods etched into them by the sun’s persistent glare.  I thought I’d rid myself of them, but alas, my damp feet attracted more sand than virgin scotch tape.

Felonious Beer

This morning was one of those sublime Saturdays that demand little by way of work. After French press coffee, our ambrosial wake-up call, we leafed through the papers and weekly coupon booklets.  Still feeling slumberous, we boiled eggs and listened to Car Talk on MPBN.

Our morning terminated at Hot Suppa, a local diner that got good marks from Abigail’s co-workers.

Burrowed into a Victorian home on Congress Street, Hot Suppa’s environ is a microcosm of Portland itself.  Segregated socio-economic classes do not exist here.  Opulent brownstones share the block with subsidized apartments.  Bike shops for muesli-minded ecotopians share space with the Rite Aid that serves as local grocer for the car-deprived. The Somalian refugee community lives in the backyard of our celebrated Whole Foods.

Faddish exposed brick walls, coffered ceilings, and iridescent wall paintings signal that Portland’s got panache.

Our Cuban sandwich was tasty, but I was sorely disappointed in the beer.  The Abita Turbodog is an unimaginative and seltzer-like brown ale donning the mantle of a stout. Has ever a wimpier beer been wrought by the hands of men?  Bad dog.  Very bad dog.  If you’re going to make a classifiably criminal brown ale, at least fess up to it.

A Break from ‘Mercantilism’

On my drive to Montpelier on route 302, I caught a glimpse of Mount Washington hotel, where the Bretton Woods system was devised in the winter of 1944.  Delegates from allied countries hammered out the design of the new world order even as WWII raged on.

The animating reason for the Bretton Woods institutions was a justified fear of repeating the past.  After WWI, the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty punished Germany excessively.  Reparation payments were unreasonable, the Americans erected high tariff walls, effectively nipping German exporters in the bud, and Germany was stripped of all of its colonial possessions.  In retrospect, it’s no surprise that debtor nations after WWI became autocratic and authoritarian (Germany, Italy) whereas creditor nations remained democratic (US, Britain, France).

In the post WWII-setting, the allies established the Marshall Plan, the IMF, and the ITO in order to stave off the crisis sparked by the economic depression after WWI.

And Bretton Woods delivered the goods: stable prices, exponential trade growth, and rapid economic development.  War-torn Japan and Western Europe experienced unprecedented growth and quickly joined the US and Britain.

Regulate that Chubby Contrappasto

Aside from marginal accomplishments like codifying law or perfecting the groin vault, the Romans came up with a panacea for the obesity epidemic: public baths.

The Romans ingeniously leveraged peer pressure to combat corpulence.  Unlike those uncouth Germanic tribes who bathed privately in Danube tributaries, the Roman stock had to perform the rite in public.  So in theory, you might be able to conceal unhealthy habits under your tunic, but those epicurean habits would eventually come to light.  Suppressed laughter deterrs more effectively than any scale.

The hubris of DC has not yet been fully tapped.  We can overcome our gluttony with one simple government intervention: a building code adjustment to outlaw running water. Communities will have no choice but to run a few aqueducts into city halls.  We’ll fraternize our way to fitness.

NNE of Salem, MA

The Portland customhouse is a testament to the city’s importance as a maritime center.  The gentleman who designed the marvel, Alfred Mullett, also acted as supervising architect for the US Treasury building and the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon.

Many of the structures in the Old Port are traditional New England clapboard homes, so the granite customhouse looks invincible.

It falls into the high-renaissance or neo-baroque category.  The vocabulary of classical forms is appropriated and put to use in a more free and sculptural way.  Hence, the dynamic chiaroscuro effect, the deeply recessed windows, the engaged columns, the immense modillions, and the gratuitously large balusters.

Classical architecture is more restrained, regal, disciplined.  The customhouse is still disciplined, but it’s more emotional, voluptuous.  Part of what makes the building so compelling is the stark contrasts between void and volume; it has the effect of making it less static.

The frosting on the cake is the Mansard-roofed tower perched atop.  It betrays the American partiality towards French architecture.