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.
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.
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.