Gothic Revival in the United States

Across the ocean from Europe, the fever for Gothic Revival intensified in the United States over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The United States did not have any medieval Gothic structures which they could celebrate as part of the history of their nation. Instead, people in the US took three alternative approaches to incorporating the Gothic style into their national identity: they built new structures in the Gothic Revival style, transported Gothic structures from Europe to the United States, and gave Gothic-inspired names to structures in the natural American landscape.

The Gothic Revival Crosses the Atlantic

As in Europe, the Gothic Revival style in the United States was not limited to churches or other religious buildings. Some of the most striking examples of Gothic Revival architecture appear on college campuses: their libraries, dormitories, and halls feature vaulted ceilings and elaborate stained glass. Newly built skyscrapers, rising even taller than the towering cathedrals of the Middle Ages, also integrated Gothic elements into their modern design.

Transporting the Gothic

Those who wanted the “real deal” could also directly transport medieval columns, ceilings, sculptures, and even entire cloisters across the Atlantic to be reinstalled on North American ground. One prominent example of this practice is George Grey Barnard’s Cloisters in upper Manhattan, which opened to the public as a museum on December 14, 1914. A decade later, it was bought by John D. Rockefeller for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, moved, and incorporated as the centerpiece of The Met Cloisters, still open to the public today.

Gothic Landscapes

At the same time as the fashion for Gothic Revival was sweeping the country, naturalist John Muir was spearheading the national parks movement and advocating for better preservation of natural heritage.

The United States did not have any Gothic buildings of its own, but the natural formations that John Muir sought to protect were just as impressive as Europe’s medieval structures. Such sites were often described as resembling cathedrals, and “Gothic” made its way into the new names of many features of the national natural landscape, from geological formations to tree groves.


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