Gothic Revival

By Elizabeth Brown

Like Greek Revival, interest in Gothic Revival started in Great Britain and traveled to the United States. Never as popular as Greek Revival, Gothic Revival started about the same time (the 1830’s) and was most popular as a style for houses of worship. Unfortunately, there aren’t any Gothic Revival houses in Montgomery, but there are a few nearby in Greenville, Selma and isolated locations across the Black Belt.

The former First Presbyterian Church has Gothic details applied to a common church form. Beautifully detailed brickwork, especially around the windows, speaks to the quality of the craftsmen in the Alabama frontier.

A word here about styles: People didn’t build Greek Revival one year and then next year start building Gothic Revival. Styles existed at the same time, and builders often borrowed ideas from styles and attached them to vernacular (known or folk) building types. Perhaps this explains the original First Presbyterian Church on Adams Avenue downtown. A handsome and solid looking building, it takes the symmetrical form we all recognize as a church building and applies decorative details from Gothic Revival to that form. We see a castellated decoration to the top of the walls and tower and pointed arched windows, but it lacks the strong verticality that is a part of the Gothic Revival style. This form could have just as easily been decorated up as Greek Revival, with a columned portico and large rectangular windows.

Not so St. John’s Episcopal Church, on the corner of Madison and Perry. Designed by the nationally-known firm of Wills and Dudley, St. John’s shows us the Gothic Revival in full development: A soaring spire, steeply pitched roof, buttressed walls, and pointed arch openings for doors and windows, all emphasizing verticality. At one point, the stucco was scored to look like stone, all but a trace of this disappearing under painting and repairs over the last 150 years. You must go inside and look up. There is a wonderfully painted and stenciled decoration to the beamed ceiling, lovingly restored by the congregation about 20 years ago. Long ago, this decoration extended to the walls and would have given the congregation plenty to look at if the sermon was a little boring (not a problem with the current rector). The present interior is filled with light, and the walls are full of good late 19th and early 20th century windows and memorials. You can feel this “cloud of witnesses” surround you.

The tapering design of the tower at St. John’s is an exercise in verticality. Notice the buttresses in the bottom of the photo that both stabilize the structure and help visually tie the tower to the ground. The thin lancet windows in the wall increase the vertical feel as the tower steps back, ending in a vertical spire.

Pattern books spread the Gothic Revival across the country, with Richard Upjohn’s Rural Architecture (1852) being one of the most popular. It grew out of an “ecclesiological” movement in England, which spread the idea of renewal through returning to Gothic design principals for houses of worship. In this book, Upjohn showed designs for appropriate churches for the frontier using wood (the most plentiful material) in a vertical board-and-batten application to reinforce a vertical appearance, rather than more common horizontal clapboard.

Although not located in the Montgomery area, I would be remiss if I did not point out that several churches across Alabama followed his pattern book designs almost identically (St. Lukes in Jacksonville and St. John’s at Forkland), and others may have been designed by Upjohn outright (St. Lukes in  Cahawba and St. Andrew’s at Prarieville). This set of Gothic Revival churches is perhaps the most architecturally significant group of buildings in the state, certainly as good as any in the country.

In Montgomery, the Gothic Revival movement persisted. The old Holy Trinity on Goldthwaite Street (now the Jubilee Community Center) follows an Upjohnian spirit, the board-and-batten exterior showing a very nice period-appropriate dark neutral color scheme. Further east from Midtown, Grace Church in Mt. Meigs, not built until 1892, shows how long this movement persisted in the Alabama landscape.

The porch on the old Holy Comforter on Goldthwaite street in Cottage Hill shows wood to its best advantage, with chamfered posts forming graceful arches. Note the steeply pitched roof and the board-and-batten siding.

Further reading? Robert Gamble’s discussion in Historic Architecture in Alabama puts things in an excellent statewide context (University of Alabama Press and on the porch at Capitol Book and News). Richard Upjohn’s pattern book, Rural Architecture, is scarce. Although reprinted by Columbia University Press in the 1970’s, it must have been a very small run. I’ve only found it at Auburn University’s architecture library. From the used book sites, there is a very good book, Richard Upjohn–Architect and Churchman, written by his great-grandson Everard M.Upjohn. Beware: All the new paperback copies contain the text of a book about King Richard III, not Richard Upjohn! (Therein lies the problem with printing books in China.) You must buy an older, hardback copy from Columbia or DeCapo Press (about $75.00) to be sure you’re getting the proper book. A less expensive choice, although I’ve not read it, might be The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture, by Phoebe Stanton, Johns Hopkins University Press,1997. It is available on the used book sites for about $5.00.

Elizabeth Ann Brown has lived in and loved Montgomery’s Garden District for more than twenty years. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture and a masters degree in Community Planning from Auburn University. Her hobbies include pursuit of the ultimate chicken salad sandwich, bicycling, and working on her old house, a 1913 bungalow.

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