For Home and Worship: An American Take of an Old World Classic
When most people are asked to think about “Gothic” style buildings, a few classic structures might come to mind.
For example, the towering cathedrals of Europe are a typical choice — more specifically the grandeur and majesty of the likes of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Duomo in Florence, or perhaps even Westminster Abbey in London.
However, we bet that you didn’t even stop to consider a small, wooden farmhouse in the United States.
But they exist! These homes are known as “Carpenter Gothic,” and are the American working class’s homage to the “old world” masterpieces — on a budget – that were introduced in the late-19th century and spread across North America, due mainly to the abundance of timber available everywhere except the desert Southwest.
In this blog, we’ll go over the history of the style in America and where you can typically find these homes if you're interested in purchasing one of your own (as well as the features to look for!). Want to build one of your own? Don’t worry. We’ve even included a few classic house plans for you to choose from for your dream home.
Reimagining aspects of Gothic architecture in wood, Carpenter Gothic style found a natural home in small community churches but was also prominent in many homes across the country. This church – First Baptist Church – in Methuen, MA, exhibits pointed arches, steep roofs, gable brackets, leaded glass, and a modest spire-like bell tower (photo credit: First Baptist Church Methuen MA by EraserGirl, Public Domain).
Classic Features of Carpenter Gothic Buildings
Mainly confined to residential dwellings, outbuildings, and small churches Carpenter Gothic structures are typically made of wood and often have intricate details that were made possible by the Industrial Revolution invention of the powered (steam, at first, then electrical) scroll saw. The details in the wooden features listed below are often scrollwork.
Part of the United Methodist Church and Parsonage in Mt. Kisco, NY, this amazing example of the Carpenter Gothic style is the New Castle Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1868 and designed by J. King. Note the intricate scrollwork on the center gable and the detailed carpentry in the spire and bell tower (photo credit: United Methodist Church and Parsonage by Virtus sola nobilitas under license CC BY-SA 4.0).
Board-and-Batten Siding – This practical vertical wood siding isn't universal by any means, but it does appear often and can be installed easily and quickly – and it emphasizes height, making small stuctures like houses and small churches appear taller.
Decorative Scrollwork – Gable ends, window frames, brackets, corbels, railiings, porches, and more are all candidates for decoration using scroll-saw cut wood.
Pointed Windows with Decorative Tracery – The many windows present in these beautiful homes and churches were copied after the English Gothic cathedrals, which were made with high pointed arches.
This small Carpenter Gothic home in Alabama is a good example of the style expressed in small communities across the country. Note the pointed windows and tracery treatment on the glass, the scrollwork on the gables and front fascia, and pinnacles at the gable tops and ends – all interpretations of Gothic elements in wood (photo credit: Ashe Cottage by Altairisfar, Public Domain).
Grouped Chimneys – A classic feature of this style is multiple chimneys grouped closely together, as opposed to only having one, or being placed on opposite ends of the home.
Battlements and Shaped Parapets – These are low protective walls along the edge of a roof or balcony. In Carpenter Gothic, they are mainly decorative.
Pinnacles – These small spires give the parapets a more regal look, even when made of wood.
Leaded Glass – Like stained glass — but with no color.
Quatrefoil and Clover-shaped Windows – A sweet decorative touch that calls directly on the Gothic style’s “castle” roots.
Oriel Windows – These are large upper-story bays with a window, supported by brackets or on corbels.
Featuring oriel windows on either side of the ornate central entrance, this home also has pinnacles in the gable ends. Known as the J. Mora Moss House, the home was built in 1864 in Oakland, CA (photo credit: Moss Mansion by Binksternet, Public Domain).
Asymmetrical Floor Plan – The homes were certainly not “cookie cutter” structures and instead presented asymmetrical and unpredictable floor plans.
Steeply Pitched Gables –The “high walls” of the roof is one of the most classic gothic features.
The Aaron Ferrey House, in Kent, OH, shows off many features of Carpenter Gothic houses, such as the board-and-batten siding, steep roof pitch, scrollwork entrance, and pointed-arch window over the front door at left in the photo (photo credit: Aaron Ferry House by Nyttend, Public Domain).
Carpenter Gothic Inspired Houses
If you're interested in purchasing a home in the Carpenter Gothic style – or perhaps building one of your own, – then it’s important that you know what to look for.
While we have covered the classic features and we will talk about the location and cultural history of the style, we now want to give you a few practical examples.
The farmhouse remains one of the most picturesque and charming portraits of Americana. While more practical than ornate, today’s farmhouse home plans don't sacrifice the elegant beauty that comes from modern design.
Very steep gables are the first tell-tale sign that this Farmhouse style home was inspired in part by the Carpenter Gothic aesthetic. Other signs are the tall, narrow aspect of the building itself, the thin arched windows, the round dormer window, and the tall and skinny white gable vents, all with echoes of Gothic architectural elements (Plan #126-1641).
Traditional Home Plans
Traditional house plans are some of the most common styles built throughout the United States. Designed to accommodate the American way of life this style a popular one for accommodating any lifestyle and budget.
Although it uses stone as the main siding material, this 3-bedroom, 2-bath Traditional style home takes cues from Carpenter Gothic features like steep gables, arched windows, arched column brackets, round divided-lite window, and tall and thin chimney almost like a spire (Plan #126-1031).
The ornateness of Victorian house plans can draw a lot from the Carpenter Gothic. Known for their elegant designs, these plans most commonly include two stories with steep roof pitches, turrets, and dormer windows
Perhaps at first glance looking for all the world like a small county church, this Victorian home in the Carpenter Gothic style has pointed arches on the covered front porch and from window, pointed windows left of the main entrance, very steep gables, and board-and batten siding (Plan #137-1481).
You can find many homes and other buildings in the Carpenter Gothic style across the entire United States, with the exception of the deep Southwest, like Arizona and New Mexico. This is because the arid desert climate and lack of building materials make the style less popular. However, you can still find a few in that area — there are just fewer overall as most of the Gothic-influenced structures there are made of brick, not wood.
Carpenter Gothic-influenced homes may not be built of wood, especially in the Southwest. There you may find houses like this one, built with brick and stone siding. The home is a 4-bedroom, 4.5-bath Traditional home with Carpenter Gothic aspects like steep roofs; tall, thin windows with gothic style arching multi-panes; and spire-like grouped chimneys on the left (Plan #198-1043).
Due to cultural trade and influences, the style has also spread to many other parts of North America, like the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. This is mostly because of the regions’ close ties to America’s New England.
This charming, simple example of Carpenter Gothic is the original gatehouse at Springside, the Poughkeepsie, New York, estate of Matthew Vassar, who founded Vassar College in 1861. The estate was planned and landscaped, but only a few buildings – a cottage where Vassar lived for a time, the gatehouse, and barns and outbuildings – were built.The main house was never built. This is the only surviving building of the estate and is still in use as a residence (photo credit: Springside Gatehouse by Daniel Case, under license CC BY-SA 3.0).
Carpenter Gothic in American Culture
One of the most famous instances of the Carpenter Gothic style in American culture appears in the well-known painting American Gothic,by Grant Wood.
Wood used his sister and his dentist as models for the masterpiece, which he painted in 1930. And although their grim faces and demure clothing are one aspect of what makes the painting so unique, another element is the home behind them.
Wood modeled the home the painting after a real home in Eldon, Iowa (his home state). It’s one of the most perfect examples of a Carpenter Gothic structure, as it’s clearly made of wood and marked by a steep roof and medieval-style window.
The home in the background of this classic painting, American Gothic, is arguably the most famous Carpenter Gothic house in the world (source: Grant Wood - American Gothic - Google Art Project, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain)
Typical Uses of the Buildings
Many Carpenter Gothic style structures are classic homes and cottages used by regular people for daily living. However, many churches can still be seen drawing on the original use of the Gothic for religious purposes.
Many smaller, wooden churches across North America rely on the inspiration of the Gothic to convey their status in the community, their history, and even their holiness.
When examining these churches, it’s easiest to see the Gothic elements in the medieval-style windows, high roofs, and steeples.
This relatively simple wooden structure, Christ Church in Fort Meade, FL, nevertheless is clearly an expression of Gothic style architecture in wood (photo credit: Christ Church by Indietop20, Public Domain).
As mentioned, when someone usually thinks about Gothic architecture, they think about large stone cathedrals in Western Europe.
This style first popped up during the Middle Ages and is thought to have originated in France in 1144 by way of the abbey church of St.-Denis, now called the Basilica of St.-Denis.
This church, and its subsequent siblings, are easily identified as Gothic buildings. This is because of a few key features like towering spires, intricate stone work, and large stained glass windows.
Top: The Basilica of St.-Denis in St.-Denis, France, as it appeared in 2015 after its restoration. The high spire that used to appear in the left portion of the building was dismantled in the late 1800s but is in the process of being rebuilt (photo credit: Saint-Denis - Facade by Thomas Clouet under license CC BY-SA 4.0). Bottom: The basilca as it appeared in 1844–1845, prior to the high spire's dismantling (Public Domain).
These impressive features easily made these structures the cornerstone of their communities for hundreds of years.
This mindset spilled over to North America, albeit on a smaller scale, with the addition of Carpenter Gothic to the local architectural canon in the late nineteenth century.
Stone masonry hasn’t really ever been as widely practiced in North America as it was in Europe. This is especially true when starting new construction as late as the 1800s.
Using large amounts of stone as a building material during this time period was also hard to do, both because of the large associated costs and the lack of supply.
However, with the introduction of tools like the scroll saw and mass-produced wood moldings (thanks to the Industrial Revolution), builders were able to access new ways to mimic their favorite styles with a readily available material — wood.
Carpenter Gothic structures have not necessarily been all wood. This fine example in brick, the Oak Hill Cottage and Museum (originally Oak Hill Cottage, built in 1847), in Mansfield, OH, is technically a Gothic Revival home with Carpenter Gothic ornamentation, in the form of the wooden scrollwork painted white (photo credit: Oak Hill Cottage and Museum by OHWiki, Public Domain).
For example, these Carpenter Gothic homes and churches borrowed their favorite elements, like pointed arches and steep gables, from the original style.
And because of these new tools, if the builders wanted to, they could mimic the ornate decoration of the style’s stone counterpart by adding things like quatrefoil and clover-shaped designs along outside of the building.
Although this option was available and sometimes used, you will see when researching these buildings that most of them are a little more plain — choosing instead to pay homage to the classic Gothic style through smaller elements like the aforementioned pointed-arch window and steep gables.
The small cottage home in Albuquerque, NM, while simple and unassuming, still manages to express the Carpenter Gothic sense of design with its filigree gable ornamentation and small pointed attic window in the front gable (photo Credit: Seth House by Lrnaustin1134under license CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Carpenter Gothic style is truly one of American innovation. It’s a modern twist on a classic style and proves that American builders of the late 19th century were really able to make the most of their skill sets and the materials available to them at the time.
Footnote: The lead image of this article is a Carpenter Gothic style home called Langdon House, which is in Cincinnati, Ohio (photo credit: Langdon House by Greg Hume under license CC BY 3.0)