Gardens to Gables

The Gothic Revival Style in Kentucky

Romance never goes out of style. Your views on the subject may change, depending on age and experience, but romance figures large in the human condition – and in architecture. The Romantic movement in America roughly spans the period from 1820 to 1880 – a time of great change in our young country. Even as we cut our ties with the mother county, we looked to England and Western Europe for inspiration in many matters, including popular styles such as the Gothic Revival. Rural Kentucky seized upon this medieval-inspired architectural style, and didn’t let go until (in some places) two decades into the twentieth century. Hey – we know a good thing when we see it!

A fairly high-style example of a Gothic Revival house in Frankfort, Kentucky.

A fairly high-style example of a Gothic Revival house in Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky.

According to academic definitions, there are five styles of the Romantic period in America: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Exotic Revivals, and Octagon. But let’s focus on the Gothic. The inspiration for the style came from medieval cathedrals and parish churches in Europe and England, as well as domestic structures. Although the first building thought to be built in the Gothic Revival style was William Crammond’s country house (Sedgley) in 1799 (designed by America’s first professional architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe), the style took a bit longer to develop.

A Gothic Revival cottage in Midway, Woodford County, Kentucky.

A Gothic Revival cottage in Midway, Woodford County, Kentucky.

It wasn’t until the 1830s that “the Gothic Revival in America gained grace and showed signs of taking its place as a rival to the Greek Revival.”[1]   A few characteristics of the style: a steeply pitched roof, arched windows, bargeboards, a one-story porch with brackets or delicate scrollwork or tracery, and most commonly, centered, paired or triple cross gables.

The 1857 Pulliam-Curry House in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky.

The 1857 Pulliam-Curry House in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky.

The first Gothic Revival building in Kentucky, according to Clay Lancaster, was the 1816 St. Thomas Church near Bardstown (Nelson County). Lexington’s first interpretation of the style was also a church – the John McMurtry designed Church of St. Peter – demolished in 1939.  John McMurtry was Kentucky’s leading proponent of the Gothic Revival style.

A detail of the crenelalted parapet on the 1840s James Burnie Beck House - a Greek Revival house (designed by John McMurtry, according to Clay Lancaster) with Gothic Revival elements. High Street, Lexington, Kentucky.

A detail of the crenelated parapet on the 1840s James Burnie Beck House – a Greek Revival house (designed by John McMurtry, according to Clay Lancaster) with Gothic Revival elements. High Street, Lexington, Kentucky.

A gentleman by the name A.J. Downing helped spread the gospel of Gothic Revival with his pivotal publication, in 1850, of the Architecture of Country Houses. Most of the designs were actually  by A.J. Davis, who designed Loudoun House in Lexington, Kentucky, one of the largest and finest examples of a Gothic Revival villa in the Commonwealth. Built for Francis Key Hunt, the walls are of hollow-wall brick construction (perhaps the first of its kind in the state) and the walls were clad in layers of sand and paint so that it looked like stone. The hood molds over the windows, the sills, and the copings, however, are of stone. The house was constructed by local architect-builder John McMurtry, to the cost of $30,000.

Loudon House, Lexington, Kentucky.

Loudoun House, Lexington, Kentucky.

Elley Villa is another local Gothic Revival gem, built on a plan by A.J. Downing – and also constructed by  John McMurtry.  Built between 1850-1855 for William R. Elley and his wife Louise, natives of Mississippi, the villa was once serenely sited on an eight-acre tract, but is now considered to be in downtown. The outside is a celebration of the Gothic Revival, and the remarkably intact interior (this once served as a fraternity house for the University of Kentucky) has beautiful woodwork, and a grained marble mantel that Clay Lancaster described as “quite an original interpretation of the Gothic idiom.” In addition to being a fraternity house (from 1925 til the end of World War II), Elley Villa also served as a hospital for a brief period in the 1870s.

Elley Villa, Lexington, Kentucky.

Elley Villa, Lexington, Kentucky.

Perhaps one of the most detailed representations of the Gothic Revival in the Bluegrass state is found not on a dwelling, but the circa 1847 Paris Cemetery Gatehouse in Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky. Designed and built by McMurtry, the gatehouse is composed of  three Tudor arches, the largest and central arch designated for carriages, while the flanking arches were for pedestrian access. Lodges – one historically intended for  the cemetery superintendent and one as reception room – are located at either end. A cornice with brick brackets stretches across the entire gatehouse, beneath the battlemented parapet.

The 1847 Paris Cemetery Gatehouse, Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky.

The 1847 Paris Cemetery Gatehouse, Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Although these architect-designed houses and structures are beautifully executed (and in wonderful states of preservation, especially Elley Villa), I have a soft spot for the vernacular Gothic Revival I find in corners of rural Kentucky.

Gotthic-Revival inspired dwelling in rural Casey County, Kentucky.

Gotthic-Revival inspired dwelling in rural Casey County, Kentucky.

Sometimes the only suggestion of the Gothic Revival style on a vernacular dwelling is such a peaked cross gable projecting from the steeply-pitched roof of a simple side-gable house. Cladding comes in a variety of materials, including frame (weatherboards, or board and batten) and masonry.

A vernacular Gothic Revival (with a Queen Anne-inspired porch) in rural Livingston County, Kentucky.

A vernacular Gothic Revival (with a Queen Anne-inspired porch) in rural Livingston County, Kentucky.

Although imported from England, the Gothic Revival style was made wholly American by nationally-known designers like Downing and Davis, as well as vernacular builders like John McMurtry in Kentucky. A range of buildings – from stately villas like Loudon House – to small, board and batten cottages – incorporated characteristics of the style as the builder chose, resulting in a wide variety of the style across Kentucky.  I’ll close with one of my favorites, a lonely and sad vernacular Gothic Revival I found one very hot day in Bath County, Kentucky. It stood by itself at the end of a winding road, on a farm long since given over to thistles – and it has likely long since collapsed into the earth. But I will always remember the joy and sense of discovery I felt upon seeing it on that muggy July afternoon years and years ago.

Vernacular Gothic Revival house, Bath County, Kentucky.

Vernacular Gothic Revival house, Bath County, Kentucky.

 

[1] Clay Lancaster. Antebelleum Architecure of Kentucky. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 251.

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5 Thoughts on “The Gothic Revival Style in Kentucky

  1. Does Mrs. Kilpatrick’s house count as Gothic revival?

    • Janie-Rice Brother on August 12, 2015 at 9:03 am said:

      No – it does have that central steeply pitched gable on the facade, but vernacular Gothic Revival houses typically have multiple cross gables. Her house is an interesting form, but I would call it Italianate.

  2. Chris Ertel on August 26, 2015 at 10:36 pm said:

    Very nice essay on the Gothic Revival in Kentucky. We are fortunate to have a nice collection of examples and I like your choices to illustrate the article. Foremost of all is Loudoun.

    Note the spelling, you left out the second “u”, the street name is “Loudon Avenue” while the house is “Loudoun”. I prefer to call it Loudoun its historic name over the modern “Loudoun House”, I assume the modern name has come about to distinguish it from the street. To me it sounds as funny as saying “Monticello House” for “Monticello”.

    I digress, what I want to say is that Loudoun is nationally important as one of only about a half dozen examples surviving of A.J. Davis’ “castles”. When I visit I can only imagine the sumptuous missing décor which must have resembled that at Lyndhurst. I would love to see the interiors restored some day. I am glad you went on to show vernacular examples influenced by the style which illustrate the legacy of Gothic Revival. I hope to see more on this topic.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on August 27, 2015 at 9:07 am said:

      Thanks for that – a typo I did not catch! (And I agree with the name, but that has become its accepted moniker in town) The Gothic Revival is one of my favorite styles, particularly as it is interpreted on the vernacular landscape. Thank you for reading!

      • Chris Ertel on August 28, 2015 at 11:00 pm said:

        It is my opinion that Loudoun is the second most important historic building in Lexington after Pope Villa. There are only 7 other of Davis’ castellated villas left, two of which are National Historic Landmarks.

        Something of what the sumptuous interiors of Loudoun can be gleaned from 2 pictures in Jim Birchfield’s, book: “Clay Lancaster’s Kentucky” showing the intricate stenciled ceiling and the elaborate Gothic mirrors removed to the Maria Dudley House. I am pleased the umbrage (Davis’ term for the porch) has been restored.

        Another of my favorites is the little Gothic bijou, the Sexton’s Cottage in Lexington’s Old Episcopal Burying Ground on East Third Street. I know you didn’t have room to include it or many other examples

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