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!
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.
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.” 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 Clay Lancaster. Antebelleum Architecure of Kentucky. (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991), 251.