Few architectural styles conjure fairytale visions quite like Carpenter Gothic, a style of architecture that flourished in the mid-1800’s in North America. Though serious appreciators of more staid and refined Colonial structures – like many of the authors who contributed to NeLMA’s White Pine Monographs – found it inauthentic and needlessly frilly, the style produced some of our nation’s most unique vernacular architecture. Perhaps best well known for its inclusion in Grant Wood’s classic 1930 American Gothic painting, Carpenter Gothic was a “picturesque improvisation” upon traditional Gothic architecture, typically made of wood by carpenters as the name suggests.
These charming structures, found throughout the United States, aren’t trying to be perfect. They don’t care about hewing to standards. They’re a bit freewheeling, full of pointed arches, towers, steep gables and mass-produced scroll saw wood moldings, but they’re far less ornamental than the High Gothic structures they emulate for a relaxed, informal result. It’s most often seen in private homes and small churches.
One notable example of rural Carpenter Gothic can be found in Winona, Minnesota. The Bunnell House was built around 1850 by Willard and Matilda Bunnell of Eastern White Pine. The couple paddled down from Green Bay, Wisconsin with a canoe full of 4,000 pounds of furs to trade with Native Americans along their journey and settled in Winona before Minnesota was even a state. Their story is now dramatized in live theatrical performances right in the house they built. The historic house museum is operated by the Winona County Historical Society, with performances taking visitors back in time with the Bunnells.
Bunnell House itself is a real stunner, exemplifying the style’s darker, more rustic rural side with its weathered board and batten siding and jigsaw details, and as you can see, it has held up beautifully over the centuries. If you’re curious, you can find some photos of the interiors at the Winona Daily News website.
Back in the colonial era, there weren’t professional architects to hire when you needed to build a house or a public building. If you were a landowner, you were expected to take on the project yourself, having received some measure of knowledge about the subject as part of your general education. That’s why the people credited with building some of the most notable 17th and 18th century structures in any given town in New England are typically ordinary, albeit wealthy and influential, local residents.
When it came time to build a County Court House in Burlington County, New Jersey in the late 1600s, a group of gentlemen entrusted with the project decided to mimic Philadelphia’s grand City Hall to the best of their ability.This issue of the historic White Pine Monographs delves into the details of the design, including plans of all the building’s various elements.
“The Court House which these amateur New Jersey architects conceived is not as well known to the architectural student of today as is ‘Congress Hall’ – not because they were unsuccessful in their purpose to create a beautiful and well constructed building, but rather because Mount Holly is in a ‘sand hole’ in West Jersey, if we use the geographical term used in the early days, several miles from the old city of Burlington, the first capital of West Jersey, and not on the beaten path of the architectural explorer.”
One of New Jersey’s oldest buildings, the court house still stands today and is considered a ‘hidden gem’ of the state’s historic architecture.
Read more at the White Pine Monograph Library.
Try as you might with warm stains and shellacs, you can never quite replicate the beautiful aged glow that comes with very particular growing conditions along with centuries of foot traffic, steaming tea kettles, and winter fires roaring in the hearth. True ‘pumpkin pine’ is elusive, developing on its own as if from some alchemical combination of fine quality wood and the passage of time.
What’s known as ‘pumpkin pine’ is actually Eastern White Pine that has been carefully prepared and stored, turning a striking shade of orange on its own over a period of decades. Slow-growing pine trees in old-growth forests are thought to accumulate colored products in the heartwood.
These warm tones are brought out by tucking sawn boards between layers of straw for aging, and wiping them down and turning them every two years. The process isn’t complete until the workers who initially prepared the wood are long gone – a whopping seventy years.
Homes with original pumpkin pine flooring can still be found throughout New England, and antiques – like the blanket chest pictured above – occasionally become available at auction. The true pumpkin pine that can be found for sale in lumber form is typically reclaimed from demolished historic structures. It’s never stained – just protected with a clear coat of wax or oil.
Staining Eastern White Pine to mimic this nuanced look might not produce exactly the same effect, but it does result in a welcoming antique feel. See Hull Forest’s pumpkin-stained wood floors, above, for an example.
Built sometime in the late 16th century, the ‘Montpelier’ house of Prince George County, Maryland was praised as a beautifully executed brick Colonial home in this 1930 edition of the White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs and still stands today, nearly a century later. It’s a great example of immaculately preserved early American craftsmanship, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Officially known as the Snowden-Long House, the mansion was constructed for a family whose wealth came from the iron forging industry, and remained in ownership of that family until 1890. It’s notable not just for its age and historic value, but for the many stunning hand-wrought decorative architectural elements that can be found inside.
There’s the plaster entablature in the hall with its ornamental frieze of wheat, fruit and flowers, and the unusual southeast drawing room with its carved wood mantel, wainscot, china closet and cornice. The author of this monograph notes that one of the most successful features of the home’s interior design is the asymmetry, something that adds a lot of character and is not often seen in modern homes.
The Montpelier House was shown off to the public in 1976 as part of national bicentennial celebrations, and has since become a tourist attraction that can be rented out for weddings, conferences and other events. Read more at the White Pine Monograph Library.
The architect author of this historic monograph, written in 1927, didn’t think much of colonial architecture – or rather, didn’t really think of it at all – until he designed a colonial-inspired structure of his own. It was then that he discovered the particular character of the styles from that era, and in fact, fell in love with the region he was born in for the first time.
Asked to write about the churches of Vermont for this issue, the author says they speak for themselves. “Simple, straightforward, not particularly well proportioned, some of them, and a little too plain and severe, perhaps, to our modern eyes; more meeting houses than churches, more practical than architectural in the treatment of the gallery windows; still they are full of the character of New England and all show evidences of thought and loving care in the building of them.”
The Puritanism of the builders may have prevented any of the Gothic flourishes or extravagant stained glass seen in churches of other time periods and places, but like most other colonial architecture, these churches have a quiet charm that fits right into the countryside of New England.
Read more and see additional photos at the White Pine Monograph Library.
The little town of Marblehead, Massachusetts lies on the coast just north of Boston, replete with humble yet beautiful early American architecture. This picturesque settlement was built upon the rocky coastline, resulting in meandering streets and tiered houses with charming, oddly-shaped yards. Volume IV, Issue I of the White Pine Architectural Monographs details some of the most notable historic buildings in this four-mile-long peninsular town.
Wooden clapboard houses with gable or gambrel roofs and brick chimneys are the most common type that can be seen throughout the town, but many different early architectural typologies are present. Several houses date to before the year 1700, though many have been altered in the centuries since.
This historic record notes the Lee Mansion as “one of the finest mansions in New England of its period,” and celebrates the “exceedingly graceful spire” of Abbot Hall. However, “in a word, austerity is the distinguishing characteristic of building in Marblehead.”
Read more at the White Pine Monograph Library.