American colleges have Gothic architecture because they wanted to be linked to English universities, make clear their intellectual heritage

American colleges adopted Gothic architecture to make statements about their connections to the past as well as to other well-known schools:

American universities had always treasured the influence of Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges that would become the Ivy League were meant to model the Oxbridgian ideal of constructing a college around a quadrangle. In practice, though, American colleges of the 18th century were quite different. They were more devoted to scholarship than their British brethren. They were disconnected from a university. And they were poorer: Often, they didn’t have enough money to complete a ring of buildings around their quad…

“What Gothic meant changed depending on the time,” Johanna Seasonwein, a fellow at Princeton University Art Museum, told me. When Victorians emulated Gothic, they did it sloppily, mixing styles and idioms. “Something Islamic, something Byzantine,” might get thrown in there, says Seasonwein. This was the Victorian Gothic of the 1860s and ‘70s: a mishmash.

Collegiate Gothic, which followed Victorian Gothic, was much more precise. It emulated Oxford and Cambridge more directly.

There’s even a patient zero, of sorts, of Collegiate Gothic. In 1894, Bryn Mawr commissioned a new building, Pembroke. Its interpretation of Gothic so inspired other schools that they commissioned similar plans from the architects which designed the hall. (That firm, Stewardson & Cope, wound up constructing a near-copy of Pembroke on Princeton’s campus, where it’s called Blair Hall.)…

Collegiate Gothic was not a naive emulation, though. The Gothic revival “was just as much saying who was accepted in this atmosphere [of the college] as who was not,” says Seasonwein. Universities were expanding, and welcoming new students, but they were still mostly populated by WASPy men. Before the 1890s, many college presidents would have resisted a filigreed medieval style for fear it would look too “papist.”

Woodrow Wilson, when president of Princeton, has a now-famous quote about the revival: “By the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic style we seem to have added a thousand years to the history of Princeton,” he said. Normally, the quote is truncated there, but in fact it continues: “…by merely putting those lines in our buildings which point every man’s imagination to the historical traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.” (Emphasis mine.)

All together, this is a good reminder that an architectural style we associate with a particular set of activities didn’t necessarily have to be. Social forces pushed colleges to adopt a particular architecture and they assumed this design communicated key messages.

The examples of collegiate Gothic cited in this article tend to be from elite Northeast and Midwest institutions. So does this architecture today still function in a similar manner, clearly demarcating these campuses as a cut above the rest? Other kinds of colleges, perhaps marked by region or the year they were founded or the students they serve, might have intentionally adopted other architectural styles to communicate other messages. Let’s say we wanted to look at the architecture of community colleges. I suspect more of them are post-World War II institutions that more modernist and functional architecture. What exactly does this communicate? Some counterfactuals might be interesting to look at as well: the community college with more traditional architecture or the elite school, like a Caltech, that has a different architectural style.

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