The Gothic Revival Architectural Style
In the mid-19th century, the “complete and well-constructed farm Cottage Villa” was an advanced design for its day. A typical Gothic Revival villa of the time had decorative features, but not the asymmetrical plan and irregular roofline that enliven The Hermitage. The Cottage Villa was a country house of “large accommodation” that required several servants to maintain.
In the 19th century, architectural styles were seen as suggesting particular character traits of the people who chose them for their homes. The Gothic Revival style, as befitting a mode based on the great churches and cathedrals of the Middle Ages, was viewed as denoting high moral character. Literature of the day such as the novels of Sir Walter Scott contributed to the appeal of the Gothic mode. Furthermore, the style—as amply illustrated by The Hermitage—epitomized picturesque Romantic architectural ideals. Irregular massing, a profusion of decorative features that ranged from upward-projecting finials to inviting verandas, as well as a cozy and inviting human scale, added to the appeal of Gothic Revival.
Gothic Revival-style houses started to be built in America by discerning homeowners in the 1830s. While mid-19th-century Gothic Revival designs are symmetrical, the best of them, like the remodeled Hermitage, are asymmetrical. Porches, dormers, bay windows, chimneys, and decorative trim project and cast shadows, creating fanciful designs that capture the picturesque ideal. This freedom in design allowed the architect to place rooms where needed and to adapt the building freely to the needs of its occupants. Typical Gothic Revival features include asymmetrical massing; Tudor arches; sturdy stone walls; steeply pitched roof line enlivened with a proliferation of gables, dormers, bargeboards, finials, and decorative chimneys; and inviting veranda, porches, and large windows with diamond panes that link the house to its natural setting.
Why did Elijah II decide to remodel The Hermitage? By 1847, cultured and fashionable people knew that a well-designed Cottage Villa was an appropriate home for “men of imagination,” to use the description of Alexander Jackson Downing, the popularizer of picturesque domestic architecture. The Gothic Revival style satisfied the intellectual and social aspirations of owners and suggested a high moral character. It is highly likely that Elijah sought a tasteful home to display his leading position in his community and to reflect positively on his character. His architect, William Ranlett, complimented him for “his refined tastes and liberality.” It is also probable that Elijah wanted a fine home with modern conveniences that would appeal to a potential bride. Shortly after the renovation was complete, he courted and married 17-year-old Cornelia Livingston Dayton.
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