By Dr. John Breihan
The gothic style of architecture originated in Europe’s Middle Ages. It is characterized by vertical proportions, pointed arches, external buttressing, and asymmetry. At great gothic cathedrals like Chartres in France and Salisbury in England, pointed arches allowed for heavy stone ceiling vaults despite the fact that the walls were pierced for huge stained-glass windows. These daring structures were made possible by external buttressing that bore the weight of the vaults. Not only were the arched windows tall in proportion, but gothic cathedrals often included lofty pointed steeples. Gothic architects did not strive for symmetry, as is famously seen in the west façade of Chartes Cathedral, where the two steeples do not match.
Cathedrals were not the only gothic structures in the middle ages. Parish churches copied the designs of the cathedrals on a smaller scale, though usually with lighter timber roofs in place of heavy stone vaults. Although they were usually constructed of wood and plaster, houses also were built with vertical proportions, in tall windows and steep gabled roofs.
Universities were invented in the middle ages; their most characteristic buildings were residential colleges built as closed courtyards. Called “quads” at Oxford and “courts” at Cambridge, medieval colleges consisted of four ranges of two- or three-story buildings entered by a gatehouse that often resembled a castle gate. Within the court, rooms of differing functions could be identified by differing windows: evenly spaced for scholars’ bedrooms, close together for the college library, tall and airy for the dining hall and chapel.
In Europe, the era of gothic architecture came to an end with the Renaissance. Tastes changed in favor of a return to the more symmetrical and balanced classical Roman architecture. The change of taste occurred earliest it Italy; in Northern Europe a hybrid “Northern Renaissance” style continued into the 16th century, combining the large windows and tall proportions of gothic with decorations (columns, pediments) modeled on Roman architecture. In England this style is associated with the Tudor monarchs, especially Queen Elizabeth I, and with her successor James I – hence the titles “Tudor,” “Elizabethan,” “Jacobean,” and even “Jacobethan.”
Gothic architecture was revived in the 18th century as appropriate for romantic cottages or for churches. St. Mary’s Seminary Chapel in the Seton Hill neighborhood of Baltimore is one of the earliest Gothic revival buildings in America. Built in 1807, it served as chapel for Baltimore’s first college, which later became St. Mary’s Seminary.
After the Civil War, American architecture was heavily influenced by Victorian architecture in England. “Victorian gothic” stressed the verticality and asymmetry of the original style, but in its massing and use of bright colors did not often resemble original gothic designs. A good example familiar to all Baltimoreans is Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church.
This changed in the 1890s with a generation of architects whose education had been thoroughly grounded in architectural history. Among them were Walter Cope and John Stewardson of Philadelphia. In 1895 they were hired to design an entire campus for Bryn Mawr College. They based their designs on gothic colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, including castellated gateways, long steep-gabled ranges of dormitories with tall, narrow windows, and soaring pointed-arched windows for the library.
Instead of the dark brick and sandstone of Victorian gothic designs, this new “collegiate gothic” was constructed of rough fieldstone walls with white limestone moldings for entrances, window surrounds, buttress caps, and parapets. One striking innovation was that American collegiate gothic buildings usually did not form closed courtyards as at medieval Oxford and Cambridge, where students were literally locked up at night. American students were given more freedom to come and go by looser arrangements of college buildings around central lawns or along picturesque ridge lines. Cope and Stewardson were eloquent proponents of their gothic style in preference to classical (Roman) buildings, especially for college campuses.
Classic architecture expresses completion, finality, perfection: Gothic architecture expresses aspiration, growth, and development. To the beholder, the Classic says: This is the sum – Here is perfection – Do not aspire further. The Gothic says to him: Reach higher – Spread outward and upward – There are no limitatations.
The new style caught on right away, particularly at nearby Princeton University and Haverford College. Cope and Stewardson designed another whole campus for Washington University in St. Louis. Other architects took up the style, including Charles D. MacGuinnes, of the Irish Catholic architecture firm of Maginnes & Walsh, who designed an ambitious new collegiate gothic campus for Boston College in 1907, when the college moved from inner-city Boston to suburban Chestnut Hill.
As described by Jocelyn Salisbury (no relation to the cathedral!), Loyola College followed the same pattern in moving from downtown Calvert Street to suburban Evergreen in the early 1920s. New collegiate gothic buildings were placed on three sides of a central lawn or quad in front of the existing Tudor mansion (now the Humanities Center). In the tradition of American collegiate gothic, this was not a closed, fortified quad as at Oxford or Cambridge but an “open quad” with generous spaces between the surrounding buildings.