Steve Chambers, Texas Architect: Historic Gothic Church Becomes Ranch Museum

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my road is an old road where the sun lies warm and still

my road is a by-road that winds over a hill…

I will take that little winding road that leads the wanderer home…poet John Prindle Scott in a poem about Mcdonough, New York

This Carpenter Gothic style timber-framed church was used in its entirety and integrated into the design of a museum and conference center by Stephen B. Chambers, Dallas architect, for a ranch project in Texas. Built originally 1836 in Mcdonough, New York, the church was hewn by hand of virgin growth hemlock timbers. All of the Gothic style windows and doors are original and restored as part of the project. The church will be clad in Texas stone, referencing its southwest setting and other structures designed for the ranch.

Carpenter Gothic, also known as Rural Gothic, is a uniquely North American architectural style so designated for its application of Gothic Revival detailing applied to the picturesque massing of wooden structures built by house-carpenters. Picturesque is an artistic concept and style of the late 18th and early 19th centuries characterized by a preoccupation with combining architecture and landscape, creating integrated harmony between them. The romantic style was marked by a pleasing variety, irregularity, asymmetry, and unique textures.

Enthusiasm for the picturesque evolved partly as a reaction against the earlier 18th-century trend of Neoclassicism, with its emphasis on formality, proportion, order, and exactitude. The term originally denoted a landscape scene that looked as if it came out of a painting in the style of the 17th-century French artist, Nicolas Poussin.

The abundance of timber and the carpenter-built vernacular architecture that it’s based upon made picturesque improvisation a natural evolution of the Gothic style in the eastern United States. This rural Gothic style adapted the features that were originally carved in stone in early Gothic architecture, emphasizing charm and quaintness rather than fidelity to classicism. The genre received its inspiration in the rural residences and detailed plans and elevations in publications by New York landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing.

The American style adapted Gothic elements such as pointed arches, steep gables, and towers to American traditional light-frame construction. Carpenter Gothic buildings were relatively unadorned, retaining only the basic elements of pointed-arch windows and steep gables. Probably the best known example of Carpenter Gothic is the house in Eldon, Iowa, used in 1930 by Grant Wood for the background of his famous painting, American Gothic. The distinctive upper window and a decision to paint the house along with “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house,” came to be seen as a depiction of the unwavering American pioneer spirit during the Great Depression.

Many American Carpenter Gothic structures are now endangered and listed on the National Register of Historic Places to ensure their preservation. A number of these buildings have been relocated to insure their historic preservation and their aesthetic contribution to the U.S. landscape. This church is but one structure that continues to reminds us of the innovation, resolute spirit, and resources that are distinctively American.

In the gallery, below, are: schematic sketches for the design of the ranch museum and conference center designed by Steve Chambers; more photos of the Carpenter Gothic church as found and rescued in Mcdonough, New York by Heritage Restorations; and finally, the Carpenter Gothic home in Eldon, Iowa on which Grant Wood based his iconic painting, American Gothic. All architectural drawings are copyrighted by Stephen B. Chambers Architects and may not be reproduced by anyone or used for construction. Photos courtesy of: Heritage Barns

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