Gothic Revival

Gothic Architecture
Gothic architecture developed in the twelfth century from the earlier Romanesque, incorporating several structural and stylistic innovations that distinguish the later style from the earlier. From its origins in France, the Gothic style spread across Europe and became the primary manner of construction for churches as well as monasteries and other major buildings. Best known today as the style of the great European cathedrals of the twelfth to the early sixteenth centuries, the Gothic was gradually supplanted by the revival of classicism during the Renaissance.

The basilican plan of the Romanesque period continued to be used for Gothic churches, often including transepts. The primary characteristic that distinguishes the Gothic from the Romanesque is the use of pointed rather than round arches. Other common features of the Gothic include ribbed ceiling vaults, flying buttresses, and towers with very tall spires.

The more skeletal structure of ribbed vaults, piers, and buttresses is in contrast to the massive walls of Romanesque buildings. One consequence of this more skeletal structure is that a much greater portion of the wall surface could be opened up as windows. The Gothic cathedrals are filled with daylight filtered through stained glass, in contrast to the generally darker interiors of their Romanesque predecessors. The art of stained glass consequently flourished in the Gothic period. Gothic windows often have ornate tracery (the stone framing separating different areas of glass within a larger window), sometimes elaborated into curvaceous, flowing designs. Rose windows were also used, most often on façades but sometimes also on the end walls of transepts.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Gothic cathedrals, particularly French and other continental examples, is their great height. Interior vaulting in the nave often reaches heights in excess of 100 feet. The cathedral in Beauvais, France, built in the thirteenth century, has the highest ceiling vaults of any Gothic church at 157 feet. Smaller English Gothic churches made extensive use of wood truss ceilings rather than stone vaulting, a characteristic much copied in the later Gothic Revival.

Height is also expressed on the exteriors, particularly in the form of towers topped by elongated steeples. For example, the tallest Gothic church steeple in England is that of Salisbury Cathedral, dating to the thirteenth century, which is more than 400 feet in height. This is greater than the height of Milwaukee’s City Hall and far in excess of any Gothic Revival church steeple in the city.

Gothic Revival
The revival of Gothic architecture began in England in the mid-eighteenth century, initially in a series of manor houses resembling small castles. Gothic Revival residences were favored by the English gentry during the Romantic period for their picturesque qualities and their association with Gothic novels, an increasingly popular literary genre at the time. The style grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century and was used for a variety of building types in addition to residences and churches, most notably the Houses of Parliament in London (also known as the Palace of Westminster), built from 1840 to 1870.

In the United States, the Gothic Revival was initially used mostly for churches, with the earliest examples dating to the very late 1700s and early 1800s. The style’s popularity took off in the 1840s, coinciding with the completion of Richard Upjohn’s influential Trinity Episcopal Church in Lower Manhattan. Upjohn, an Englishman who immigrated to the United States in 1829, designed many Gothic Revival churches in the mid-1800s, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. His designs did much to popularize the style across the expanding nation. Gothic Revival churches in the United States, in all but a very few exceptional cases, are considerably smaller than the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, with lower ceilings as well as lower towers and steeples.

The Gothic Revival was later applied to a wide variety of building types, including residences and even a few early twentieth century skyscrapers. For these and other non-ecclesiastical buildings, it was often used simply as a style of exterior decoration, like a garment that could be draped over a building of conventional design and structure. There is also a variation known as the Collegiate Gothic, which was used extensively for university buildings and some primary schools.

While many Gothic Revival churches have basilican plans, a more common type is the hall church. Like basilican-plan churches, hall churches have a central nave separated from the side aisles by colonnades, but the gable roof spans the entire width of the worship space. Consequently, there are no clerestory windows, the side walls of the church are generally quite tall, and the vaulted ceilings in the aisles are often nearly as high as the ceiling of the nave.

Flying buttresses are rarely seen on Gothic Revival churches in the United States, and there are no examples in Milwaukee. The vaulted ceilings of Gothic churches are typically of masonry construction, supported by the exterior walls and interior columns, with the flying buttresses counteracting the horizontal thrust of the stone vaults. The vaulted ceilings of Gothic Revival churches, however, imitate the appearance but not the structure of the Gothic originals. They are typically constructed of plaster over a wooden framework, with much of the ceiling assembly suspended from the roof trusses. The flying buttress is therefore structurally unnecessary. Gothic Revival churches of brick and stone do typically have attached buttresses along their sides and at the corners, which serve as reinforcement for the walls.

Gothic Revival churches in the United States most often have window frames and tracery of wood, or sometimes metal, rather than stone as in the Gothic churches of Europe. As with the Romanesque Revival, brick churches in the Gothic Revival style often have corbeled arcades or other forms of decorative brickwork along the eaves and gables and separating the different stages of their towers. In contrast, churches built of stone tend to have less embellishment on their exteriors, due in part to the greater cost of stone carving.

Gothic Revival
Bethel Evangelical Church (now New Covenant Baptist), built in 1911 at North Avenue and 38th Street, features elaborate wooden tracery in the upper portions of the windows.

Gothic Revival Churches in Milwaukee
The Gothic Revival was by far the most popular of the historical revival styles used for churches, although it was generally not used for synagogues because of its strong association with the Christian churches of medieval Europe. There are more than 130 churches in Milwaukee that exhibit at least some features of the Gothic Revival, and more than half of the surviving churches built before World War II are in the style. St. James Episcopal, dating to 1867, is the oldest surviving Gothic Revival church in the city, although there were earlier examples that are no longer extant. The style continued into the mid-twentieth century, with the last Milwaukee examples built in the late 1950s.

While Catholic parishes and nearly all of the Protestant denominations built Gothic Revival churches, the style was more popular with some denominations than others. For the Catholics, the Gothic Revival was just one of several styles to choose from, and competed in popularity with the Romanesque Revival. Only one-third of Milwaukee’s surviving pre-World War II Catholic churches are in the style, compared to more than two-thirds of the Protestant churches. Among the Protestant denominations, the style was strongly favored by Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran congregations. It was primarily the Lutheran church that kept the style alive for more than a decade following World War II, when all of the historical revival styles were declining in popularity. Of the 28 Lutheran churches built in the city from 1945 through the 1950s, 11 are in the Gothic Revival style, compared to only five of the 32 churches built by all of the other Protestant denominations and just one of the 17 Catholic churches.

Several of the city’s Gothic Revival churches have basilican plans, while a larger number are hall churches. There are also many smaller Gothic Revival churches with no side aisles or columns in the worship space. Among the Gothic Revival churches built in Milwaukee before World War I, English-speaking congregations, regardless of denomination, strongly favored the basilican plan. In contrast, German-speaking congregations had an equally strong preference for the hall church. The popularity of the hall church undoubtedly stems from the prevalence of this form in Central Europe during the Gothic period and its continued use in the region during the later Gothic Revival. The architects commissioned to design churches for the city’s many German-speaking congregations were themselves usually of German birth or ancestry, and they typically subscribed to German-language architectural journals that published the latest examples of the German Gothic Revival.

As with the Romanesque Revival style, several different bell tower configurations are seen on the city’s Gothic Revival churches. The largest number have a single, asymmetrically placed tower, while some have a single tower at the center of the façade and others have two towers flanking the entrance. A few of the city’s Gothic Revival churches, mostly dating from the 1910s through the 1950s, have no bell tower. Hall churches built in the nineteenth century for German-speaking congregations are mostly center-tower designs, although there are some two-tower examples. Center-tower churches are quite rare after 1900, while the asymmetrical single-tower plan becomes increasingly common through the first half of the twentieth century. Twin-tower Gothic Revival churches in Milwaukee almost always have one taller and one shorter tower. The taller tower is more often on the right side of the façade, but where a twin-tower church is on a corner lot, the taller tower is always on the side adjacent to the intersection.

Most of the tallest towers and steeples in the city are on Gothic Revival churches, with nearly all of the tallest examples built before 1910. The competition for the tallest church steeple was over by the mid-1890s, with the completion of the Catholic Church of the Gesu on Wisconsin Avenue at 12th Street. In the twentieth century, there was an increasing tendency to dispense with steeples altogether, although bell towers were still common.

This chapter profiles 27 different Gothic Revival churches built over the course of 88 years, from 1867 to 1954. They were originally constructed for nine different Christian denominations. The group includes some of the city’s largest churches and a few of the smallest, united by a common architectural language.