An Introduction to Carpenter Gothic Country Houses of Northern Nevada

Carpenter Gothic houses are perhaps the most representative of pure Americana of all architectural styles.

The definition of Carpenter Gothic refers to carved, wooden ornamentation used on American houses of varied architectural style, mainly before the Civil War. Gothic architectural style is thought of as a predecessor or influence for Victorian with two defined periods: Gothic Revival 1830–1880 and Victorian Gothic 1860–1890. The style was very popular in church architecture in the 1840s and then became popular in domestic architecture in the 1850s.

Originally, the Gothic Revival style was meant to be executed in stone or brick. It was supposed to imitate the lofty, imposing cathedrals of medieval Europe. A form of Gothic Revival, the Carpenter Gothic style in America grew out of a need for quickly built houses — and the desire for fanciful details. The new balloon framing technique and the invention of steam powered scroll saws which allowed for the mass production of intricate mouldings paved the way for this style.

New England architect Andrew Jackson Downing popularized the style with his published pattern books Cottage Residences (1842) and Country Houses (1850). The architecture is described as appropriate to the picturesque with asymmetrical massing, described as balanced, not symmetrical. Although modest examples of Gothic architecture appeared symmetrical, the main expression was to revolt against the squareness and boxiness of classical design. Downing had been influenced by the English Gothic theorist Augustus Pugin who felt that Gothic architecture was very moral because it did not impose rigid orders upon the design and that classicism was pagan. Pugin's vision of Gothic as the perfect marriage of the functional and the beautiful was one of the foundations of Downing's ideology.

Identifying features of the Carpenter Gothic style include steeply pitched roofs and gables, gingerbread ornamentation, fancy scroll work, barge boards, carved porch railings, and strong vertical design elements, such as board and batten siding. Window trim typically replicated the masonry trim of English Gothic cathedrals on these otherwise simple country cottages.

Carpenter Gothic houses appeared on the landscape in western Nevada in the late 1850s and early 1860s with the boom of the Comstock Lode. The ranches of the Truckee Meadows, Eagle Valley (Carson City), Carson Valley, and the Honey Lake Valley fed a Virginia City population. As settlers emigrated to Nevada from the eastern United States they were bringing with them the styles of the time—one being Carpenter Gothic architecture. So they built their ranch homes closely following the patterns and ideas popularized by Downings. These houses were stick framed with wood drop siding or clapboard siding. In later years many of them had an application of asbestos siding placed over the top of the original siding. Oftentimes square nails and the original siding can be observed where the asbestos has broken off.

These early Nevada Carpenter Gothic country houses wore clapboard siding and ornate wooden adornments. Though some of Nevada's early mills and carpenters may have been producing these products, it is thought that some of the more refined building materials were shipped around the horn from the eastern United States and brought up to northern Nevada from the ports of San Francisco bay, many even before the establishment of the Central Pacific Railroad. It is also suggested that these houses may have been shipped up here (from San Francisco) in complete kit form and erected following Downing's patterns. The common occurrence and similarity of this architectural style is suggestive of the presence of kits and patterns that early Nevada builders may have followed.

There are still about a dozen gothic style houses still in existence in the Carson Valley that were built in the late 1850s to 1870s time frame. Many of these examples are quite modest but all retain the basic architectural style of a gable roof with a steep central gable window and front entrance below.

The James D. Roberts house was built in Washoe City in 1859, then disassembled and moved to Carson City (1207 N. Carson Street) in 1873 on a Virginia & Truckee railroad flat car and then reassembled. The Roberts House is thought to be one of the oldest houses in Carson City and is now a museum. Typical Gothic Revival elements of the Roberts House include its gingerbread bargeboard, lancet windows and a steeply-pitched roof.

If you have driven on Hwy. 395 from Reno to Carson City, you have undoubtedly admired the Winters Ranch house near Washoe Lake and the turnoff to Bowers Mansion. Both 1861 and 1864 are thought to be the years for the building of the beautiful ranch house in Washoe Valley. This house is perhaps the grandest example of Carpenter Gothic in Nevada. The house features the large main gable with central side gables framing the large signature Gothic lancet windows.

The Sparks-Alamo-Moffett Ranch house, originally located at the northwest corner of Peckham and S. Virginia, was moved south of Steamboat on the right of southbound U.S. 395 near Pleasant Valley. This house was remodeled by Frederic DeLongchamps as he added a large porch and columns. This house has undergone extensive restoration and remodeling lately but with a drive by one can still observe the original steep Gothic gables.

One of the best examples of Carpenter Gothic architecture in the Truckee Meadows is located on old Longley Lane. The A.A. Longley (later years Beidelman and Capurro) house was built circa 1870 and is constructed in the pattern book (Downings, Cottage Residences, design #IV, An Ornamental Farm-House) style with the steep central gable with a beautiful lancet window. Much of the gingerbread and porch details are still intact. This cutting edge house was designed with indoor plumbing and carbide gas light illumination. This house had gaslight from a carbide gas system before Reno had its own light generation system. The carbide gas system was contained in a small hip-roofed outbuilding in the backyard that is about 8 feet square and about 8 feet tall with a vent at the top.

Within downtown Reno, 339 North Ralston Street is the best-preserved original Gothic example with the steep central gable containing a modest lancet window. The main attic on the north end has a beautiful radial vent. 339 Ralston holds the distinction of being on The National Register of Historic Places. The registry is currently being updated and the house will be referred to as the Borland / Clifford house and it has been proven to have no association with John Orr as previously thought. James Borland built the house in the summer of 1875. This house also resembles Downing's design #IV in Cottage Residences. Borland was a local businessman who held several jobs in Reno, Rye Patch and Martinez, CA before moving to San Francisco. The house was used as a rental whenever Borland worked out of town. They sold the house in 1902, and in 1907, O.J. Clifford purchased the house. O.J. was a local pharmacist and lived in the house until his death in 1932. Hisson kept the house until his death in 1984.

Halfway through the 20th Century, there were numerous Carpenter Gothic country homes in Washoe County and the Carson Valley. One by one many of them have been replaced by industry, business, and housing developments. When we can we hope to save these wonderful pieces of history. The Longley/Beidelman/Capurro home now stands within an industrial complex and it seems that its days are short. As Truckee Meadows Remembered has worked to save some small representative barns and the stone house, we hope to find a way to move this home to a property where future generations can appreciate it.