Tudor Revival: The Popularization of a 16th-Century Architectural Style in 20th-Century America

Example of Tudor Revival house in the Greenhaven neighborhood of Rye, New York.
Example of Tudor Revival house in the Greenhaven neighborhood of Rye, New York.

Tudor architecture is an ambiguous term and its definition has changed many times since the style emerged in England around 1530. Originally, this term referred to the architectural style of any house or manor constructed in the age of the Tudor dynasty, but after multiple revivals in England and America, it is now associated with wealth, power and stability, evoking a particular image of a large estate with white and black contrast on the facade and stone chimneys. Why was an architectural “style” used to construct commoners’ houses in sixteenth-century England revived and popularized in twentieth-century America as a representation of wealth and gentile living?

Roots of Tudor Architecture in England

The style of architecture referred to as Tudor, or sometimes Perpendicular style, initially emerged in England around the 1530s during the Late Gothic Era, but one of the first examples of the style was Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, constructed between 1502 and 1512.[1] The Gothic style would be popular in England throughout the sixteenth century, but due to Henry VIII’s reformation, specifically the dissolution of monasteries, and the eventual break with Rome, the building of ornate Gothic cathedrals and churches came to a halt.

In what Hubert Pragnell refers to as the Tudor Renaissance, the style came back in the form of fortified manor houses or estates.[2] The suppression of monasteries caused great economic expansion for the nobility, which led to the expansion of property and the increase in the building of quality manors rather than castles.[3] Additionally, in 1520, the English population began to rise, and trading families who supplied the goods that were in high demand began amassing wealth, just as the nobility had due to the dissolution of the monasteries.[4] Wealthy landowners and merchants stopped building castles in favor of large country estates and manor houses, thanks to the declining military importance of the castle as a fortress.[5] While some of these houses retained elements of castles, such as a moat and perimeter wall, none of them were armed with garrisons and were not prepared to withstand a siege.[6]

The “peasant cottage” is usually the image associated with the Tudor aesthetic, but at this point in time, there was no cohesive style of architecture; the various manor houses and simple cottages that were constructed during the Tudor dynasty’s reign comprised what we call “Tudor architecture.” According to Lee Goff, early cottages were constructed by “joining two tree trunks, stabilizing them with a cross, so the beam formed a shape like the letter A… an identical frame was set up a certain distance away. Then they were joined by same roof beam and filled with some kind of mortar which created the typical lines of contrast between the white studded walls and the black mortar.”[7] These were relatively simple structures which did not require too many expensive materials.

As carpentry became more affordable for commoners, the tradition of “vernacular architecture,” as Goff describes it, continued to survive throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to the availability of materials and local carpenters who could adapt the cottage to the specific landscape and climate.[8] However, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, “Old England” and its architecture disappeared, while the Gothic style was revived.

Revival in England and America

The English Arts and Crafts movement in the middle of the eighteenth-century sought to bring back the “vernacular architecture” of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Tudor England because it embodied picturesque qualities and complemented the natural landscape of England, which had been downplayed during the Industrial Revolution. The Tudor style was making a slow comeback, while Gothic architecture was still popular. The two styles gradually merged, but after some time, the Tudor style finally distinguished itself, and had its own revival beginning in the 1830s.[9]

By the 1860s, the Tudor style of architecture was a very popular choice for British country houses. This style drew inspiration from the half-timbered, thatched roof cottages rather than from castles and manors, which gave this phase of Tudor revival architecture a definition and an aesthetic that ultimately became important to the American movement.[10] British peoples’ desire for rustic, simple peasant cottages rose from a romanticized view of parochial country life. The gentry wanted to return to nature, return to the country, and to find a less complicated life.[11] What had at first been the architectural style of workers’ and commoners’ cottages in the sixteenth-century became the large estates of the wealthy by the nineteenth-century, for the purpose of providing an “escape” from their modern lives by retreating to a provincial and idyllic setting.

In England in the twentieth-century, Tudor architectural style was associated with gentile living and wealth. This idea took hold in America during first half of the twentieth-century. Englishman Shaw Leywood’s house, built in 1868, was likely the first exposure Americans had to English Tudor style architecture. A picture of the house was published in Building News in 1871. This house did not strictly adhere to the Tudor tradition because brick was incorporated into its structure, but it gave rise to many “mock Tudor” houses in neighborhoods across England, and immediately caught the eye of newly wealthy Americans who wanted the size of a manorial estate but also wanted to retain the comfort and feeling of a small cottage.

Even though Leyswoods’ house did not strictly employ Tudor architectural characteristics, Goff argues that this is the reason why the style of the house was so resonant with nouveau riche Americans who wanted to associate themselves with gentile living but not live in an impersonal castle-like mansion.[12] Elements of the American Tudor revival style are generally considered to be pitched gabled roofs that are covered in slate or imitation thatch; large chimneys; latticed windows of diamond-paneled leaded glass; and interiors of wood paneling and parged ceilings, especially half-timbered and stuccoed facades, also called “ black-and-white.”[13]

By the 1920s, Tudor inspired architecture had taken hold in America and had become a permanent style of home in expanding suburbia, as is made clear from the fact that between 1910 and 1940, New York’s Tuxedo Park and Bronxville, Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill and Main Line, Cleveland’s Shaker Heights, and Chicago’s Lake Forest the quantity of American revival Tudor houses constructed increased dramatically.[14] The preferred architecture was a combination of various styles and generally drew from medieval and Tudor elements, with some Renaissance style as well, indicating the American revival style was distinct from the English revival architecture.

Initially, the Tudor style permeated all class levels. It was not until the Tudor revival occurred in England and then in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it became viewed as a symbol of wealth. Affluent Wall Street executives constructed Tudor homes in the suburbs of New York that were often called “Stockbroker Tudors.”[15] Many magnates of the time wanted one of their own, including mobster Bugsy Siegel, who built a large house for his gambling business and even ran a brothel in one part of it. [16]

On the other hand, Allen Jackson explains that the Tudor style became so popular around the turn of the century because Americans were interested in preserving and expressing their roots during a time of mass immigration from Southern Europe, and one of the ways in which nativist Americans – the descendants of Northern European immigrants – wanted to set themselves apart was through the architecture of their homes.[17] The colonial style was also popular, but many inhabitants of suburbs craved originality and style that predated the early American colonies. They wanted to be in touch with the house of their Anglo-Saxon “progenitors, in these half-timbered houses of England where our own great-grandfathers were born, lived and died… they are our architectural history.”[18] For them, the Tudor house represented stability and dynasty, essentially ownership over time.

Whether or not xenophobia directed towards the new waves of immigrants was the main reason behind Tudor popularity in the twentieth-century is disputed, but it is certain that the Tudor style house, despite its emergence as a sixteenth-century English peasant cottage, became associated with wealth and prestige during its revival in both England and America. The Tudor house provided an escape from busy modern life as a retreat to a more provincial setting, for those who had the means, all the while being architecturally and aesthetically unique.

-Rita Orazi

References:

[1] Hubert Pragnell, The Styles of English Architecture (London: BT Batsford Ltd, 1984), 42. The chapel originally intended as a shrine for Henry’s uncle, Henry VI; one of the first examples of fan­and­pendant vaulting, which would be used again in Hampton Court Chapel in 1530 under Henry VIII.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 70.

[4] Anthony Quiney, The Traditional Buildings of England (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 20.

[5] Pragnell, Styles of English Architecture, 65­66. From the fifteenth century onward, the battle would be fought by armies in expansive fields, the outcome would not be dependent on successful sieges of important and strategic castles any longer.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] Lee Goff, Tudor Style: Tudor Revival Houses in America from 1890 to the present (New York: Universe Publishing, 2002), 12.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Goff, Tudor Style, 20. These are three defining characteristics of the Primitivist movement, a Western art movement that emerged in the 18 Stranvinsky. Through their work, Primitivist artists tried to isolate themselves from the materialistic culture that surrounded them by creating pieces glorifying ways of life that seemed simpler and more connected to nature than their own.

[12] Ibid., 20-21.

[13] Alyssa Abkowitz, “The Global Popularity of Tudor Style,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3, 2013; Goff, Tudor Style, 10.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] Abkowitz, “The Global Popularity of Tudor Style.”; Wentworth Inc., “Historical Styles: Tudor Style (1890­1940),” Wentworthstudio.com.

[16] Goff, Tudor Style, 29.

[17] Allen Jackson, The Half Timbered House (New York: McBride Nast and Co., 1912), 1.

[18] Ibid., 1.

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