The first serious challenge to the Classical architectural tradition in Utah was mounted by the Picturesque styles during the 1860s and 1870s. The Picturesque aesthetic, based upon irregularity of composition and embodied in such styles as the Gothic Revival and Italianate, was the architectural manifestation of American romanticism, which stressed spontaneity and emotion over control and reason.
As the prevailing Classicism came to be considered artificial and unnatural, it was replaced by forms thought to be natural and therefore somehow more honest. Picturesque styles used building materials in ways that emphasized their textures and forms and that seemingly reduced the artifice of the builder. Designers stressed the aesthetic appeal of asymmetrical massing, verticality, the use of rich colors, and the application of complicated and often exaggerated decorative schemes.
Harmony was not itself shunned, but the Picturesque concept of architecture was based upon an active tension between competing building elements rather than a simple order based upon proportion and symmetry.
Many architectural stylebooks that surfaced during the 1840s and 1850s set forth Picturesque design principles. Books such as Andrew Jackson Downing’s Cottage Residences (1842), William Ranlett’s The Architect (1847), and Gervase Wheeler’s Rural Homes (1851), which contained both essays on the advantages of Picturesque design and romanticized line sketches of cottages and houses, added an important new dimension to the builder’s repertoire.
The style most commonly associated with this period is the Gothic Revival, a vertically oriented architecture imported from England characterized by pointed arches, steeply pitched roofs, and the elaborate saw-cut ornament often called “gingerbread” today. The Italianate, another important Picturesque style, introduced the broad flat roof with bracketed eaves into American architecture. The Second Empire style, while not strictly Picturesque given its heavy reliance on formal and Classical details, is included here because it still represented a break from the restraint of the Classical tradition. In Utah it is most commonly and distinctively encountered in the form of a mansard roof placed upon one of the Picturesque-era house types.
Although style book writers continued to use the older, more traditional house types such as the central- and side-passages forms, they may also be credited with introducing and popularizing the cross-wing design. Based loosely on a medieval English house form, the cross-wing’s forward-projecting wing, contrasted to the horizontal side wing, is the minimal statement of the Picturesque quest for asymmetry. It became the principal house type in Utah during the late 19th century and is found with Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, and Victorian decorative appointments.
In Utah, as in many other parts of the country, the reaction to the Picturesque was mixed. Picturesque ideas had their most direct impact on the state’s architecture as decorative elements applied to the exteriors of older Classical and traditional forms. Buildings during this period rarely fall into a single stylistic category, but instead mix elements of several styles in an eclecticism that became a hallmark of the 19th century. The archetypal Picturesque house in Utah, then, is a symmetrical house with a central gable or wall dormers, with or without bargeboards, finials, scrollwork, and other decorative detailing commonly associated with these styles.