The Old Dwelling Transmogrified: James Fenimore Cooper’s Otsego Hall

Kerry Dean Carso (Oneonta, New York)

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 25-35).

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Otsego Hall

Figure 1. Otsego Hall (as remodeled in Gothic style by James Fenimore Cooper).

{26} “In architecture, the Americans have certainly no great reason to exult.” Such was James Fenimore Cooper’s pronouncement in his book Notions of the Americans in 1828. 1 The dominant style at that time was, of course, Greek Revival, which Cooper roundly criticized in his writings. Cooper had traveled abroad from 1826 until 1833 and visited the architectural wonders of Europe. He concluded that the United States lagged far behind Europe in architectural heritage. Upon his return from Europe, perhaps in an effort to rectify the situation, Cooper decided to remodel his father’s house, Otsego Hall, in 1834 (fig. 1). In so doing, he transformed a turn-of-the-century federal manor house into what he called “a mongrel of the Grecian and Gothic orders.” 2 He added battlements, pointed arch windows, and towers to the neoclassical structure in an attempt to recreate the Gothic architecture he had seen in Europe. Two major factors contributed to Cooper’s renovations at Otsego Hall: his exposure to the Gothic style in Europe and his reading of Gothic novels and historical romances, which profoundly influenced American architecture in the heyday of the Gothic Revival in the 1830s and 1840s. Cooper’s Otsego Hall is one of the first examples of the Gothic Revival in American domestic architecture, and as such, the house holds an important place in American architectural studies.

Cooper’s views on American architecture can be gleaned from his novel of manners, Home as Found (1838), which tells the story of the transformation of Otsego Hall. A sequel to Homeward Bound (1838), Home as Found continues the story of the Effingham family who return to Templeton, New York (a fictional version of Cooperstown) after being abroad for a number of years. Edward (Ned) Effingham (considered by some to be a self-portrait of Cooper himself) has his cousin John Effingham make alterations to the family home, known in the novel as the “Wigwam.” 3

The characters in the novel are acutely aware of the novelty of a Gothic Revival house in Templeton. The novel situates the gothicization of the “Wigwam” within the context of the Greek Revival in American architecture, which swept through the United States beginning in the 1820s. One reason for the popularity of the Greek Revival was its association with ancient Greece and its democratic form of government, as well as contemporary Greece’s struggle for independence. 4 Early in the novel, Aristabulus Bragg, a Templeton local, calls the new Gothic Revival “Wigwam” “denationalized.” 5 Bragg notes that Greek Revival edifices would be more “republican” than Gothic Revival ones. 6 Ned Effingham counters Bragg’s sentiments by saying that domestic Greek Revival “seems better suited to heathen worship than to domestic comfort.” His cousin concurs, calling Greek Revival a “malady.” 7 About the “Wigwam,” Bragg states:

Mr. John Effingham has considerably regenerated and revivified, not to say transmogrified, the old dwelling. ... The work of his hand has excited some speculation, a good deal of inquiry, and a little conversation throughout the country. It has almost produced an excitement! 8

Otsego Hall

Figure 2. Otsego Hall (as originally built).

When Eve Effingham first sees the house, she calls it “an odd jumble of the Grecian and Gothic,” a statement which recalls Cooper’s own description of Otsego Hall as “a mongrel of the Grecian and Gothic orders.” 9

Like his fictional creation Ned Effingham, Cooper also made arrangements to gothicize his old family home upon his return from Europe. The original house had been built from 1797 to 1799, replacing William Cooper’s manor house in Cooperstown, New York (fig. 2). Unlike its predecessor, Otsego Hall was set back from the street amid spacious grounds with ornamental gardens and a picket fence. Designed in the federal style, Otsego Hall was the first brick structure in the county and the largest private residence west of Albany. The plan was typically symmetrical with a center hall. 10

Cooper renovated Otsego Hall in 1834 by raising the ceiling on the first floor three feet, from ten feet to thirteen; and installing Gothic windows and battlements, which proceeded to cause leaks when the winter snow clogged the down spouts. 11 Helping him with the designs was his friend, painter Samuel F. B. Morse, who designed two towers for the front and east sides of the structure. 12 In a letter to a friend in 1834, Cooper sketched his plans for the hall (fig. 3) 13 Cooper’s remodeling of Otsego Hall is significant as it is only the second castellated Gothic country house in the United States, after Town & Davis’s Glen Ellen. 14

Otsego Hall

Figure 3. Cooper’s Sketch.

{27} Cooper enlarged the grounds from three acres to five and added plantings and winding paths to create a picturesque garden. His instructions regarding the planting of trees — no “straight lines” allowed — is decidedly picturesque. 15 Irregularity was the rule at this Gothic estate. Around the property, he built a wall that resembled that of a castle. In a letter from 1835, he made a drawing of his plan for the gate of the Hall (fig. 4).

Otsego Hall

Figure 4. Cooper’s Sketch for a Gate.

The Gothic gate he envisioned sported crenellations similar to those adorning the roofline of the house. The gateway tower was to be an elaborate two-story affair, creating a fanciful, medieval entrance to Cooper’s romanticized estate. 16 Never built, Cooper’s gateway was replaced with a smaller Gothic entrance to the grounds.

Not long after the renovations at Otsego Hall were completed, Cooper was appointed to a one-person committee responsible for remodeling and enlarging Christ Church in Cooperstown in 1839 (fig. 5). In so doing, Cooper attempted to give a “true churchly feeling” to a building he called “singularly ugly” and “better suited to a country ball-room, than to a church.” 17 Cooper wanted to remake the church following the model of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture in Europe, which he had seen first-hand during his European travels. He added decorative buttresses to the exterior of the church, replaced its windows with pointed arch windows, and completely overhauled the interi replacing the painted pine with natural oak. 18 Cooper had an oak screen based on the one in Newstead Abbey in Nottingham from the twelfth century carved for the altar. 19 A new chancel was built, attached to the western façade of the original church. Of the final product, Cooper commented “It is really a pretty thing — pure Gothic, and is the wonder of the country round.” 21 With the renovation of Christ Church, Cooper had again brought medieval Gothic to Cooperstown. Cooper’s church is significant not in the history of American church architecture, but as a testament to the impact Gothic architecture had on Cooper during his travels abroad. In altering Christ Church, Cooper was attempting to bring his knowledge of European architecture to his village in upstate New York, thus educating the town’s populace in the Anglo-Saxon heritage of Gothic architecture. 21

Christ Church

Figure 5. Christ Church.

Why did Cooper choose to design in a Gothic Revival style at the height of the Greek Revival? European architecture, and the English Gothic style in particular, had made an enormous impact on Cooper. Cooper’s interest in the Gothic style derived from his love of historical romances, such as Sir Walter Scott’s, and from his perusal of publications featuring the Gothic. As a young man, Cooper served as a sailor in the merchant marine and as a midshipman in the United States Navy. While a sailor, Cooper studied Gothic architecture through prints as much as time would allow. 22 Although he had spent two months in London as a boy, he had never visited Westminster Abbey until 1826. Calling himself “a great devotee of Gothic architecture,” Cooper made Westminster Abbey his first stop upon his arrival in London. He positioned himself in St. Margaret’s church-yard, and, for the first time in his life, looked “upon a truly Gothic structure of any magnitude.” As he stood gazing at the pile, he felt

the sensation we term ‘a creeping of the blood’. ... If I were to enumerate the strong and excited feelings which are awakened by viewing novel objects, I should place this short visit to the Abbey as giving birth in me, to sensation No. 1. ... This was absolutely my introduction to the Gothic, and it has proved to be an acquaintance pregnant of more pure satisfaction, than any other it is has been my good fortune to make since youth. 23

Cooper’s reaction to his first contact with authentic Gothic architecture is an emotional as well as a physical one. Like Gothic novel readers, who have a bodily reaction to the Gothic when their spines tingle and their palms sweat, Cooper feels a “creeping of the blood.” For some Americans, medieval architecture elicits an intense physical reaction, but also “operates on all our sensations,” as one anonymous American writer asserted in 1830. 24 Such a response to the Gothic sublime echoes Edmund Burke’s theories that form the theoretical base for Gothic fiction. Throughout his time in Europe, Cooper sought out Gothic edifices, calling himself and his family “great hunters after the Gothic.” 25 But Cooper did not limit his interest to Gothic architectural sites, but Gothic Revival ones as well. He was less impressed with the latter. He went to Twickenham to see Strawberry Hill, the architectural creation of Horace Walpole (who published the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, in 1765), but Cooper was denied admission (fig. 6). Walpole bought Strawberry Hill, a small house overlooking the Thames River in Twickenham, in 1748. In 1754, he created the “Strawberry Hill Committee,” including himself and designers Richard Bentley and John Chute (other architects also contributed to the design). Over the course of the following decades, Walpole and his associates made additions to Strawberry Hill, creating a Gothic Revival castle unlike any building before it. Although one of Cooper’s friends had told him that the interior was “a jewel” and the grounds “delicious,” Cooper was unimpressed with the little he saw of Walpole’s estate behind its high wall. He still proceeded to judge Strawberry Hill: “We were much disappointed with the house, seen as we saw it, for it appeared to me to be composed of lath and stucco; in part at least. It is a tiny castle, and altogether it struck me as a sort of architectural toy ... it may be possible to see the wit of Horace Walpole, where I saw nothing but his folly.” 26 Although Cooper had criticized Strawberry Hill, the crenellated roofline of Otsego Hall echoes that of Walpole’s residence. Cooper’s transformation of Otsego Hall likewise resembles Walpole’s process of reworking an earlier structure.

Strawberry Hill

Figure 6. Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.

{29} Cooper was influenced not just by the architecture he saw in Europe, but also by his reading of Gothic novels and historical romances in which the Gothic style of architecture is predominant. As a boy, he read American Gothic novelist Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, about which he asserts: “I take it to be a never failing evidence of genius, that amid a thousand similar pictures which have succeeded, the images it has left still stand distinct and prominent in my recollection.” 27 Cooper also read Brown’s Edgar Huntly. 28 In his section on American literature in Notions of the Americans, Cooper laments that in the United States, there are “no obscure fictions for the writer of romances;” he goes on to say that “the darkest ages of [Americans’] history are illuminated by the light of truth.” 29

Although Cooper believed that his country lacked the history and settings necessary for the writer of Gothic romances, he is still influenced by Gothic writers. Cooper is not considered primarily a Gothic novelist, but some of his novels do display the Gothic influence that often seeped into ostensibly non-Gothic fictions, such as The Spy (1821), The Pilot (1824), Lionel Lincoln (1825), The Heidenmauer (1832), and The Bravo (1831). 31 Although Cooper’s well-known novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826) does not exploit the usual Gothic conventions of setting, Donald Ringe has suggested that The Last of the Mohicans is a Gothic novel. 31 Ringe argues that Cooper employs Gothic conventions in his use of enclosed space, fear of the unknown or unexpected, and forest settings in which sublime landscapes, à la Salvator Rosa, create a naturally terrifying backdrop to the novel’s action. 32 It is clear that Cooper was very familiar with Gothic novel conventions.

Cooper was also a reader of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, to which he turned when writing his own first novel, Precaution, in 1820. To plan the length of Precaution, Cooper consulted the length of Ivanhoe. 33 Cooper was thrilled to meet Scott in Paris in 1826. In Gleanings in Europe, France Cooper describes in detail his first encounter with Scott, and the events leading up to it, including Scott’s arrival in Paris and the general excitement that such an occasion produced. Cooper saw Scott a number of times while in Paris and concluded that “Sir Walter Scott, in his peculiar way, is one of the pleasantest companions the world holds.” 34 Beginning with the publication of The Spy and The Pioneers, Cooper was often referred to as “The American Scott.” Although he disdained this title, he did acknowledge his debt to Scott in his private letters. 35 When asked if he admired Scott, he answered that although Ivanhoe was “very unequal,” it “stood quite at the head of the particular sort of romances to which it belonged.” He believed The Antiquary and Guy Mannering to be “much nearer perfection.” When asked if he thought Ivanhoe lacked historical truth, Cooper answered that Ivanhoe was not intended to be a work of history, but rather a “work of the imagination.” 36

Influenced by the architecture described in Gothic novels and historical romances, Cooper chose the Gothic style for his own home. At Otsego Hall, Cooper is attempting to recreate a Gothic edifice but the outcome is stylistically confusing. Even with the additions of towers, Cooper fails to radically alter the symmetry of the Hall and therefore the neoclassical two-story block remains intact. 37 Cooper’s conception of the Gothic is limited to surface ornament, a quality that traces back to his first encounter with the Gothic style at Westminster Abbey. There, Cooper was particularly struck by the ornamentation of the chapel of Henry VIIth. He noted that the “miniature port-cullises, escutcheons, and other ornaments, give the whole the rich, and imaginative — almost fairy-like aspect.” 38 When Cooper gothicizes Otsego Hall, his conception of the Gothic is purely ornamental, which is not surprising, given his fascination with the ornament at Westminster. 39 Because he arrives at Westminster after it has closed, he is not able to enter, so the exterior ornament, rather than the structural engineering, provokes his strongest reaction. Many Americans in this period, including Alexander Jackson Davis, used inauthentic materials such as plaster to imitate Gothic vaulting. Cooper is no different in his failure to understand the complexities of medieval building techniques and to employ only ornament for effect.

For Cooper and other Americans who gothicize their dwellings or commission architects to build Gothic houses for them, their choice of style is the result of their exposure to Gothic edifices and medieval culture through Gothic novels and historical romances. Often, travel to European Gothic architectural sites gives them the visual cues needed to recreate the gothic at home. Why choose the medieval style for use in the United States? In gothicizing both Otsego Hall and Christ Church, Cooper co-opts the architectural heritage of England and makes it his own. In so doing, he is countering his own observation that “Europe itself is a Romance, while all America is a matter of fact, humdrum, common sense region.” 41 With the remodeling of Otsego Hall, he legitimizes American architecture by linking it to England’s rich medieval heritage. 41 Otsego Hall is certainly not the equivalent of the Gothic Revival structures in England; rather, it is it “an odd jumble of the Grecian and Gothic,” an American transformation of English sources. “Transmogrified,” the word Aristabulus Bragg uses to describe the “Wigwam,” is an appropriate descriptive term, because the resulting combination of neoclassical and gothic elements is, in the end, incongruous. 42


1 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor [1828] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 355.

2 Quoted in Calder Loth and Julius Trousdale Sadler, Jr., The Only Proper Style: Gothic Architecture in American (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), 44.

3 Cooper denied that Templeton was Cooperstown, that his father was Judge Temple of The Pioneers, that he himself was Edward Effingham, and that Otsego Hall was the hall described in his novels, but the similarities are too striking to be ignored. See James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard, vol. IV (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1960), 72-87.

4 On the Greek Revival, see Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America [1944] (New York: Dover Publications, 1964).

5 James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found [1838] (New York: Capricorn Books, 1961), 13.

6 Cooper, Home as Found, 15.

7 Cooper, Home as Found, 113.

8 Cooper, Home as Found, 128.

9 Cooper, Home as Found, 149; Mary E. Phillips, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: John Lane Co., 1913), 262.

10 Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 261.

11 On Otsego Hall, see Charles Tichy, “Otsego Hall and Its Setting, 1786-1940,” M.A. Thesis, Cooperstown Graduate Program, 1973; Katherine B. Susman, “Gothic Revival Domestic Architecture in Cooperstown, New York, 1834-1868: The Evolution of a Style.” M. A. Thesis. Cooperstown Graduate Program, 1971; William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and Their Architects: Technology and the Picturesque, The Corporate and the Early Gothic Styles [1978] (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1980), 290-91; Janice Schimmelman, “The Spirit of the Gothic: The Gothic Revival House in Nineteenth-Century America,” Ph. D diss., University of Michigan, 1980, 132-134; and Patrick Snadon, “A. J. Davis and the Gothic Revival Castle in America, 1832-1865,” Ph. D diss., Cornell, 1988., 291-293. Cooper himself described his renovations in Chronicles of Cooperstown: “The Hall having passed into the hands of J. Fenimore Cooper, Esquire, that gentleman, shortly after his return from Europe, or in 1834, had it extensively repaired, and a good deal altered. The roof had rotted, and it was replaced by a new one on the old inclination, but the walls of the building were raised four feet. On these were placed battlements and heavy cornices in brick, that add altogether eight feet to the elevation of the building. The distance between the rows of the windows was increased three feet, by filling in the lower ends of the upper windows, and by placing new stools, the necessary height having been obtained above. Much ornamental brick work has been added, and the effect has been altogether advantageous. All the floors of the second story have also been raised, giving to the principal rooms a better height than they formerly possessed, while those above have been improved the same way, by the addition to the general height of the building. Appropriate entrances have been made on both fronts, that are better suited to the style of architecture and to the climate than the ancient stoops, and two low towers have been added to the east end, which contribute greatly to the comfort of the house, as a residence. The improvements and alterations are still proceeding slowly, and this dwelling, which for ten or twelve years was nearly deserted, promises to be one of the best country houses in the state again. The grounds have also been enlarged and altered, the present possessor aiming at what is called an English garden. During the life of Judge Cooper, these grounds contained about three acres, but they are now enlarged to five.” James Fenimore Cooper, The Chronicles of Cooperstown (Cooperstown: H. & E. Phinney, 1838), 83-84; reprinted as “The Chronicles of Cooperstown to 1838,” in The History of Cooperstown (Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, 1976), 36-37.

12 On the Cooper-Morse friendship, see James T. Callow, Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1967), 53-57.

13 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. III, 57.

14 Snadon, 291. As for interior renovations, Cooper used only native oak. The interior does not appear to have been gothicized in the same way as the exterior. See Tichy.

15 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. III, 371.

16 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. III, 155. See Tichy, 56-61, for a description of Cooper’s grounds.

17 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. III, 376; vol. IV, 14-18. See also Hugh C. MacDougall, “’A True Churchly Feeling’: James Fenimore Cooper and the Remodelling of Christ Church, Cooperstown,” 2. Unpublished manuscript available from the James Fenimore Cooper Society of Cooperstown, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall is currently the secretary-treasurer of this organization.

18 See MacDougall.

19 Cooper copied the screen at St. John’s Episcopal Church (known as “the Stone Church”) in Johnstown, New York, which was in turn based upon the screen at Newstead Abbey. MacDougall, 3. Cooper wrote that the screen at St. John’s was “much the noblest and imposing ornament I have ever seen in an American church, though it is not very large.” He also noted that the Johnstown screen was of pine, “while ours will be of real oak.” Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. IV, 19.

20 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, IV, 32. Quoted in Diantha Dow Schull, Landmarks of Otsego County, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980), 75.

21 Although altered since Cooper’s time, Christ Church still stands in Cooperstown near the site of Otsego Hall and adjacent to the graveyard where Cooper is buried.

22 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: France [1837] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 35.

23 Cooper, Gleanings in Europe, France, 35-37.

24 “Architecture in the United States,” The American Journal of Science and Arts, 18 (July 1830): 222. Quoted in Schimmelman, 37.

25 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. I, 149.

26 Cooper, Gleanings in Europe, England [1837] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 169-170.

27 Cooper, Notions, 350.

28 Donald A. Ringe, “The Last of the Mohicans as a Gothic Novel,” in James Fenimore Cooper, His Country and His Art: Papers from the 1986 Conference at State University of New York , ed. George A. Test, (Oneonta: State University of New York College, 1987), 42.

29 Cooper, Notions, 348.

30 Donald A. Ringe has written extensively on Cooper and the Gothic. In addition to his article on The Last of the Mohicans, see Donald A. Ringe, American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth Century Fiction, (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 106-108; Donald A. Ringe, “The Bravo: Social Criticism in the Gothic Mode,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, 8 (1991), ed. George A. Test, (Oneonta: State University of New York College at Oneonta, [1993]), 124-34; and Donald A. Ringe, “Cooper’s Lionel Lincoln: The Problem of Genre,” American Transcendental Quarterly, 24 (Fall 1974): 24-30.

31 Ringe, “The Last of the Mohicans as a Gothic Novel.”

32 On Cooper’s landscape imagery, see Blake Nevius, Cooper’s Landscapes: An Essay on the Picturesque Vision, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976). Nevius discusses Cooper’s debt to Rosa on pages 41-45.

33 Lewis Leary, Introduction to Home As Found by James Fenimore Cooper, (New York: Capricorn Books, 1961), viii.

34 James Fenimore Cooper, Gleanings in Europe: France, 148-157. Cooper and Scott were on agreeable terms; after Scott’s death, Lockhart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott transcribed Scott’s diary mistakenly. According to the Memoirs, Scott wrote that Cooper lacked manners, when the diary actually said “manner,” i.e., affectation. Cooper published a letter in the Knickerbocker defending himself against these allegations. The Knickerbocker: or, New-York Monthly Magazine, 11 (1838): 380-386. For Cooper’s indebtedness to Scott, see George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967).

35 James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. II, 310. Of his nickname, Cooper wrote “If there is a term that gives me more disgust than any other, it is to be called ... the ‘American Walter Scott.’” Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. II, 83.

36 Cooper, Gleanings in Europe, France, 250-251.

37 As Katherine Susman notes, despite its Gothic outward effects, Otsego Hall lacked the “feeling of texture, light and shade and whimsey that give Gothic Revival architecture much of its personality.” Susman, 19.

38 Cooper, Gleanings in Europe, France, 36.

39 He is similarly impressed with the exterior of Rouen Cathedral, finding the interior “rather plain” after viewing the profusion of detail on the exterior. Cooper, Gleanings in Europe, France, 57.

40 Cooper, The Letters and Journals, vol. II, 170.

41 Such is the case with Gothic Revival collegiate architecture in the United States. See chapter VI, “The Monastic Quadrangle and Collegiate Ideals,” in Paul Venable Turner, Campus: An American Planning Tradition, (New York: The Architectural History Foundation, 1984).

42 After Cooper’s death, Otsego Hall was sold and turned into a hotel. It burned in October 1853 and was demolished soon after. Susman, 23.