What is Steamboat Gothic Architecture?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Steamboat Gothic architecture is an extremely elaborate architectural style which is primarily confined to the American South, where it originated. If you have ever seen a extremely large home covered from head to toe in elaborate carved woodwork, you have probably seen an example of Steamboat Gothic architecture; this style is characterized by being so heavily ornamented that it seems almost ludicrous.

Steamboat Gothic architecture was designed to mimic the elaborate steamboats of the mid-1800s.
Steamboat Gothic architecture was designed to mimic the elaborate steamboats of the mid-1800s.

This architectural style is closely related to Carpenter Gothic architecture, another style of architecture which originated in the United States. Carpenter Gothic was an outgrowth of the Gothic Revival movement which took advantage of the abundant timber resources in the United States; both Carpenter and Steamboat Gothic homes are characterized by being built from timber, rather than other building materials.

It is difficult to mistake the two styles, especially once you have seen examples of both. Steamboat Gothic architecture emerged along the banks of the Mississippi River, where riverboat captains paid for lavish homes which were designed to resemble the elaborately decorated steamboats of the mid-1800s. A Steamboat Gothic home will always be at least two stories tall, with elaborate wraparound porches, often on multiple stories. The porches are often enclosed in lacy gingerbread and complex scrollwork, and pillared galleries are also common in Steamboat Gothic architecture. By contrast, Carpenter Gothic is more restrained, and, most notably, second story porches are never seen on Carpenter Gothic homes.

The elaborate decorations on Steamboat Gothic structures were made possible by the development of steam powered scroll saws, which allowed mills to mass-produce scrollwork for sale. This mass production enabled the use of abundant scrollwork in architectural design, because designers did not have to worry about the often extremely high price of hand-carved scrollwork. The frothy details on the outside of Steamboat Gothic homes were often repeated inside, as well.

Several examples of Steamboat Gothic architecture are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many are open to the public as museums. Several Southern plantations feature Steamboat Gothic mansions, many of which have been lovingly restored and maintained, and these homes are well worth visiting if you happen to be in the vicinity. Should you have an opportunity to visit a Steamboat Gothic home, look out for all of the elaborate and minute architectural details; essentially any part of a home which can be embellished will be, from eaves to door frames.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have seen this house while visiting Savannah. It is gorgeous. After seeing it, I became interested in steamboat gothic architecture and did some research. I found out that the Benjamin Lathrop house located in Redwood City, California is considered a rare example of the beginnings of steamboat gothic.


One of the finest examples of steamboat gothic architecture is the Gingerbread House in Savannah, Georgia. It was built in 1899 by Cord Asendorf. The Gingerbread House is now one of Savannah's leading caterers. Many weddings and parties are held there.

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