Friday, April 01, 2005

Try a Little Wilderness: Andrew Jackson Downing

From the Kingston and Woodstock Times, December 16, 2004:
“So long as men are forced to dwell in log huts and follow the hunter’s life,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), “we must not be surprised at lynch law and the use of the bowie knife. But, when smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.” But Downing was not merely an apostle of taste, an Emily Post arbiter for the masses. Architect, landscaper, pomologist, and author, he campaigned for the artful domestication of America’s wilderness in book after book, as well as in his monthly editorial in The Horticulturist.

He was truly one of the most celebrated figures of the pre-Civil War period, and that he accomplished so much in the mere 36 years of his life is a marvel and a reproach to slackers like me. Almost single-handedly, Downing created the profession we now call landscape architecture. More than any man he created solid, affordable housing plans that borrowed from half a dozen different cultures and thus were distinctively American. He was a dreamer and a schemer, a Ben Franklin crossed with a Phineas T. Barnum, and at the time of his death he had a commission to lay out and plant the public grounds of the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian buildings, and another to create a Central Park in the city of New York.

Downing’s books remain in print, though as curios. Only one of his many landscaped gardens survives (brewer/philanthropist Matthew Vassar’s Springside, in Poughkeepsie), and that in ruin. Only five buildings executed from his designs are extant – one of these, a Dr. Culbert’s house, later modified by Henry Hobson Richardson to become the City Club – stands amazingly in the same Newburgh block that hosts Alexander Jackson Davis’s Dutch Reformed Church of 1835. Indeed, so little of Downing’s prodigious efforts survives that he has been largely forgotten outside academic circles, and even there he may be said to be famous for having been famous.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
-- A.E. Housman

Downing preserved, even enhanced, his genius by dying young. He died when, for all his accomplishments, he was still seized with a sense of his own potential – he dreamed of an agricultural college in the Hudson Valley, for example. For him there was no thought of loss through aging, change, even growth. Cut off in his prime, he joined other such deified national figures -- mostly martial ones like Nathan Hale or Davy Crockett. Those golden boys who die young, from Arthur Rimbaud to Buddy Holly, from Stephen Crane to Elvis, are forever young in the land of might have been, safe.

So it may seem churlish to say that his cottage and landscape books are derivative of two Britons, Humphry Repton and John Claudius Loudon; that his residence designs, with their obligatory verandas attached to Tuscan or Gothic or Swiss cottages, owe a great deal to Davis; that his love of chimneys and blind turrets seems, well, childish. All of these are positions that a critic might reasonably adopt, and Downing was not immune from such comment in his own day. In 1847, for but one example, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review condemned him for “corrupting the public taste, and infecting the parvenues with a mania of Gothic Castle-building.” To which his advocates would say, better to have humble board-and-batten construction, in woodland colors, than stark white Grecian temples. So before I come down on the side of the churls or the defenders, let me tell you a bit about this romantic yet scientific, darkly brooding yet cheerfully companionate bundle of contradictions.

Born in Newburgh on October 30, 1815 to Samuel and Susanna Downing, Andrew was a precocious child of some social standing and means, as his father had exchanged his trade of wheelwright for that of nurseryman, in a business that Andrew and his brother Charles would come to manage. By age 16 Downing was a published author, writing in an unsigned piece called “Rural Embellishments” in the New-York Farmer that the “branch of Horticulture called Landscape Gardening is, as yet, completely in its infancy among us.” In 1835, not yet 20, he published two stories in the prestigious New-York Mirror, for whom Davis had long been a contributor of architectural delineations.

On June 7, 1838 he married “up,” to Caroline De Windt, whose family estate was Cedar Grove at Fishkill Landing (now Beacon), directly across the Hudson from the Downing nursery. The wife’s considerable dowry derived from the family’s sugar interests in the Virgin Islands; her pedigree came from blood relation to Presidents John Adams as well as John Quincy Adams. Downing would later dedicate one of his volumes to the latter.

No less important to Downing’s future fortunes were two other events of that year – his construction of an Elizabethan “cottage” in Newburgh, which he called Highland Gardens, and his introduction, through Carolinian Robert Donaldson, to Davis, who would be his collaborator and close friend for all of his remaining years. “My friend, R. Donaldson,” Downing wrote to Davis on December 12, 1838, “has informed me that he has mentioned my name to you and that you were so kind to offer to show me any work, views or plans in your possession which might be of any service to me.”

After Downing had his first authorial success with Treatise and Practice of Landscape Gardening in 1841, with its resultant commissions for landscape work, his Cottage Residences in the following year established him as an architect and a man of the people. Downing was a workmanlike artist, but he enlisted Davis for most of the designs published in that volume, and architectural commissions flowed principally to the more experienced man. Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, issued in 1845, revealed Downing to be a botanist, a naturalist, a true man of science … no mere gardener. All of his books were bestsellers, going through many reprintings and new editions for decades to come. In 1846 Downing became editor of the newly founded Albany-based Horticulturist.

In 1849 Downing approached Davis about joining him in a Newburgh-based “bureau of architecture” – a partnership to which Davis turned a cold shoulder. So the following year Downing published his Architecture of Country Houses, including Designs for Cottages, Farmhouses, and Villas, and in midyear went to England in search of an architectural assistant or, as he termed it, “pencil.” In September he came back with his man, a 25-year-old apprentice architect named Calvert Vaux.

The commissions for architectural work that had formerly gone to Davis now deluged Downing and Vaux, whom he soon elevated to full partnership and paired with another British import, Frederick Clarke Withers. In addition to the aforementioned commissions in Washington and New York, the firm took on many domestic assignments, from Rhode Island to Virginia. And then on July 28, 1852, Downing along with his wife and his mother-in-law boarded the steamer Henry Clay at Newburgh. It had left Albany at 7 a.m., for New York, and the Downing party planned to continue their journey up to Newport. They had no way to know that the Henry Clay had been engaged in a race with the steamer Armenia that, by the time the Henry Clay reached Kingston, had produced a smoky scent on the decks according to passenger John E. Cubbage of Hoboken, at his later testimony during the coroner’s inquest. The Henry Clay burst into flames some two and a half miles north of Yonkers, and all on board leapt into the Hudson. Downing, a strong swimmer, perished because, according to eye-witness accounts, he went to the top deck to throw wooden chairs into the water so that others might float to shore, then he attempted to save his mother-in-law and instead drowned with her.

In the sad aftermath of the disaster, which claimed 70 lives, luggage continued to wash ashore at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields a week later. A list of the 60 identified dead was published in the papers (ten more would be identified later, but body no. 34 was listed as “A.J. Downing, aged 37, merchant, Fishkill”). Downing’s remains were interred at the Old Town Cemetery in Newburgh, but in 1872 the sarcophagus was moved to Cedar Hill Cemetery, north of town.

The Downing home and grounds were sold at auction to satisfy the estate, but the wining bidder, an iron manufacturer named Alger, permitted Vaux and Withers to continue to work from the office at Highland Gardens for another ten months. A decade later, Alger put the property up for sale (“elegant country seat … contains about six acres of land, in a high state of cultivation, filled with rare trees and shrubs of all descriptions; the dwelling, carriage-houses, grapery and green-house are of a fine order of architecture; will be sold for much less than cost; … G. Alger”), and it stands no longer.

Vaux went on to a notable career as an architect, for which he had been trained in England, and as a landscape architect, for which he had Downing to thank. (Indeed, one might think of Vaux as a blend of the technical brilliance of Davis and the romantic brilliance of Downing.) In 1858 he, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, won the New York City competition with their Greensward plan that placed Central Park in the heart of the island, not at its eastern bank, and thus did he pick up his mentor’s fallen torch. “In their Central Park,” wrote Michael J. Lewis, “picturesque planning was overlaid with transcendentalist themes to produce something near the landscape equivalent of philosophy.”

For Vaux and Olmsted, as it had been for Downing, land and one’s attitude toward it was what defined the vast space that was America: it was more than real estate.

With Downing gone, without that personal charm so frequently noted, his tangible work seemed suddenly a balloon with the air let out. No longer would he alight from his carriage, as George William Curtis recalled, appearing as a “tall, slight Spanish gentleman, with black hair worn very long, and dark eyes.” Fredrika Bremer, the Swedish novelist, recalled “a gentleman dressed in black, with … a pair of the handsomest brown eyes I ever saw … dark hair, of a beautiful brown and softly curling – in short of poetical appearance.” Had Downing hypnotized a nation into thinking he was special, and that he had something special to say? Was Vaux correct to write, in 1860, “The value of Downing’s books here has been great not because of their technical excellence, for they are very poor in that quality, but because they are full of life and interest.… It is the man and not the architect that wins the popular ear.”

Yes and no. Downing was an aggregator, a compiler, a democratizer for the sometimes elitist ideas of others. But he did not co-opt greater minds and visions, he made them palatable and popular. As Robert Donaldson wrote to Davis in 1863: “My recollection of the initial steps (taken in 1834 or 1835 by late Mr. Hillhouse & Ourselves) sometimes recurs to me – of the rural Architecture & Villa embellishments which have gone on to the great improvement of country life notwithstanding the overdone gingerbread work & begabled houses which abound. Downing stole your thunder, for a while – but I always, on suitable occasions, claimed for you the seminal ideas which have been so fruitful.”

If Downing was a mere vapor, a perfume that wafted over the land for a generation, its effect was so long-lasting that, to several architectural historians’ way of thinking, Downing’s advocacy of wooden cottages, often in a Gothic Revival mode and harmonizing with their rural environment, prefigured twentieth-century architecture and, in its Romantic functionalist theory, Frank Lloyd Wright in particular.

As Russell Lynes wrote of Downing more than 50 years ago, in The Tastemakers: “There is scarcely a monument left, scarcely a garden or a house or a terraced hillside, to which we can now point and say Downing did that. But there is scarcely a building still standing from the 1840s and ’50s or a city park in which Downing’s ideas, sometimes distorted almost beyond recognition, cannot be detected.”

--John Thorn


Blogger North Fifth Street said...

Wonderful history, beautiful writing.

Just linked back to it at

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Thorn, for your wonderful essay, “Try a Little Wilderness,” on the topic of Andrew Jackson Downing’s life and legacy. I could not have read it at a more propitious moment. I stumbled upon it today as I was searching the Web to see if Downing's Highland Gardens home is still in existence. Not only did I discover that it is not, I learned that Downing died young and, seemingly, tragically, at the height of his career. So, your essay was of great interest to me.
I appreciate your posting it and wanted to explain what I liked best about it.
As it happens, I had been reading George William Curtis' Memoir of Downing, in preparation for reading my 1921 copy of Downing’s Landscape Gardening, and I was only one page away from Curtis' account of the river accident that claimed Downing's life when I read your essay. Through Curtis' admiring memoir, I had started to admire Downing, as he represents the great American story: a person of humble origins and natural inhibitions who, nevertheless, makes the most of what he has, overcomes obstacles, and creates a life of beauty for himself and inspires others. Along those lines, I especially liked your description of Downing as “this romantic yet scientific, darkly brooding yet cheerfully companionate bundle of contradictions.” Well-worded!
Downing’s manner of death as you describe it actually brought a tear to my eye, and it seems to me to be a little telling that it was meaningless competition that caused the fire that literally consumed him. That is often the way of those who seek to inject art and beauty into the hardened muscle of American endeavor and ambition. I finished Curtis’ memoir with a much better appreciation for Downing’s legacy, thanks to your essay.
Another great thing about your essay is the way you contrast Downing’s role as the father of American landscape architecture with the reality that most of what he accomplished in terms of actual material architecture and landscaping has been lost and abandoned, and that for the most part, his writings go unread. Your essay contains many thought-provoking passages along those lines that caused me to ponder not only the significance of Downing's short life and increasingly fading legacy, but the legacy of us all as individuals. Seemingly, our own personal legacies do not last much longer than the memory of our faded gardens, or so our ambition-driven society would have us think. I agree that Downing might have achieved much more had he lived longer, and that, yes, much of what he has left may now be considered derivative and dated to the modern sophisticated palate, but he did craft a beautiful life, inspired others to do the same, and died in a noble fashion, throwing literal lifelines to others. He admired the English nobility, and in the end, he was himself more noble than many. We could all wish for such an epitaph.
I think people are missing out by not reading Downing’s “Rural Essays” and other writings, and so again I thank you for your posting which brings attention to him. In describing the beauties of springtime, Downing praised his female readers in the “A Spring Gossip” essay of May, 1850, with the following lovely observation:
“They, at least, feel that this wonderful resurrection of life and beauty out of the death-sleep of winter, has a meaning in it that should bring glad tears into our eyes, being, as it is, a foreshadowing of that transformation and awakening of us all in the spiritual spring of another and a higher life.” Well, at least one of Downing’s female readers, on a May morning 160 years later, is still trying to take his advice and seek for that meaning!

1:43 PM  
Blogger John Thorn said...

Dear Anon,

Thanks so much for th ekind words an interesting post. You might aslo like this, about Downing's partner Calvert Vaux:

7:35 PM  

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