Wednesday, April 27, 2005

How I first met the great white whale Posted by Hello

Catskill Eagle: Herman Melville

From the Kingston Times, January 27, 2005:
Herman Melville, author of the Great American Novel if ever there was one, died forgotten in 1891, some 40 years after the critics had greeted publication of Moby-Dick with a scorn that Queequeg would have termed savage. By his own admission highly sensitive to criticism, Melville had endured little in that line with his first five books – Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) – and yet he resented his fame, won more as “the man who lived among cannibals” than as a masterful writer. In Moby-Dick he returned to the sea, pleasing his publisher, but he went his own way, as artists are wont to do, annoying the critics and perplexing the public.

Moby-Dick was based on two stories that would have been well known to his readers: a truly murderous “whale as white as wool” about whom Jeremiah N. Reynolds had written a story in The Knickerbocker Magazine of May 1839; and Owen Chase’s 1821 account of a naval disaster that ended in cannibalism, breathlessly titled, “Narration of the most unusual and shaking sinking of the ‘Essex,’ a whaler from Nantucket, which was attacked in the Pacific Ocean by a sperm whale and finally sunk, including a report of the incomparable suffering of the captain and crew during 93 days in open boats in the years 1819 and 1820.” What readers today might find hard to believe – a willfully murderous whale – was by no means incredible to the literary audience of 1851; it was the author’s prose-poem approach to a massive novel that stretched patience.

Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819, the same year as Walt Whitman, into an illustrious family of English and Dutch descent. His grandfather had taken part in the Boston Tea Party and his father was a cultivated man whose sudden death in 1831 had followed a bankruptcy the year before. Herman, seven siblings, and his mother were left destitute. After his graduation from Albany Academy, he clerked in a bank, tried his hand at farming, and taught at the Sykes District School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1839 he shipped as a cabin boy to Liverpool, commencing a lifelong love of the sea. Two years later he signed on aboard the Acushnet, a New Bedford three-master headed for the whale-killing fields in the South Seas. This trip became the basis of Typee, the book which through all his life remained his most famous. It was the commercial success of this book that emboldened Melville to marry, to summer in the Berkshires with the companionship of such literary figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes and in 1852 to repurchase (and rename as Arrow-Head) his family’s old homestead in Pittsfield, which had fallen into other hands in the time of financial woe.

Yet it was the friendship with Hawthorne that may have been the emotional centerpiece of these years. Both men saw a darkness in American life and letters that cast a gloom upon their beings. In June 1851 Melville wrote to his friend:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now,--I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose,--that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me,--I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,--it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches…. But I was talking about the ‘Whale.’ As the fishermen say, ‘he's in his flurry’ when I left him some three weeks ago. I'm going to take him by his jaw, however, before long, and finish him up in some fashion or other. What's the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book? Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

The Whale is the title under which Melville’s magnum opus was published first, in Great Britain, in three volumes. Enfuriatingly, the publisher, J. Bentley, censored certain politically charged passages and somehow forgot to include the essential epilogue, without which the reader is given to believe that Ishmael perished in the sinking of the Pequod and thus was in no position to tell its tale. The scathing London Spectator review read, in part:

“It is a canon with some critics that nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish. Mr. Melville hardly steers clear of this rule, and he continually violates another, by beginning in the autobiographical form and changing ad libitum into the narrative. His catastrophe overrides all rule: not only is Ahab, with his boat’s-crew, destroyed in his last desperate attack upon the white whale, but the Pequod herself sinks with all on board into the depths of the illimitable ocean. Such is the go-ahead method.”

The intent of this last comment was to skewer not only Melville’s craft but also his well-known (though secretly waning) support for American exceptionalism, an ascendant nation whose manifest destiny it was to span the continent, shucking its English past along the way. In his previous novel, White-Jacket, he had denounced the British Navy’s practice of flogging while arguing passionately for it to be eradicated from the U.S. Navy: “Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians.” Further, he wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”

Some weeks after the British publication, Harper and Brothers printed fewer than 2,000 copies of the novel in one ungainly volume as Moby-Dick. In the most unkindest cut of all, the reviewer for The United States Democratic Review, the virtual house organ for “Young America” and Manifest Destiny, wrote in part:

“‘Typee’ was undoubtedly a very proper book for the parlor, and we have seen it in company with ‘Omoo,’ lying upon tables from which Byron was strictly prohibited, although we were unable to fathom those niceties of logic by which one was patronized, and the other proscribed. But these were Mr. Melville’s triumphs. ‘Redburn’ was a stupid failure, ‘Mardi’ was hopelessly dull, ‘White Jacket’ was worse than either; and, in fact, it was such a very bad book, that, until the appearance of ‘Moby Dick,’ we had set it down as the very ultimatum of weakness to which its author could attain. It seems, however, that we were mistaken….”

In early 1853, as Melville readied “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Encatadas” for publication in Harper’s Monthly, the publishers’ headquarters went up in flames. It was simple enough to pass the stories on to Putnam’s Monthly (where they appeared on either side of Jervis McEntee’s valedictory for John Vanderlyn, whose life stories echo Melville’s). However, what proved truly ruinous was the incineration of Harper and Brothers inventory, including 300 copies of Moby-Dick, and worse yet, the stereotype plates of all Melville’s books, from which reprints might be struck. The result was that no additional copies of Melville’s masterpiece appeared for a dozen years, and no more after that until the year following his death. Even before he decided to silence himself, the fates conspired to silence him.

In 1859 Mrs. Melville was said to have observed to a friend, ““Herman has taken to writing poetry. You need not tell anyone, for you know how such things get about.” In fact, he had been writing poetry all along, though in the guise of prose. Whitman would have been honored to have written this passage from White-Jacket:

“Oh, give me again the rover’s life--the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea.”

As disappointments piled up over the ensuing decade, Melville retreated from public life and made silent peace with the world and himself. Perhaps anticipating that Moby-Dick would prove his professional undoing, he had written in Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” of the saving light of a fire after a frightful darkness at sea:

"Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar."

Melville could have retained his hold on the public by continuing to write exotic romances, as his publishers encouraged him to do. But his response was that of his most enigmatic creation, Bartleby the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”

--John Thorn

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Tenth Street Studio; bearded McEntee left of center. Posted by Hello

Jervis McEntee: Last Leaf Fallen

Jervis McEntee is by no means the greatest of Hudson River School painters but he is to me the most fascinating. Like John Vanderlyn a Kingston-born prodigy who took formal instruction only in adulthood, McEntee stood in a direct line of descent from Thomas Cole, whose only pupil had been Frederic Church, and from Church, whose second pupil and lifelong friend McEntee became. When the term “Hudson River School” became one of scorn in the 1870s as American tastes shifted to the luminous and crisply detailed Parisian and Munich styles, McEntee persisted in the old ways of addressing the emotions rather than the intellect, in an often anachronistic but always affecting evocation of season and place.

Unlike Cole and Church and such grandiloquent landscapists as Albert Bierstadt, McEntee rejected the Sublime, instead documenting the Commonplace. In 1874 he wrote: “Perhaps what would mark my work among that of my brother artists is a preference for the soberer phases of Nature, the gray days of November and its leafless trees as well as the Winter landscape.” Think of McEntee as a JMW Turner in grayscale.

When McEntee exhibited The Melancholy Days in 1860, the painting that won him full admission to the National Academy of Design, he appended to the painting these lines from William Cullen Bryant:

The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,
Of wailing winds and naked woods and meadows brown and sere,
Heaped in the hollows of the groves the withered leaves lie dead,
They rustle to the eddying gust and to the rabbits tread.

So, you well might ask, what is it about this dour second-tier painter that one might term interesting, let alone fascinating? A depressive personality, unhappy in art and perpetually fretting about money, he was nonetheless fortunate in his choice of a wife and beloved by his friends and family. His diary, kept meticulously from 1872 to his death in 1891, chronicled the art world of the period and provides us with much of what we know about the rise of the business affairs and relationships among the artists living in the mecca of nineteenth century art, the now destroyed Studio Building at Tenth Street in New York City.

As one who earlier wrote about the sad figure of Vanderlyn dying in want in Kingston in 1852, long past his time of acclaim, I had been struck by the parallels between Vanderlyn, the historical painter and panorama exhibitor accused of being “Frenchified,” and McEntee, the downbeat landscapist who struck a blow for a distinctly American form of art yet succumbed to the public’s fancy for the Beaux Arts and the Barbizon School. These painters viewed art from different ends of the spectrum -- indeed, the public deserted Vanderlyn’s historical style for McEntee’s landscape style -- yet were united in their ultimate inability to meet the public halfway. And only this week did I come upon an unsigned reminiscence of the aged painter of Ariadne and Marius in Putnam’s Magazine of June 1853 in which I now recognize the pen of the youthful McEntee. His eulogistic remarks about Vanderlyn reveal that this misunderstood genius, dying from “the melancholy effects of penury and want, silently endured,” set the psychological course for McEntee’s entire life in art.

Born in Rondout (since 1870 a part of Kingston), Jervis McEntee was named for John Jervis, the famous chief engineer of the Erie Canal, under whom his father had worked. Educated in Clinton, New York, he returned to the Rondout and commenced a lackluster commercial career there in 1851. (It was not Jervis but his brother and brother-in-law who founded the McEntee & Dillon Rondout Iron Works on Garden Street. The McEntee and Dillon mark may still be seen in the cast-iron pilasters ornamenting what is today the Mariners’ Harbor restaurant.) At the same time, Jervis McEntee commenced his training with Church and by 1853 exhibited a painting at the National Academy. His father’s wealth permitted a Calvert Vaux design and construction of a studio/residence in the “Weinberg” (the hill atop Broadway, roughly Chestnut Street) for Jervis and his new wife, the former Gertrude Sawyer. However, Jervis was slow to come into his own as a painter, if rapid in his business failure. In Vaux he made a lifelong friend and, happily, another brother in law. (McEntee’s studio no longer exists but a woodcut of it survives in Vaux's Villas and Cottages; its former location has been assessed as the west side of what is now called Dietz Court.)

McEntee took summer sketching tours of the Catskills and in 1857 set up in New York along with Church as one of the charter tenants in Richard Morris Hunt’s Tenth Street Studio Building. This experiment in group housing for artists was an instant success. As Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote in 1866, “on the ground floor are the studios of Whittredge, Bradford, Dana, Beard, Thompson the sculptor, Le Clear, Guy, and Bierstadt. The second floor is occupied by Church, McEntee, Leutze, Hays, Hart, and Gignoux. Mr. Tuckerman, the author, has a pleasant study and library on this floor. On the third story are Gifford, Hubbard, Suydam, Shattuck, Thorndike, Haseltine, de Haas, Brown, Casilear, and Martin. Here they are all together,-- historical figure, portrait, landscape, marine, animal, fruit, and flower painters.”

Since many of these men were either bachelors or commuters, and since McEntee was the only married member of the “fraternity” and his wife was a lively, well-liked hostess, the couple became the center of a spontaneous salon within the Studio Building. Their apartment was the only one that had a kitchenette, and a summons to dinner was highly prized. The McEntees stayed in New York in the winter months, returning to Rondout or the West for the summer to sketch or paint in plein air. In 1868 they went to Europe with Church and his wife, there meeting Sanford Gifford and an army of American expatriates. “Americans are as plentiful here as ants in an ant hill,” Church wrote to his patron William Henry Osborn. American subjects were already on the wane by this time in fashionable art circles, and European subjects seemed commercially prudent.

Church and McEntee and friends wandered and sketched in and around the Roman countryside. Together with George P. A. Healy, the two started working on The Arch of Titus, which was completed back home in 1871. The large oil depicts the three painters in the foreground with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his daughter in the distance. But this was an uncharacteristic and uncomfortable endeavor for McEntee, whose previous paintings in the 1860s had borne such titles as The Melancholy Days, Indian Summer, and Late Autumn. It would not be long before he returned to his muted palette in such works as October Snow (1870); Sea from Shore (1873); and Autumn, Old Mill in Winter, Autumn Day, Wood Path, and Winter in the Mountains (all from 1878). Like Vanderlyn a generation before, McEntee was painting for a market that had slipped away.

When Gertrude died on October 14, 1878 at the age of 44, McEntee stayed on at the Studio, an increasingly morose bachelor. His lifelong tendency to depression, hinted at in the essay on Vanderlyn he wrote in the year of his marriage, took fierce hold of him, as is revealed in his diaries and copious letters. A few months before her death he wrote in his diary, “I am more unhappy than I have ever been before for I have not the faith and hope I once had. It seems a sad conclusion that after twenty years spent in New York during which I had won some distinction to find myself today actually unable to pay my rent and my living.”

In 1876 McEntee had inscribed in his diary, “My Salvation is going on and improving my pictures and it is fear that I may not be able to do this, that often caused me anxiety. There is great danger that a man in need of money will be induced to work for popular favor and so prevent him from following out his own ideas. An artist above all men should be free from money troubles and I think constantly of how I can order my life so as to be independent in this respect.” More than twenty years earlier, writing of Vanderlyn, he had mused: “Too often the melancholy effects of penury and want, silently endured, mark on the surface of fine and sensitive natures, hard and repulsive lines, even while the soul wells up genially and kindly as before; and smothered griefs and disappointments, borne alone and unshared, have often so completely shut out from the sympathy of their fellow-men, the most generous and beautiful of characters, that they for ever moved among them like frowning clouds along the open sky, or glittering icebergs across a summer sea…. Here was the companion of kings and emperors, the friend of Madison and protégé of Burr, with the frost of almost eighty winters upon his head, a heartbroken suppliant in the very village where he was born, and upon which he had reflected so much honor, discouraged and disheartened by the coldness and indifference he had everywhere met, come back to die in the place of his birth, to lay down his reverend head, a beggar among his ungrateful countrymen.”

Like Vanderlyn, McEntee seemed, as in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem on the subject, a “last leaf.”

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.

This 1831 poem was written about Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party who had wandered into old age still wearing his tricorn hat. This defiant if confused gentleman was grandfather to Herman Melville, author of Bartleby the Scrivener, about whom I will write next.

--John Thorn

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Walt Whitman, Hudson River Hall of Famer Posted by Hello

The Hudson River Hall of Fame

From the Woodstock and Kingston Times, March 10, 2005:
Writing this column about the great figures in our region’s remarkably rich past has sparked a big idea, for which I invite your collaboration: to wake the echoes literally in a Hudson River Hall of Fame. Such a setting, whether bricks and mortar or virtual (or, ideally, both), will make the past come alive for young people who think history is something that happens elsewhere and for grownups out of touch with their native sense of place. Uniquely in the Hudson Valley, this cradle of national culture with so many tangible remains of its storied past, ghosts are our everyday neighbors.

To those who would wish to enter into their largely vanished world and learn about how it still shapes us, the Hudson River Hall of Fame is an idea whose time is now. It will bring regional and national attention to its host city and county, and it will extend the educational and community development efforts of the Valley’s museums, libraries, and historical societies.

A hall of fame, as distinguished from a museum, forms a superior educational and inspirational institution for young people especially, focusing as it does on individuals rather than chronological periods, movements, or events (although of course these come into focus soon enough). The physical installation would be the hub for a constellation of web and other media extensions, so that the HRHF will have broad exposure (and in some measure financial support) to a community larger than, say, Ulster County, or New York State. Let me put forward two sites for purposes of example, though possibilities abound throughout the Valley: the Carnegie Library on Broadway in Kingston and the Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, both of them historic buildings crying out for adaptive reuse.

Where would the HRHF be located? Who would pay for it? Who would manage it? These are big questions subject to public debate and political process, but the siting will surely be in one of the ten counties defined as the Hudson River National Heritage Area, whose creation was spurred by the efforts of Congressman Maurice Hinchey. Some level of public funding will be welcome if not absolutely necessary, though I believe it should be in the form of a matching grant; the community that wants to host the HRHF must be able to demonstrate its enthusiasm with contributions in cash or in kind. The HRHF could create its own initially skeletal management infrastructure, but its directors would be wise to tap into the ready audience of the public schools and the knowledge base of the local historical societies.

How would the public be served? Could the HRHF, once founded, sustain itself in whole or in part? How would the candidates be nominated and inducted? These are operational issues, for which useful precedents are available, both of them in the State of New York.

The original American Hall of Fame was not the baseball institution in Cooperstown, which opened its doors in 1939, but the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, dedicated in 1901 on what was then a Bronx campus of New York University. In its early years this brainchild of NYU’s Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken was a sensation, engaging the public and the press in spirited debate about who merited inclusion. The NYU Senate, which acted as a nominating committee back in 1900, received nominations from the public and if seconded by a member of the Senate, that candidate advanced to the vote. Initially 50 outstanding Americans were inducted; five people were to be added each fifth year. Designed by Stanford White as a sweeping semicircular arc with wings at either end, the Hall of Fame’s 630-foot colonnade provides niches for the busts and commemorative plaques of up to 150 honorees.

However, to date the institution has honored only 102 individuals. The election process appears to have stalled as society’s notion of what constitutes fame or greatness has changed over time to become more nearly synonymous with achievement or even that contemptible darling of our day, celebrity. To that point, it is instructive to look at the original 16 categories from which nominees to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans might arise (to quote from the official 1900 “Rules for Election”):

1. Authors (Editors, Poets, Novelists, Philosophers, Economists, etc.).
2. Educators.
3. Preachers, Theologians.
4. Reformers.
5. Scientists.
6. Engineers, Architects.
7. Physicians, Surgeons.
8. Inventors.
9. Missionaries, Explorers.
10. The Military.
11. Lawyers, Judges.
12. Statesmen.
13. Business Men, Philanthropists.
14. Artists (Musicians, Painters, Sculptors, Actors, etc.).
15. Naturalists.
16. Men and Women outside the foregoing classes.

The quaintness of certain of these categories became increasingly evident and eventually stimulated thoughts of companion, if not rival, pantheons. As Richard Rubin wrote in “The Mall of Fame” (Atlantic Monthly, 1997), “It was inevitable that something as popular and prestigious as the Hall of Fame would inspire spinoffs. One of the first was the Baseball Hall of Fame, which opened in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939. Four decades had passed since the establishment of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and the country had changed quite a bit. We had conquered the world’s greatest military power, only to be ourselves laid low by the world’s greatest economic crisis. Radio had emerged and ushered us into the media age. Inventors and scientists and statesmen and thinkers were no longer the heroes of the day. Athletes were. Yet not a single one had made it into the Hall of Fame, and none ever would. The hall’s standards of admission – indeed, its defining mission – made that impossible.”

By honoring achievement in a single field, the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed more in tune with the times. Indeed, its model was so successful that few people today know of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and believe that Cooperstown patented the very notion. Of the 500 or more physical halls of fame in the world today, most of them in the United States, 140 are devoted to sports, and barely a handful are interdisciplinary. If athletes could have their own halls of fame, why couldn’t policemen, businessmen, clowns? Today they do, in Miami Beach, Chicago, and Delavan (Wisconsin), respectively. While many of these institutions seem gratuitous or obscure (Crayola Hall of Fame? Shuffleboard Hall of Fame?), the best halls of fame have done the public a service in following baseball’s model – a shrine that honors its past, highlights its heroes, displays its artifacts, and stimulates research. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was a great idea, but noble statuary in a forlorn venue no longer fires the imagination.

The Hudson River Hall of Fame would aim to provide the best of both models: the specificity and educational thrust of the Baseball Hall of Fame with the sweeping vision of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Artists and architects, novelists and poets, military and political figures, and more … all inductees into the HRHF ought to be “great Americans” – individuals who won renown on a national scale in substantial measure through their regional accomplishments – not merely local bigwigs and benefactors. Noble mayors and revered teachers would not find their names on the ballot unless their accomplishments were notable on a national level.

The HRHF would offer memorials (plaques and artifacts being more likely than busts); permanent, rotating, and circulating exhibits; and interactive kiosks that would link with local and national libraries and museums. It would be a destination for students, a boon to scholars, and a complementary tourist attraction to its home city and the Hudson Valley Greenway. Honorees might include some of the men who have been featured in this column – Alexander Jackson Davis, Andrew Jackson Downing, Calvert Vaux, John Vanderlyn, et al. – as well as such no-brainers as Washington Irving, Robert Fulton, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, George Clinton, Sojourner Truth, George Washington, and on. Finding suitable candidates for nomination and election is a simple if contentious matter. Indeed, it is the contention surrounding each year’s election process that gives continuing interest and media focus to the HRHF’s educational efforts and annual induction event, which might be in the form of a banquet supported by corporations that wish to heighten their standing in the region they serve. Other specifics might include:

1. The annual induction event, constituting a day or a weekend, will be the HRHF promotional centerpiece and will spin off yearlong educational opportunities centered on the new inductees.
2. The HRHF website will be the educational, day-to-day hub of the larger plan. Emphasis will be on Hudson River history education and communication via online collections, virtual exhibitions, chats with prominent figures, and access to a Q&A forum with historians.
3. An HRHF club for children, either as a function of a “Friends of the HRHF” program or free (i.e., corporate-sponsored), with publications, trading cards, discount coupons, etc.
4. A quarterly magazine directed toward young adults that will connect the region’s past to its present, and vice versa, making the pursuit of knowledge relevant and fun.
5. Historians and docents to address schools and community organizations about the HRHF and the story of its members.
6. Documentary Film/Video Production: not for PBS but mini-docs for broadband streaming from the website; student films would be welcome.
7. Interactive Learning Center: a hands-on, “living history” approach to the region’s story.

In a region where adaptive reuse is the watchword, the Hudson River Hall of Fame would give a public-spirited new focus to some grand but troubled old building. It would generate substantial publicity for other historical attractions in the Valley. It would drive daily foot traffic without prohibiting the “private sector” use of the main space to generate income through special events. It would be home to the personalized history of our region, and restore to us our heroes.

In its own description of its mission, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area Program declares its intent to be “to recognize, preserve, protect and interpret the nationally significant cultural and natural resources of the Hudson River Valley for the benefit of the Nation.” Is there a better idea than this out there? Let me know what you think.

--John Thorn

Friday, April 01, 2005

Central Park Bridge, Calvert Vaux Posted by Hello

A.J. Downing gravesite. Photo by Mark Thorn Posted by Hello

Dutch Reformed Church, A.J. Davis. Photo by Mark Thorn Posted by Hello

John Vanderlyn gravesite. Photo by Mark Thorn Posted by Hello

Vanderlyn the Artist

From the Woodstock and Kingston Times, November 15, 2004:
Someone told me, four years ago, that after decades of neglect the old Kingston Hotel at 20 Crown Street had finally been torn down. I knew its story, how in an upstairs room on Thursday evening, September 23, 1852, John Vanderlyn, the man who had once been the most famous painter in America, had died alone without a penny in his pocket. I rushed over to pick among the rubble, like a child imagining that Providence would reveal to me a paintbox, a stickpin, a tangible remnant of the artist and his dream.

The atomized shrine offered nothing, of course, but splintered clapboard and shards of tin ceiling. And I knew full well that Vanderlyn’s legacy was gloriously intact only two streets away, at the Senate House Museum. Yet to revive the meaning of the man and understand his lifelong course against the grain would indeed take some clearing of rubble, filtering through received opinion and modern interpretation, returning to contemporary accounts.

John Vanderlyn was born in Kingston on October 15, 1775. His reasonably prosperous family lived on Green Street, between the still extant Van Keuren and Tappan houses, and was able to send him to the Kingston Academy when he was 11, where he soon became fluent in French as well as in Dutch and English. His early gift for drawing, however, had been a family trait, most evident in his grandfather Pieter, whose portraits survive. At age 16 he sought employment in New York and found it with Thomas Barrow, a print dealer, in whose shop he met Gilbert Stuart, just returned from Paris and already a famous portrait painter. Stuart encouraged Vanderlyn to pursue his studies, which he did at the Robertson brothers’ Columbian Academy of Painting, at 79 Liberty Street, from 1792 through 1794. In 1795 he moved to Philadelphia to apprentice with Stuart, whose portrait of Aaron Burr he copied. The New York senator so admired the oil that he backed the young man’s further education in Paris, where he remained from 1796 to 1801.

At this time there was no nativist tradition of historical painting, nor landscape. Portraiture was the only form of painting that Americans appreciated and, in the days before photography, for which they would pay. Furthermore, American artists of high promise in the years before the Revolution regarded London as their finishing school. As a Democratic-Republican, Burr drew his inspiration from France, not England, the maternal shrine of the Federalists, notably Alexander Hamilton.

Burr’s financial straits in 1798 compelled Vanderlyn to support himself by executing portraits, but his heart was already elsewhere. Studying at the Académie de Peinture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Francois-Andre Vincent, he improved his draughtsmanship, working from life, from old masters, and from antique casts. As James Flexner wrote in The Light of Distant Skies, “This, he was told, was the necessary preparation for painting great historical pictures. When Vincent pulled him away to study landscape he complained — ‘I do not intend to adopt this branch of my art’ — and as for the portrait work of his forbears, he considered it ‘millhouse drudgery.’ Vincent agreed that painting likenesses was a waste of time.”

That concord rendered all of Vanderlyn’s subsequent years fraught with financial peril as he continually failed to make foreign seed sprout in native soil. The painter Samuel F.B. Morse was to become similarly afflicted in his years of study in Paris; returning home with a passion to paint grand allegorical subjects, he found a public that admired only his commissioned portraits. Where Morse eventually turned away from painting altogether, devoting his energies to invention (the telegraph, of course, but also the first American photograph), Vanderlyn tried to make his art palatable through entrepreneurial ventures.

“The tide of utility sets against the fine arts,” Thomas Cole once said, and the observation is equally apt today. The European tradition of patronage of the arts — and individual artists — was as yet unmatched in America, where those with money were dedicated only to acquiring more of it. This devotion to the almighty dollar earned the scorn of Europeans, who believed that pursuing amusement was the key to enjoying life. All the same, Vanderlyn returned in 1801 to find commissions stacked up in advance, as Aaron Burr was now Vice President of the United States and thus restored to financial health. In the two years before his return to Europe, Vanderlyn painted portraits not only of his patron but also of his daughter Theodosia, a famous beauty in her day and a captivating heroine in Gore Vidal’s historical novel Burr.

Edward and Robert Livingston of the New-York Academy of Fine Arts, newly formed to import popular casts to sell by subscription, funded Vanderlyn’s trip in 1803 by assigning him to return with copies of old paintings and sculpture from Paris, Florence, and Rome, in return for which he would receive a salary and a line of credit. However, once again the artist’s financial tether to America was cut without notice. Scrambling for commission work, Vanderlyn managed to create three of the paintings regarded then and now as his masterpieces: The Death of Jane McCrea, Caius Marius Amidst the Ruins of Carthage, and Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos. The first was notable for its bosomy victim and the last for its scandalously undraped nude form.

Marius won a medal from Emperor Napoleon in 1808 as the best painting exhibited at the Paris Salon, but Vanderlyn later sold it cheaply and pawned the medal twice. It was Ariadne and a copy of Correggio’s Antiope that inspired him to visions of filthy lucre. He speculated that while such pictures might prove too naked “for the house of a private individual … on that account it may attract a greater crowd if exhibited publicly.” Ariadne is important as the first formal nude in American art, but is more important in the history of hucksterism, with which the sale and public display of art in America has so often been linked.

When Vanderlyn returned to the States he had his former benefactor Burr in tow, traveling under a pseudonym after four years of ignominious exile in France. Having shot Hamilton dead in the duel at Weehawken in 1804, Burr followed with an adventure in Western expansion that brought a treason charge upon his head. Hounded and broke, Burr returned to New York only because Vanderlyn paid his passage by painting portraits of three fellow passengers.

In 1816, Vanderlyn opened his first American exhibition in New York. In it, he exhibited Ariadne, Marius, his Antiope, portraits of James Monroe and James Madison, and copies of paintings by the masters. Separate viewings were arranged for men and women; America was not France. The exhibition toured Philadelphia, Charleston, Montreal, Washington, and Boston, but lost money.

Those with money may think about art, fancying themselves artists but for lack of time if not talent. Artists, however, are always thinking about money.

When Vanderlyn had applied to the New-York Academy of Fine Arts, the organization that had sent him to Europe in 1803, to display his Ariadne, he was turned down on the grounds that his painting offended public decency. Now he leapt upon an idea he had nurtured since 1814-15, when he had sketched the palace and gardens of Versailles. Not only would he paint a panorama of unprecedented scale and beauty -- the form had been invented by the Scottish painter Robert Barker, who exhibited in Edinburgh in 1788 a panoramic view of that city -- he would also construct and manage a building for its exhibition. He would curry no favor with societies and academies but appeal directly to the public, a public that might otherwise never see the splendor of France.

On March 31, 1817, Vanderlyn the Entrepreneur announced his plan to erect a rotunda for the exhibition of panoramic as well as conventional art at Chambers and Cross Streets, directly east of the despised Academy of Fine Arts. He soon solicited $14,000 (a huge sum at a time when average annual salaries ran to $250) from 100 patrons, including John Jacob Astor. He persuaded the Common Council to grant him a ten-year lease of the land in exchange for one peppercorn, as the city’s demonstration of its newfound recognition that New York had been “too long stigmatized as phlegmatic, money making & plodding.” At the conclusion of the lease, however, the building would devolve to the city, and the proprietor’s right to renew was not assured.

Theodore S. Fay, in Views of New-York and Its Environs (1831), wrote of the Rotunda, which was constructed during the summer of 1818: “It is constructed of brick, is fifty-three feet in diameter, and forty feet in height, surmounted with a pantheon-shaped dome and skylight, through which the interior is lighted.” Among the panoramas exhibited were “the palace and gardens of Versailles, painted by Mr. Vanderlyn, and the city of Paris, by Mr. Barker; also, the cities of Mexico and Athens, and the city and lake of Geneva….”

On October 6, 1818, this gem of a building opened not with The Palace and Gardens of Versailles, which Vanderlyn had been busily painting in both New York and in Kingston, but instead with Barker’s City of Paris as the panoramic offering. This was followed on January 22, 1819 by the Attack of the Allied Forces on Paris. Vanderlyn’s panorama, complete at 3,000 square feet of canvas, 167 feet long and 12 feet high (early reports pegged its height as 18 feet), debuted on May 26, 1820. It was a sensation, and was soon mimicked by a “Cosmorama” at Scudder’s Museum (predecessor of P.T. Barnum’s American Musum, and housed in the same building with the Academy of Fine Arts). However, Versailles was not a financial success, having cost so much to execute that it could never be exhibited at profit.

Vanderlyn’s hold on the Rotunda was threatened. On December 6, 1824, he petitioned the City for extension of his lease and was denied. Still hoping to win approval, he invited members of the Common Council to attend the debut of a new panorama of the City of Athens on July 18, 1825. Not only were they unmoved, but the vultures were circling above. On May 8, 1826, the newly formed National Academy of Design petitioned the Common Council for a lease of the Rotunda. Vanderlyn had been approached to be one of its founding members, but thus betrayed he declined the invitation, the only artist to do so. A month later Dr. Hosack, creator of the city’s botanical garden, and others also petitioned for the lease. Despite entreaties by Vanderlyn’s friends, on March 23, 1829, the Common Council ordered him to vacate.

Financially crushed and embittered, he kept body and soul together with private commissions for portraits. He took the panorama on tour in the 1830s, frequently stopping at Kingston, where his siblings, nieces, and nephews still resided. A large government grant came his way to paint one of eight panels of the Capitol rotunda with a historical painting of Columbus, for which he traveled to Cuba for research. By the time this latter commission came to him he was in his sixties and enlisted the assistance of French limners, a concession to age for which he was excoriated in the press.

All the while Vanderlyn was abroad, readying his Landing of Columbus, the panorama of Versailles lay rolled up in storage in Kingston, under the watchful eye of his nephew, John Vanderlyn Jr., himself an artist of some ability. After the painting’s creator died in 1852, the nephew continued to secure it until his own death, when it passed to his sister Catharine, a dressmaker who lived at 44 Green Street. Upon her death it descended to the Senate House Association, which had neither the funding nor the venue to exhibit it. In 1952 Senate House made a gift of the panorama to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it may be seen today in very nearly its original magnificence, in a specially constructed oval room. (The Rotunda’s architect had been Martin Euclid Thompson, whose most notable work may have been the 1822 Branch Bank at 15-1/2 Wall Street, whose full façade also adorns the American Wing of the Met.)

Vanderlyn’s Rotunda improbably survived, first as a naturalization office, then as a marine court of sessions; after the Great Fire of December 1835 that destroyed much of lower Manhattan, it served as the city’s post office. For two years in the 1840s it became once again an art gallery, and then was refitted as city office space in 1848. When it was demolished in 1870, there were few who recalled Vanderlyn’s panorama. A generation later there were few who recalled Vanderlyn; at a May 27, 1892 auction in Kingston, his painting of George Washington, now on display at Senate House, was knocked down at five dollars.

Why does this obstinate artist seem more significant today than he did a century ago? Not because he was a formidable painter, though he was; not because he withered sadly, though he did. Not for the carny-barker wink with which he exhibited Ariadne, nor the optimism and ambition with which he created the Rotunda. I think it is because his struggles and triumphs epitomize the ever swirling waltz of art and money, which he mastered no better than we. I like to imagine that when the money was gone, and life very nearly so, he saw what truly endures.


In 1842 an indifferent engraving by Stephen Alonso Schoff of Vanderlyn’s Marius was a gift to subscribers of the Apollo Association, an entrepreneurial venture on behalf of American artists that unlike the Rotunda succeeded wildly. As Russell Lynes wrote in The Tastemakers, “The scheme was this: People were invited to pay $5 for an annual subscription to the Apollo Association. Each subscriber would then receive ‘a large and costly Original Engraving from an American painting.’ He would also receive a ticket with a number on it which would entitle him to a long shot at one of a number of genuine, hand-painted pictures by American artists in an annual lottery to be held by the Association….”

In 1844 the Apollo Association changed its name to the American Art-Union, and its membership rose to more than 2,000. In 1848 it distributed more than 450 prize paintings, for which the Art-Union had paid the artists $40,907. When Thomas Cole’s painting Youth was chosen for the gift engraving (it was part of the series called “The Voyage of Life”) and was also one of the grand prizes, the number of subscribers jumped to 18,960. The stimulus to American art and artists was overwhelming … but the courts struck the Art-Union down for violating the anti-lottery laws, and by 1851 it was dead.

Now that anti-lottery laws are themselves dead (“ya gotta be in it ta win it”), isn’t it time to revive this idea?

--John Thorn

Silent Partner: Calvert Vaux

From the Kingston and Woodstock Times, December 23, 2004:
On Wednesday July 28, 1852, the red-hot boilers of the steamer Henry Clay exploded just short of Yonkers, flinging passengers and crew into the Hudson. Two days later The New York Times continued its coverage of the catastrophe, in which to that point 47 bodies had been located. “The workmen who are engaged in grappling for the dead assert their belief, that there are yet many more bodies lying under the wreck, which bears upon them, and fearing they would mutilate the remains they deferred extricating them, until such times as the timbers can be raised. While scouring the bottom of the river, pieces of clothing were hooked up with the grapples, but the bodies could not be pulled out, unless tearing the limbs and flesh.”

On the very afternoon of the catastrophe, the Westchester County Coroner impaneled a jury to commence taking testimony from the survivors, even as bodies were being piled along the beach, “covered over with green branches from the woods adjacent” to resist decomposition in the summer heat. Caroline Downing had been rescued and was taken home to await news about her celebrated husband, Andrew Jackson Downing (the subject of last week’s column), who had last been seen on the top deck, throwing wooden chairs to those already in the water.

As corpses continued to be brought on shore through the night of the 28th, Calvert Vaux stood watch. The 27-year old Englishman had come to America not even two years before, to be Downing’s architectural assistant and soon business partner. By mid-Thursday, he would address the coroner’s inquest, as The New York Times reported:

“As to the body of ANDREW JACKSON DOWNING, Calvert Vaux was called and sworn: I reside at Newburg; I am the partner of deceased in business; I was not on board of the Clay; I have seen the body of Mr. DOWNING, and recognized it [the Albany Argus further quoted Vaux as saying, ‘it was taken Out from near the wreck’]; deceased was thirty-six years of age; I have no doubt of the identity; deceased was drowned from the Henry Clay; he was accompanied by the following persons: Mrs. DOWNING, (saved;) Mrs. DE WINT, (lost.) wife of JOHN PETER DE WINT, Fishkill; FRANK DE WINT, MARY C. DE WINT, (saved;) and Mrs. MATILDA WADSWORTH, lost.)” [sic as to spelling and punctuation]

One week after the wreck of the Henry Clay, the death toll had risen to 70, and the heart-rending testimony of confusion, despair, and heroism riveted the nation. But now Calvert Vaux, stranger in a strange land, bereft of his mentor and friend, feared that his career might well become casualty No. 71. He had been the architectural partner in Downing & Vaux, the backroom wizard who executed the commissions that the flamboyant Downing drew to the firm through his transcendentalist literary musings. On August 5, Vaux placed this whistling-in-the graveyard notice in the classified section of The New York Times:

“DOWNING & VAUX ARCHITECTS, Newburg—In consequence of the death of Mr. DOWNING, the business of the firm is now carried on by his surviving partner, Mr. CALVERT VAUX, and all communications addressed to him at Newburg will be immediately attended to. Mr. VAUX has been in close professional connection with Mr. DOWNING from the time that he commenced the practice of Architecture, and trusts for a continuance of the confidence that has been extended to the firm.”

And somehow it worked. Clients flocked to Vaux & Withers (Frederick Clarke Withers, whom Downing had imported from England the year after Vaux) as they had to Downing & Vaux. The duo set up shop in Crawford House, today the home of Newburgh’s historical society, and they worked together fruitfully. The Tuscan and Elizabethan villas that Downing had favored soon became the pointy, ecclesiastical Gothic Revival style in which both young Englishman had apprenticed in London. Now the firm’s designs were being executed in stone as well as in the wood that Downing and his mentor, Alexander Jackson Davis, had favored in the 1840s. By 1857 Vaux would publish a well-received pattern book of his own, Villas and Cottages; a year later he would win the most important commission of his life, for Central Park in New York; and for the next thirty-five years or so he would remain a vital force in American architecture—landscape, domestic, and institutional.

But none of this came easily to Calvert Vaux, who after he left Newburgh in 1857 seemed always to need the sheltering arm of a business partner to win the job, to navigate the political thickets, to be the public face while he worked in relative privacy. He had been content to play Lou Gehrig to Downing’s Babe Ruth, even while holding a highly skeptical view of his mentor’s technical competence. In the years to come he would seek the partnership of Frederick Law Olmsted yet grumble more openly about laboring in his formidable shadow.

Calvert Bowyer Vaux had been born at the house of his father’s practice as “surgeon and apothecary” at 36 Pudding Lane, London on December 20, 1824. When the senior Vaux suffered a stroke in 1831 and died soon afterward, the gifted boy’s chance for an education was threatened. Yet he was accepted as a “worthy lad” (without tuition charges) at the Merchant Taylors’ School, where he continued until age 14. He left without graduating to apprentice with architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, whose specialty was in Gothic churches and the occasional commission for Gothicated homes. Vaux made some money on the side by lettering railroad maps, enough so that he could tour Europe a bit, but he recognized that his prospects in England were not rosy, so when Downing offered him a passage to America and a job, he leapt at it.

In the year that Downing fetched Vaux he also proposed a new location for a vast public park in New York City — a Central Park that would be located between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, running north from 59th Street. Poet William Cullen Bryant had proposed a public park six years earlier, but his idea was to place it along the yet rustic eastern shore of Manhattan Island, on the site then known as Jones’ Wood. “The heats of summer are upon us,” Bryant wrote, “and while some are leaving the town for shady retreats in the country, others refresh themselves with short excursions to Hoboken or New Brighton, or other places among the beautiful environs of our city. If the public authorities who expend so much of our money in laying out the city, would do what is in their power, they might give our vast population an extensive pleasure ground for shade and recreation in these sultry afternoons, which we might reach without going out of town…. All large cities have their extensive public grounds and gardens, Madrid and Mexico their Alamedas, London its Regent’s Park, Paris its Champs Elysées, and Vienna its Prater. There are none of them, we believe, which have the same natural advantages of the picturesque and beautiful which belong to this spot.”

By 1851 Downing’s vision won out over Bryant’s, as New York State passed enabling legislation so that a large parcel could be purchased by the city in mid-Manhattan. After amendment in 1853, by which time Downing was out of the picture, purchases commenced and continued until 1856, elongating the park’s territory from 59th Street to 106th Street (and in 1863 up to 110th Street). In 1857, at the urging of one of the installed commissioners, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) applied for the position of superintendent of the park’s development … and somehow won it. The commissioners then announced a competition for design of the entire park grounds. Of the 33 anonymously submitted entries, the one named “Greensward” was adjudged the winner — and was then revealed to have been submitted by Olmsted and Vaux in collaboration.

How did these two come to put their heads together? Surely Vaux realized that he had no political cachet; being the artistic successor to the nation’s leading landscape architect may have been an honor, but it was not enough to prevail with the Tammany crew. Olmsted was neither an engineer nor an architect, but he came from a notable Hartford family and his newspaper and political connections were solid. Also, he had come to Newburgh to sit at the feet of Downing in 1851, at which time he and Vaux may have met. Olmsted called himself a “practical farmer” — that is, one who was convinced, like Downing, that planned landscape, agriculture, and horticulture should serve a social and democratic purpose — yet at this time he was principally a journalist. Soon after meeting with Downing, he would be off to England for a stroll through the southern countryside that would become, in book form, Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England, published by his father’s friend George Putnam. Vaux certainly read this book, and was impressed.

In Liverpool Olmsted paused to admire Joseph Paxton’s 120-acre Birkenhead Park, which he described in Walks and Talks. This park, which because it was paid for with tax dollars was dedicated to public use, had also made quite an impression on Vaux. As Richard Amero observed, “Following the example of Regent’s Park in London, Birkenhead Commissioners amortized the costs of developing the park by selling home-building lots surrounding the site. One of the chief reasons for developing public parks from that time onward was that they would enhance property values and increase city revenues.” This point, with its vast potential for money-making, was not lost on New York’s political set.

Once the Greensward plan was anointed, Olmsted miraculously moved up from superintendent to architect-in-charge and chief engineer — no matter that he had been been trained for neither position. Vaux, to his chagrin, was named assistant to Olmsted though later he was elevated to “consulting architect.” As Amero notes, “Possessed with many well-placed friends and an easy fluency in speaking and writing, Olmsted so overshadowed Vaux that commentators referred to Olmsted as the designer of the parks that he and Vaux created together.” This held true not only for Central Park but also for Prospect Park in Brooklyn, the Riverside suburban development outside Chicago, the interconnected park system of Buffalo, and the State Reservation at Niagara Falls … to name just a handful of the Olmsted-Vaux collaborations to follow. The great landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr., who was Vaux’s last partner, noted: “Mr. Olmsted was a leader of men, a man of magnetism and charm, a literary genius, but hardly the creative artist that Mr. Vaux was.”

Vaux and Olmsted worked together for all but one year in the period 1858 to 1878, forming the firm Olmsted, Vaux and Company in 1865. Other notable architects to work with Vaux in subsequent years included Jacob Wrey Mould, with whom he designed the original buildings of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, as well as George Kent Radford, Samuel Parsons, Jr. and of course Fred Withers, with whom he created the fabulously polychromatic Jefferson Market Courthouse, now used as a library, in Greenwich Village.

Vaux served as Landscape Architect for New York City from 1881 until his death, often with stormy outbursts, threatened resignations, and ultimate acceptance of political featherbedding where professional architectural work was called for. The Tweed Ring had been run out of town, but they were replaced by new frock-coated racketeers. He no longer had Olmsted to run interference for him, and observers noted that his mood and demeanor suffered.

As New York affairs increasingly ground him down. Vaux began to spend more time in Kingston (Rondout, actually). He had married a Rondout girl, Mary Swan McEntee, sister of Hudson River School landscapist Jervis McEntee, in 1854; they had two sons and two daughters. The family liked to put on theatrical programs at the Sampson House (also known as The Opera House, later as the Kingston Freeman building, and today as the site of the restaurant Mariners’ Harbor). Vaux designed a number of residences in Rondout or Ponckhockie, all now vanished.

Vaux is buried in Kingston’s Montrepose Cemetery, in the same row as Jervis McEntee and other members of their families, even though he died in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, while visiting his son Bowyer. He walked off the end of a pier into Gravesend Bay, and while the family maintained he was confused and had left the house on a foggy day to take a walk without bringing along his eyeglasses, the newspapers reported the death as a suicide. From The Brooklyn Eagle of November 21, 1895, the day of the drowning:

“A workman on Fry’s coal dock first saw the body being tossed about in the rough water, but when he rushed to the shore to secure the corpse it disappeared. It was some minutes later before Mr. Fry himself saw it drifting alongside the bulkhead out to sea again. With a boat hook he succeeded in bringing it close to shore…. It was finally necessary for someone to go right in after it…. The son was much affected. He made the identification certain by examining the marks on the clothing, not daring to trust himself to look at the features.”

In a final, touching collaboration with Olmsted, the pair had reunited in 1889 to design Newburgh’s Downing Park, in tribute to the man who had inspired both of them and who had made Central Park possible. Vaux would not live to see it completed in 1896, and by that time Olmsted was confined to an insane asylum, so the project was completed by their sons, Downing Vaux and John C. Olmsted.

W.E. Warren House, Montgomery Street, Newburgh
Crawford House, Montgomery Street, Newburgh (Vaux offices in mid-1850s)
Rev. E.J. O’Reilly House, 55 Grand Street, Newburgh (with Withers)
Halsey R. Stevens House, 182 Grand Street (with Withers)
(Former) Design Studio for Jervis McEntee, Rondout NY (site: Dietz Court)
(Former) Samuel D. Coykendall House, Rondout 1890-92 (with Radford)
Olana (Vaux initial design, later changed by the owner, painter Frederic Church)
Idlewild at Cornwall, commissioned as home of poet N.P. Willis, now drastically altered
Hoyt House, Staatsburg (in spectacular ruin on grounds of Ogden & Ruth Mills State Park)
Hall-Rice Building, Troy (featured in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence)
National Arts Club, Gramercy Park, NYC (former Samuel J. Tilden residence)
Hudson River State Hospital and Grounds, Poughkeepsie (with Olmsted and Withers)
Wildertstein (Vaux landscape design)
Montrepose (Vaux burial site)
Downing Park, Newburgh (two Vauxes, two Olmsteds)

--John Thorn

Alexander Jackson Davis, Picturesque American

From The Kingston and Woodstock Times, November 24, 2004:
I collect buildings, the way some people collect baseball cards or lovers: the more seemingly unattainable the object of my desire, the more ardent is my longing. While buildings that escape the wrecker’s ball have tangible charms, those that have been lost, or survive in ruin and whose loss is imminent, are to me most romantic, most alluring. Reconstruction, however responsible (think Williamsburg, Virginia), is to me a bore, a classroom diorama for credulous grownups. Renovation is a term that gives me the willies, too; well-intentioned but ghastly examples may be found around the corner. Restoration and preservation, however, are decidedly on the side of the angels – and there is a spectacular work in progress in our midst, in the architectural museum that is Newburgh, about which there is more to be said.

Galvanically attractive to me are the buildings that never were – the ones that were planned but never built, those that failed to prevail in civic competitions, or the flights of fancy that architects sketched knowing they would never be built. That is why I like reading about buildings almost as much as I do visiting them, or prowling around their former sites, sensing the presence of ghosts in a most agreeable manner.

For more than a decade my regular companion on such literary or actual perambulations has been Alexander Jackson Davis (1803 – 1892), an architect who worked in a dazzling variety of styles: Greek Revival, Italianate or Tuscan, Gothic Revival, Tudor, Egyptian, Swiss. He invented the style we know as "Hudson River Bracketed," which Edith Wharton referenced in her 1929 novel of the same name. He co-designed the first apartment building in America in 1833 (La Grange Terrace or Colonnade Row in New York), and beginning twenty years later he designed Llewellyn Park, in East Orange, New Jersey, America's first great picturesque suburban community – a continuous landscape of winding streets, shaded sidewalks, and undulating lawns.

But if there is one word to describe the vast terrain over which Davis was master, it would be Picturesque. His buildings have survived to an astonishing extent (although many splendid examples were razed in the name of progress) and his own copiously detailed record of his life and art has been preserved in four major collections, all in New York City: the Avery Library at Columbia University, the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is from the collections of the Met that I obtained Davis’s serene plan for “A Villa in the Italian Style,” for which construction commenced in 1836 at Rondout on the Hudson (since 1870 a part of Kingston). The precise site of this villa has continued to elude me, despite research among Ulster County deeds of the period, but it is likely that the land was owned by Smillie’s father-in-law, Lambert Van Valkenburg. Alas, the avant-garde residence was abandoned halfway when the expense began to overwhelm the client, New York City engraver James Smillie, who like Davis had won fame with his delineations for the New-York Mirror.

Davis was an artist whose renderings of New York buildings in the 1820s had been so widely admired that painters John Trumbull and Rembrandt Peale advised him to turn his hand to architecture. Joining Ithiel Town and Martin Euclid Thompson as an “architectural composer,” Davis designed public buildings and even residences in the Greek Revival style that was the firm’s hallmark. Among his many notable commissions in this style were the home of poet James Hillhouse in New Haven, Connecticut (demolished in 1943), the Custom House in New York (which survives on Wall Street as the Federal Hall Memorial), and the Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh (deconsecrated in 1967 but still holy to those who revere fine buildings).

By 1836 Davis had parted ways with Town (and with James Dakin, who had joined the practice after Thompson left it; it was Dakin with whom Davis had designed La Grange Terrace). His work at Blithewood for patron Robert Donaldson had convinced him that Grecian temples in rustic settings constituted a wretched excrescence. Donaldson (1800-72) was a Carolinian who not only commissioned Davis to design Blithewood but also a key addition to Edgewater, Donaldson’s later residence at Barrytown that may be seen from the west bank of the Hudson (it remains a private residence to this day). Donaldson was also one of the sponsors of Davis’s only book, Rural Residences, in 1838.

By 1841 Davis would supply designs for the first of many books by Andrew Jackson Downing, for whom, like Davis, Donaldson was a most sympathetic patron. The two AJDs collaborated throughout the ensuing decade to cure Americans of the “Greek temple disease,” as Downing put it, and to embrace a picturesque style that became known as Hudson River Gothic, and ultimately American Gothic. Their most harmonious hands-on collaboration of landscape and architecture is permanently on view at Montgomery Place, just a bit further north.

The first Gothic Revival cottage in America was the now demolished structure erected for Donaldson at Blithewood and depicted in Rural Residences: “This building has been erected in Dutchess County, near Barrytown, on the Hudson River, as a gate-house to Blithewood, the seat of R. DONALDSON, Esq. Its prominent features are the rustic porch, bay and mullioned windows, high gables, with ornamented carved vergeboards, and the chimney-shafts. The form and size of the mullion is of considerable importance in giving the cottage window its peculiar character. The bay, or projecting window, and picturesque chimney-tops, are also distinguishing features in this style of building. If this design should be adopted for a summer retreat, it may be much improved by enlarging the porch and windows.”

In 2001 Bard College students began excavating around the former structure, in preparation for the siting of the new Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a Frank Gehry design. Due to the historic significance of the Blithewood site, and the discovery of significant artifacts, the college decided to relocate the facility a mile north. In absentia, Davis’s rustic cottage at Blithewood forms a ghostly tandem with Smillie’s white elephant across the Hudson, each the progenitor of a style. However, still standing is Davis’s bracketed gatehouse for Donaldson, which functions as a part of Bard College and may be seen along the Annandale Road. And a fine example of Davis’s pointed Gothic style may be enjoyed – even as an overnight guest – at the house Davis designed in 1844 for Henry Delameter at 44 Montgomery Street in Rhinebeck; today it serves as a guest house of the venerable Beekman Arms.

Driving south on Route 9 from Montgomery Place, Bard College and Rhinebeck, we come to another significant Davis monument: the additions commissioned by painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse to Locust Grove, the home he purchased in 1847. I cannot think of that lovely mansion without envying its billiard room.

Further south, in Tarrytown, one comes upon what many regard as Davis’s greatest Gothic Revival work, Lyndhurst. Designed in 1838 for William and Philip Paulding (when it was called The Knoll) and greatly enlarged in 1867 for George Merritt, Lyndhurst may be the most complete Davis tour de force; he even designed the Gothic furniture. Yet fantastic as it is, my sentiments are not much different from those of Philip Hone, who wrote in his celebrated diary of a visit to The Knoll in July 1841:

“In the course of our drive, we went to see Mr. William Paulding’s magnificent house, yet unfinished, on the bank below Tarrytown. It is an immense edifice of white or gray marble, resembling a baronial castle, or rather a Gothic monastery, with towers, turrets, and trellises ; minarets, mosaics, and mouse-holes; archways, armories, and air-holes ; peaked windows and pinnacled roofs, and many other fantastics too tedious to enumerate, the whole constituting an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it; great cost and little comfort, which, if I mistake not, will one of these days be designated as ‘Paulding’s Folly.’”

Jumping back across the Hudson at last to Newburgh, I must report that the Dutch Reformed Church is my favorite extant Davis building. Stately, vast, monolithic, and noble, its exterior belies a delicate jewel of an interior that has been unseen for generations except on special open-house days. (See sidebar below for details about visiting this and other Davis sites in the region). Improbably extant despite decades of neglect, the DRC has at last been designated a National Historic Landmark and its preservation and restoration now seem assured.

While my private pleasure will continue to be the buildings that aren’t there or never were, my public delight is in the survivors, the buildings that bear testament to other times, other views of the nation and the cosmos. As citizens of both, we cannot leave the fate of our heritage to the academics and the experts anymore than we can trust that public officials will act as guardians of history. Preservation may sometimes appear to be public policy but it is always personal duty; how we regard our past says much about our future.

Davis Buildings in the Hudson Valley

Plumb-Bronson House
Worth Ave (Route 9), Hudson. Perhaps the earliest “Hudson River Bracketed” residence. For generations the best way to see this building has been to commit a felony, as it is located on the grounds of a state prison. I drove up to it a few years ago and was told in no uncertain terms to turn around by an officer who thought I was there to facilitate a jailbreak. Recently listed as a National Historic Landmark, this Davis gem may soon be open to the public.

Montgomery Place
River Road (Route 103), Annandale-on-Hudson
Expanded over time by the Livingston family. Davis renovated the structure in 1842 and
again in the 1860s. Downing’s horticultural and landscaping genius are evident.

Locust Grove
2683 South Road (Route 9), Poughkeepsie.
Davis added two wings to the north and south, creating the octagon, porte-cochère
and billiards room to the east, plus a four-story tower.

Dutch Reformed Church
120 Grand St, Newburgh.
“Open House” 12-4 on December 12 as part of the Newburgh Historical Society’s Candlelight Tour. According to J. Winthrop Aldrich, former New York Deputy Commissioner of Historic Preservation, the DRC is “the greatest surviving ecclesiastical commission of America's greatest architect of the era.”

635 S. Broadway, Tarrytown.
A National Historic Landmark, the house is owned and operated by the
National Trust for Historic Preservation.

--John Thorn

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