Architects of Newburyport: Andrew Jackson Downing

andrew_downingThe second most influential architect in Newburyport behind Asher Benjamin is Andrew J. Downing.      Again, like Asher Benjamin, he more than likely never stepped foot inside the boundaries of Newburyport – but if you begin to stroll along High Street and especially in the North End, you will find his legacy no matter which direction you look.

It was he that was the primary force behind lesser architects who copied his ideas from his design books and propagated the styles he promoted.      His ideas rode on the back of the American industrial revolution and the single, most important idea that most Americans could live in well-styled, efficient, yet low-priced houses that offered many features which previously only mansions could afford.      Not only did his design books take off, his ideas were the first to be spread by magazines – which were catching on in America in the middle and late 19th century.

Downing’s most important work was his Architecture of Country Houses (1850), which passed through nine editions by 1866, and served as the style-book for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of homes throughout the eastern United States. It contains thirty-four designs for model homes (country house in this context simply meaning a separate house, as opposed to a town house), with elevations, floor plans, and discussion of design, construction, and function. The English country house of the period is the ground style, upon which other styles are overlaid: designs showing Gothic, French, Italian and Elizabethan styles allow the user considerable choice. In many ways these designs form one of the first steps toward the modern house, with avowed emphasis on function and convenience, expression of personality, universality of taste, and concord with environment. Decoration, of course, was not frowned upon.

Not only did he share his designs – he extensively provided commentaries as to why every aspect of the Victorian house should be done and the reasoning behind every feature.     His idea was the closest to a modern architect’s concern: focusing on aesthetics and adjustment to locality.     He touched on a wide range of subjects: aesthetic concerns of architecture, adjustment to locality, materials, construction, costs, floor plan, roofing, shingling, painting, chimneys and fireplaces, interior woodwork, wallpapering, decoration, furnishing, ventilation, sanitation, central heating, and landscaping.     Since most of the houses concerned have been destroyed or altered (Thankfully, Newburyport is one of the 8.3% of communities in which these homes are still preserved.), and practically no living situations have been preserved, this book is indispensable to everyone interested in early American culture, interior decoration, restoration, or Victorian architecture. It is far and away the richest source for the period.

His Life

Andrew Jackson Downing, (October 31, 1815-July 28, 1852) the leading American garden writer and garden designer of his day, was born in Newburgh, New York and was a life-long resident.    Downing edited The Horticulturalist and wrote a Treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, adapted to North America (1841). This book has a chapter on ‘Landscape or rural architecture’ which must be the source from which Olmsted took the term ‘landscape architecture’. It was Andrew Jackson Downing who persuaded Frederick Law Olmsted’s future partner, Calvert Vaux, to move from England to America. Andrew Jackson Downing was a protagonist for public parks [my accents, NRA) and had he not drowned at the age of 36 it is likely that Downing, rather than Olmsted, would have received the commission to design Central Park in New York.

 

American horticulturist and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing was interested in all aspects of nature and how people might gain pleasure and benefit from it.

His father was a wheelwright and later a nurseryman. He had little formal education but learned a good deal from reading, corresponding with innumerable professional horticulturists in America and abroad, and his own keen observation. When the father died in 1822, the eldest son took over the nursery business, later joined by Andrew. In 1837 Andrew bought his brother’s share of the business. The following year he married Caroline E. DeWint, a grandniece of President John Quincy Adams.

For the next 14 years Downing improved his knowledge of horticulture by study and long, observant walks in the nearby hills. He published the results of his research in the horticultural magazines of Europe and the United States and in his several books. The Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841) introduced him to the American public, which gradually came to consider Downing the leading authority on the subject. He frequently received commissions for landscape projects, even from the Federal government. When his book reached England, it was highly praised.

Downing’s interest in the art of landscaping led him to inquire into the relationship of the countryside to the country house and vice versa, so that several of his later books are important for their theories on architectural style. Always deeply concerned with nature, Downing thought of houses as a part of nature, and he designed them to fit their surroundings. Cottage Residences (1842) was the first of Downing’s writings to assert that the house must fit its site.

In 1845 Downing returned to a strictly horticultural work, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, a popular book that went through many editions and contributed to his prestige as a pomologist (Scientific discipline in the study of fruit and cultivation techniques). The next year he became editor of a newly founded magazine, Horticulturist. Returning to architecture again, he published Additional Notes and Hints to Persons about Building in This Country (1849). His most important book on architecture, Architecture of Country Houses, was published in 1850. In that same year Downing traveled to England, where he saw the great gardens and country landscapes he had known only from books. On his return to America he enlisted the services of Calvert Vaux as his business partner in landscape and architectural commissions. In 1851 they worked on the U.S. Capitol and the White House grounds and on estates on Long Island and in the Hudson River valley.

Downing’s death on July 28, 1852, while escorting his wife and others on a boat ride down the Hudson River, is a story of heroism and tragedy. The boat caught fire from engines overheated by its negligent captain, who was attempting to outrace another boat to New York City. As people jumped overboard, Downing threw chairs to them as life preservers, and he was evidently swallowed by the river as he tried to save those unable to swim.

I strongly feel that the single most important message coming from Mr. Downing is the importance of setting.    A house in itself becomes a centerpiece in landscaping and I might add, as he would agree, the importance of streetscape.      Our recent efforts in this city to protect the general look and feel of Newburyport are reinforced historically by his writings.

It was primarily his pattern books that heavily influenced our city’s Italianate, Gothic, Second Empire, Stick and Queen Anne styles and his idea of picking and choosing unique design combinations.

I also feel that if he was alive today, he would be overjoyed by how Newburyport as a community has become a collective garden mixed with parks with each homeowner adding their particular enhancements making us truly one of the most beautiful cities in America.

-P. Preservationist
www.ppreservationist.com

 

References:

The memoir by George W. Curtis in Downing’s posthumously published Rural Essays (1853).

George B. Tatum’s introduction to a recent edition of Downing’s Architecture of Country Houses (1968)

Downing’s work is also discussed in Marie Luise Gothein, A History of Garden Art, Vol. 2 (trans. 1928).

Downing, A. J. (Andrew Jackson), Pleasure grounds: Andrew Jackson Downing and Montgomery Place, Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1988.

Schuyler, David, Apostle of taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. □

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This entry was posted in Architecture, Economics, gardens, History, Landscapes, Local Historic Districts (LHD), Parks, Preservation, Streetscape, Streetscapes, Trees. Bookmark the permalink.

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