A.J. Downing & His Legacy


A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, adapted to North America: with a view to improvement of country residences... ; with remarks on rural architecture. Frontispiece. Portrait of A. J. Downing.

Frontispiece featuring a portrait of A. J. Downing, A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1859. AA9552 D752

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Andrew Jackson Downing was born on October 31, 1815, in Newburgh, New York, the son of a nurseryman. He was the youngest child of the family, and likely named for Andrew Jackson, future President of the United States, but known at the time as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, which took place December 1814-January 1815.

In his lifetime, Downing transformed the family property he inherited into a showplace of landscape design, punctuated by a Gothic Revival house (demolished in 1922). He and his wife, Caroline, (who was a great-niece of President John Quincy Adams) were famous for their gracious hospitality and sparkling conversation, and they entertained famous artists, botanists, and writers almost continuously at their home during the 1840s.

Downing’s home was the embodiment of his architectural ideals; those ideals were known to many Americans through his writings on improving taste and housing in rural America. Acknowledged today as the “father” of the American architectural pattern book, Downing’s books and magazine articles had a profound influence on American landscape design and domestic architecture in the mid-19th century and beyond. He brought the Romantic Revival styles – especially the Gothic Revival and Italianate – to popularity in the US through his books and his magazine, The horticulturist.

Neither an architect, nor a trained artist, Downing was an avid reader of British horticulture publications, some of which illustrated ideal houses for the country. Aimed at the English upper classes, the books included designs for elaborate country houses imitating medieval castles or Italian villas, but also suggestions for more modest housing for the estate workers that would be an ornament to the landscape. Through the British publications, Downing saw both how books could transmit design ideas in words and pictures, and how modest houses with Romantic Revival design gestures could form the basis for an improved American housing for its middle classes, particularly in rural and small town settings.

To further that end, he published three important works: A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening (first issued in 1841); Cottage residences (first published 1842); and The architecture of country houses (first issued in 1852). Each ran to several editions, and remained in print for some thirty years. The books featured black-and-white illustrations of Gothic Revival and Italianate style houses set in verdant landscapes, along with a chatty, approachable text aimed at the potential home-owner, not the builder. In fact, Downing’s single greatest contribution to American life may have been to preference suburban life over urban living and make the single family house with a lawn and garden the desired ideal for the nation.

Downing died on July 28, 1852, the result of the explosion of the steamship Henry Clay in the Hudson River. Mourned by members of horticultural societies across the nation, Downing’s death at only 36 years of age silenced a progressive voice for conservation, for urban open spaces, and for designed landscapes in the picturesque mode. The image to the right, published posthumously, depicts Downing as the embodiment of Romanticism.

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