A.J. Downing & His Legacy

Downing's Influences

Earlier architectural design books usually showed buildings in stiff and barren elevation drawings, where in Downing’s images, the house, landscape, and inhabitants become part of one happy, desirable image. Downing’s single greatest contribution to American life, in fact, 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.

Minard Lafever

The beauties of modern architecture. Illustrated by forty-eight original plates, designed expressly for this work. By Minard Lafever, architect. Design for a Capital, Plate 11.

Design for a Capital, Plate 11. Minard Lafever, The beauties of modern architecture, 1839. AA2515 L1321

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Minard Lafever  (1798 – 1854) was an architect-builder, trained in the apprentice system that taught young men to create, in concept and form, buildings using a standard vocabulary of designs.  Lafever’s design education had been enriched by the study of builder’s books, and his move to Brooklyn in the 1830s, where the fast-growing city included designs from architects like A.J. Davis, Ithiel Town, and Martin Thompson.  Lafever’s professional career coincided with the emergence of the Greek Revival style in the United States, and he applied capitals and pediments, Greek keys and wide entablatures in much of his work. He was among the last authors of  “builder’s books” intended for master builders, and his work typifies the pedantic form of many builder’s books in the 18th and early 19th century.  Downing’s books revolutionized how, and to whom, books about architectural design were presented, and made Lafever’s written output look decidedly obsolete in a few short years.

Plate 11 from The beauties of modern architecture, shows a design for a Corinthian column capital.  There is more text than illustration in the book, and there are only a few illustrations of entire buildings. Most illustrations, like this one, are for classical elements that could be created at different scales to produce different elements within a building, such as column capitals supporting a pediment or ornament for a fireplace pilaster.  The thin line drawings were annotated with information for proportions; they were certainly not intended to “sell” a design to a prospective home builder.

The modern practice of staircase and handrail construction, practically explained, in a series of designs. With plans and elevations for ornamental villas. Plate 3. Perspective view of a design for a country residence.

Plate 3 shows a design for a country residence, which presents elegance and conveniencies suitable for a gentleman of respectable circumstances. Minard Lafever, The modern practice of staircase and handrail construction, practically explained, in a series of designs, 1838. AA3060 L13

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Aware of the color plates of architecture being published by fellow New Yorker A.J. Davis, Lafever included two hand-colored lithographs in his 1838 book, The modern practice of staircase and handrail construction, practically explained, in a series of designs. The mismatch between the ostensible subject matter – staircase construction – and the beautiful images of large villas included at the front of the book is hard to explain. Lafever’s villas use classical architectural vocabulary, a language that was about to go silent for another half century in the face of Downing’s publication of Romantic Revival designs by Davis and others.

Alexander Jackson Davis

New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis had a successful practice in the 1820’s and '30’s designing Romantic Revival interpretations of Gothic, Italianate, and Greek buildings. When commissions dried up with the Panic of 1837, he decided to put together a book showcasing his designs. The beautiful, colored illustrations were a tribute to Davis’s artistic sensibility, but proved very expensive to produce.

Although the complete edition of Rural residences, as Davis titled his book, was never published, Davis’s Rural residences was arguably, the most influential pattern book in American architectural literature. Printed sections of the proposed book can be found in Avery’s Drawings & Archives. Downing’s publication of Davis’s designs in Cottage residences garnered a much wider audience than Davis’s own work had previously enjoyed. Such widespread exposure to the public eye may not have led to specific commissions, but Cottage residences did much to accustom the American public to the appearance of Romantic Revival styles and prompted them to build in the taste espoused by Davis and Downing.

The noted painter Samuel Morse created this romantic scene of a turreted castle in a naturalistic landscape. Davis was so delighted by the image that he had it copied as a wood block engraving for the frontispiece of Rural residences in 1837.

Downing often featured designs from Davis and other architects in his publications. Design VIII for a suburban cottage is a modified version of Davis’s “Cottage Orné," shown below on the right. Downing’s version is intentionally less ornate, and the accompanying text describes the design as “an attempt to redeem from the…frippery of ornament…a class of cottages very general in the neighborhood of our larger country towns.”

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