Andrew Jackson Downing
by Anne R.
Andrew Jackson Downing was born in 1815 in Newburgh, NY where his father owned a nursery specializing in apples and pears. He started helping out in the nursery at a young age and then he and his brother took over running it. In 1838 he became sole owner of the nursery.
He became very well known and popular, but not as a nurseryman. He developed the art of American landscape architecture. In 1841 he wrote Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America. He then went on to write Cottege Residences in 1842 and Architecture of Country Houses in 1850. He became Editor of Horticulturalist in 1846 and his editorials were published as Rural Essays in 1853.
Downing developed his view that country residences should fit into the surrounding landscape and blend with its natural habitat. He also believed that architecture should be functional and that designs for residences should be both beautiful and functional. In the beginning of his Architecture of Country Houses is a lengthy essay on the real meaning of architecture. He wrote that even the simplest form of architecture should be an expression of beauty, but the design should never neglect the useful for the beautiful. He went on to say that "(in) perfect architecture no principle of utility will be sacrificed to beauty, only elevated and ennobled by it". He considered landscape gardening and architecture to be an art.
In Cottege Residences he published the designs for 28 houses, in addition to the house, the designs included the plans for laying out the gardens, orchards,grounds and even included various plants to be used. In his Architecture of Country Houses he included designs for cottages, farmhouses and villas and commented on interiors, furniture and even the best methods of warming and ventilating them. Some of his designs were very simple and affordable so that all classes of society could enjoy life outside of the city. His own residence, Highland Gardens, in Newburgh was quite large with meticulous grounds and many greenhouses with plants and trees from around the world brought to him by his whaling father-in-law.
Through the publication of his designs, he is credited with the popularization of the front porch. He saw the porch as the link from the house to nature. Building porches had just become easier due to the advance in building methods, and these two factors together resulted in so many front porches on residences at that time. At the same time many people were moving from the city to the surrounding countryside because of the advent of railway and steamship transportation. Downing believed interacting with nature had a healing effect on mankind and wanted all people to be able to experience nature.
By 1850 he was a celebrity and was commissioned to design and landscape the area around the Capitol and Whitehouse into a national park. Lafayette Square is still unchanged from his original design. He was also commissioned to landscape the grounds around the Smithsonian Institute. In 1850 he went to England where he studied English landscape design and where he met Calvert Vaux. When Downing returned to America, Vaux came with him and together they designed and constructed the homes and gardens of many of the country estates along the Hudson River. Downing also introduced Vaux to his friend Frederick Law Olmstead.
At that time NY City was small, crowded and unhealthy with raw sewage in the streets. Since the poor couldn't leave the city for the healthier country, Downing proposed a big park for the city. Together Downing, Vaux and Olmstead developed proposals and plans for a large park which would allow the upper class a rural place to go and be comfortable as well as provide a rural experience for the poor. It would include gardens, zoos,concert halls, art galleries. a science museum, horticultural societies and a free dairy. Downing believed that all cities should have parks.
Before these plans could be reality Downing was killed in 1852 at the age of 36 when a steamer that was taking him and his family from Newburgh to NYC. His wife and children survived the explosion and she and their friends put up a monument to him in the shape of an urn that was at his home in Newburgh. They inscribed on it words that he had written " Plant spacious parks in your cities, and loose their gates as wide as the morning, to the whole people." The Downing Urn is in the Enid A. Haupt Garden in the Smithsonian.
A present day company, Downing and Associates offering landscape architecture design and construction is run by John Downing, a descendent.