Adapted from the Historic Hudson A.J. Davis 200th Anniversary Essay by Alan Neumann, AIA
The Romantic era in America was one of astonishing invention and variety, prompted by inspiration from both past historical styles and the dramatic landscape of the Hudson Valley. Examples of past architectural styles were reinterpreted to fit the needs of the new nation. Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Moorish, Tuscan, Gothic, Norman, and other regional and historical styles were adapted for domestic and public structures. Of all the American architects who worked on the reinterpretation of antique modes, arguably none had a better grasp of how to employ these forms in a more harmonious and picturesque way the Alexander Jackson Davis. Davis spent his formative years in the company of the founding generation of the Hudson River School artists and he showed a lifelong concern for fusing picturesque landscape and architecture in his design work. He liked to refer to himself as an “architectural composer” rather than just an architect, because he had started out as an artist and viewed his work as an artistic creation from the smallest interior details to the landscape of the grounds.
A.J. Davis was born in New York City on July 24, 1803, the son of Cornelius Davis, a prominent theologian, and Julia Jackson. He seemed to be artistically gifted from the start, and one of his earliest memories was of trading his toys for a set of paints. When he was sixteen, he went to Alexandria, Virginia, with his brother, who became editor of the local newspaper. Davis worked for his brother as a typesetter, while in his free time he read histories and drafted scenery for local theatricals.
At the age of twenty, Davis left the paper and returned to New York. He intended to become an artist, but friends, including the painters John Trumbull and Rembrandt Peale, convinced him that architecture would be more lucrative.
In New York, Davis joined the American Academy of Fine Arts and participated in an informal group of artists that began meeting at Samuel F.B. Morse’s townhouse to talk and sketch in the fall of 1825. This informal “drawing association” was reconstituted in January of 1826 as the National Academy of Design with Davis entered into the register as a student in the Antique School. The founding members of this institution included such artistic luminaries as Morse, Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand who became Davis’s friends and teachers. Also included in this group was Davis’s mentor and future business partner Ithiel Town, a prominent New York architect and engineer. In 1826, Davis joined architect Josiah Bradley as a draughtsman. In the spring of the following year, Davis was engaged to produce perspective drawings of famous buildings in Boston and western Massachusetts. (This trip brought Davis to Columbia County where he travelled to New Lebanon to sketch Columbia Hall at Lebanon Springs).
TOWN & DAVIS, ARCHITECTS
In 1829, Davis formed one of the first modern architectural partnerships with Ithiel Town. Their first collaborations were the Samuel Russell mansion in Middletown, CT, and a residence for the Mayor of New Haven. Both designs exihibit Davis’s early flair for the Greek Revival style.
In 1833, the firm of Town & Davis won the competition for the design of the U.S. Custom House in New York – a project that secured their reputation as masters of the Greek Revival style for public buildings. Similar commissions for the burgeoning new republic came pouring in. Davis, in fact, planned more state capitols and government buildings than any other architect of the nineteenth century. These projects included the state capitols in New Haven, Indianapolis, Raliegh, and Springfield.
Davis’s greatest contribution to nineteenth-century architecture, however, was not these grand public edifices, but the creation of private residences in a range of Picturesque revival styles including Gothic, Tuscan, and Bracketed. Davis is credited with creating the first of a new kind of American pattern book oriented to homeowners rather than builders which showed houses, en-situ, in a landscape.
Originally planned as a multi-volume publication like the English works on which it is based (e.g. Loudon, Papworth, Goodwin), Davis’s Rural Residences of 1837 did not reach a wide audience. But the plates themselves were well received by the cognoscenti and led to Davis’s hugely influential collaboration with Andrew Jackson Downing whose widely published books spread the ideas and fueled the career of A.J. Davis during the 1840s and 1850s.
A.J. Davis’s two remodeling campaigns (1839, 1849) at the Dr Oliver Bronson House bridge the period just after Rural Residences when Davis was making the transition from the Greek Revival to the Picturesque to his mature country house style at the end of the 1840s. Davis’s eye for detail and setting, derived in part from his experience in the theater and as an artist, has never been equaled. Either in remodeling and updating existing structures, such as the Dr. Oliver Bronson House and Montgomery Place, or creating entirely new buildings in the Greek, Gothic, Tuscan, or Bracketed style, Davis left his mark thoughout the American Landscape.
After Town’s death in 1844, Davis worked largely on his own. One of his most important projects during this later period was Llewellyn Park. Davis was commissioned by Llewellyn Haskell, a wealthy chemist and developer for Orange, New Jersey, who had been inspired by Downing’s books to create the first garden suburb in America. Several houses designed by Davis for the park remain, including the boyhood home of architect Charles Follen Mckim. In 1853, Davis married Margaret Beal of Florida, New York, and built a house for his family overlooking the park.
Davis despised the heavy-handed styles of the post-Civil War era and dismissed the Second Empire as “depraved architecture.” His practice dwindled in the face of changing public taste and the loss of key Southern clients whose fortunes were lost in the war. After Davis’s death in 1892, his son Joseph and daughter Flora donated his drawings and papers to the Avery Library at Columbia University.
Davis was a great innovator and was one of the first to experiment with wood and later steel trusses (the former based on his partner Ithiel Town’s patented design). The “Davisean window,” a window extending more than one story, was a precursor to modern curtain wall construction. Davis’s collaboration with Downing in the 1840s created one of the first mail order house plan businesses in the United States and led Davis to pioneer the modern building specification document to assist local carpenters and builder in constructing his designs from these plans across the country. Lllewellyn Park inspired the suburban landscape ideal, which is still popular today. Perhaps no other American architect has made so many lasting contributions to so many different aspects of the built environment.