For the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Avery Library at Columbia University featured an exhibition exploring the legacy of Andrew Jackson Downing. The exhibit…
“…showcases several editions of Downing’s publications and those of his many successors. It offers a glimpse into the world of mid-19th century architectural publishing in the United States and reveals how Downing’s distillation of design ideas came to influence American housing for half a century.”
Lucky for us, Avery has since made the exhibit available online. There are pages on his Influencers, his Landscape Gardening, his Pattern Books and his Successors.
If you’re not familiar with Downing, he is considered the father of the American architectural pattern book and the founder of American landscape architecture. Such a busy guy who sadly passed away in 1852 at only 36 years old. Before Downing, pattern books from authors such as Asher Benjamin or Minard Lafever were influential both in Mississippi and our Nation’s early 19th century architecture, but they were not yet responsible for the whole building as it were. These pattern books gave instruction on design and specific details regarding dimension, details of mouldings, and capitals but left much of the planning and spacial layout up to the builder. In essence they are explanations of simple systems in order to cut moldings.
Compare these images (above) from Asher Benjamin’s The American Builders Companion and Minard Lafever The Beauties of Modern Architecture with designs from Downing’s Cottage Residences (below). While Benjamin’s and Lafever’s instructions created beautiful buildings here in Mississippi and elsewhere, much was left to the builder. The moulding details they offered were not a tout ensemble of design that Downing’s books would provide.
In 1842 Downing collaborated with Alexander Jackson Davis on the book Cottage Residences. For the first time in America, a complete illustration of a house with key details was presented, along with elevations and plans. You might notice that Downing is anti-Greek Revival with his designs, preferring Gothic, Swiss, and Italianate influences for his picturesque views. According to Yale History of Art in Architecture Professor Vincent Scully, Downing is important because he “decisively establishes principles of asymmetrical, picturesque design in America… laying the foundation for a whole new sequence of experiments in planning, and spatial organization.”
Downing’s pattern books, aided by improvements in image printing, would lead directly to the mail order plan book business that greatly expanded in the second half of the 19th century. Samuel Sloan, Palliser & Palliser, and George F. Barber are examples of the next generation of plan books. Eventually with the aid of cheap rail transport this business model would evolve into the order by mail, ready cut buildings offered by The Aladdin Company, Sears, Roebuck & Company, and the Gordon-Van Tine Company, where not only the plans but all the lumber for the structure, along with windows, doors, fixtures and hardware, were sent to the customer already cut to fit.
There are two buildings credited as Downing designs in the MDAH HRI database. They are the Manship House in Jackson and the Mann-Dewees House in Madison County. Does anyone know of other A.J. Downing designs lurking about in Mississippi?