A.J. Downing Exhibit Now Available Online

Frontispiece featuring a portrait of A. J. Downing, A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1859 from A.J. Downing & His Legacy exhibit. Columbia University Libraries. accessed 9-19-2016

Frontispiece featuring a portrait of A. J. Downing, A treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, 1859. from A.J. Downing & His Legacy exhibit. Columbia University Libraries. accessed 9-19-2016

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 CompanySears, 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?

plate 128 The Architecture of Country Houses by AJ Downing published 1851

Plate 128. The Architecture of Country Houses by A.J. Downing. Published 1851.

(old) Rectory of Chapel of the Cross [Mann-Dewees House]

(old) Rectory of Chapel of the Cross [Mann-Dewees House] Madison County, Mississippi. Built 1850. A.J. Downing, designer.

Manship House, antebellum but not Greek Revival (unless you look inside . . .)

Manship House. Jackson, Mississippi. Built 1857. A.J. Downing Published design.

Categories: Antebellum, Architectural Research, Historic Preservation, Jackson


8 replies

  1. This is such a great resource! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thanks, mr r, for sharing the information about this online exhibit. i certainly agree with susie that the info posted in the exhibit is a great resource–and, i do encourage readers to go the the ‘ends’ of the various links.

    on the other hand, i was perplexed to see the ‘new-to-me’ spelling of architect/pattern-book-writer minard lafever’s last name as ‘lefever’. at first, i thought this was a misprint, but, then, the text continued with this spelling. to my mind, this is an important, unfortunate error, and i am going to attempt to reach the exhibit’s curators to find out ‘why’.

    re downing-influenced houses in ms, one would certainly think that there were originally more than the two examples mr r pictured—- have been stretching my brain, and, will continue to do so. ( one would also think that the ‘ornamental grounds’ of some of the natchez villas and various other plantation houses elsewhere in the state were downing-influenced…. but, documentation of private libraries with downing’s books?)

    on the other hand, most mississippians in the 1840s-60s were rather conservative in their architectural preferences: vernacular forms persisted, and, the greek revival style ‘just wouldn’t let go’. yes, there were italianate ‘fripperies’ mixed with grecian motifs–malmaisonm, stanton hall, and windsor, for example–and those odd mixes of grecian, italianate, and gothic motifs seen in some north mississippi houses.

    many institutions now do online exhibitions, and they are wonderful resources. and, many of the ‘antique volumes’ mentioned in such an architectural exhibit are online, too. years ago, i had to trek to libraries all of the country to study such works, and i well remember(with joy) when the ‘line’ of repro publications appeared from such publishers as dover. .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Excellent catch on the exhibit’s spelling of Lafever. I did not recognize it myself. You bring up a good point regarding the popularity of styles lingering. If not for Downing’s early death maybe we would see more structures with his direct influence? Let us know if your brain stretching produces any recollecting of Downing designs here in Mississippi.

      I do enjoy the digital versions of these books as we can now easily track not only the changes between editions but also print runs.


  3. through the speed of the internet, i am happy to report that, in email correspondence this afternoon with dr theresa harris, one of the avery-classics/.columbia u downing online exhibit curators, the misspelling of minard lafever’s last name has been corrected! she had not noticed the error until i pointed it out, but, true to my mississippi heritage of ‘good manners’, i did so in a very diplomatic way, which she appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. guess we mississippi folk are pretty fussy, huh? last night, i found two more small errors in the online downing exhibition text, and sent in my corrections this afternoon; the avery-classics curator, dr theresa harris, was most appreciative of my ‘lefever/lafever’ comment, and corrected it immediately; i suspect that she will correct these other two errors soon, too. i heartily recommend that misspreservation readers take a look at the ‘avery-classics, avery library, columbia u’ website— a tremendous amount of architectural information.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yes, the other two errors which i found in the downing on-line exhibition have been corrected. i was happy to do this for them. glad you found the site in the first place, tom!

      Liked by 1 person

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