Alexander Jackson Davis
One of America's Most Notable Architects
Eccentric and prolific, Alexander Jackson Davis was one of America's most gifted and important
mind, mixed with his friendships
among influental artists and patrons of his day, he crafted a career that made a mark like no other on America's architecture. (2), (3) He was a tastemaker for affluent families and civic leaders in the three decades leading up to the Civil War. His aesthetics set the highest standard in both Classical and Romantic styles, from Greek Revival to Gothic Revival, Italianate, also known as American Bracketed, which he is acknowledged as having invented. (4)
Davis is credited with introducing fourteen firsts (5) to the emerging profession of architecture:
partner in the first architectural firm, Town & Davis; first to create a pattern book of designs with a mail order option of designs and builder specifications; first to explore new techniques to create multi-story windows (foreshadowing modern curtain walls,) and a partner with Llewellyn Haskell on America's first suburban planned community - Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey. He was one of three founders of the first American Institute of Architects, and in with the founders when their current formation was finally nailed down decades later in 1857.
He championed the integration of a structure with its landscape, which led to his deep friendship and professional collaboration with Andrew Jackson Downing, the founding father of landscape design. (6) He was influenced by peers and contemporaries including
Revolutionary War Colonel and artist, John Trumball. Other famous authors and artists, including the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse, guided him. The one who pointed Davis toward architecture as his passion was painter Rembrandt Peale. (7)
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His pen and brush drafted romantic castles, villas and cottages for
mayors, moguls and wealthy
merchants in the Antebellum Period, not all of which remain for our enjoyment to this day. Too many have been demolished. Yet others
have become museums open to the public: Lyndhurst (the Jay Gould Estate), Locust Grove (Home of Samuel F. B. Morse), and the Rotch Cottage in New Bedford, Massachusetts among them. Davis designed for colleges including New York University, Yale, Chapel Hill, North Carolina the entire campus of Virginia Military Institute. He designed churches and civic buildings, collaborating on more state capitols than any
other architect: those of Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio. (8)
He is credited with hundreds of homes built, and also left behind a treasure trove of gorgeous illustrations and designs that remained unrealized, due to budget cuts, bureaucratic intervention, and a country at war with itself.
His country cottages are easily spotted for their distinct decorative style. Some remain as private residences. The Reuel Smith "Cobweb Cottage" in Skaneateles is one that has been preserved with
key elements restored, to showcase most of its original, charming presence in its bucolic, lakeside setting. (9)
Born in New York City to Cornelius Davis, an itinerant seller and editor of religious tracts, and Julia Jackson, Alexander Jackson Davis wanted most to become an artist. He spent his youth in West Orange, New Jersey and later attended public school in Upstate New York, in Utica and also in nearby Auburn, where an imposing Gothic prison was constructed from 1816 to 1818, possibly adding to his known fascination with Gothic novels. (10)
Departing from formal school before age 15, he began apprenticing in Alexandria Virginia by learning the printing trade from his half-brother, afterward heading to New York City to study at the American Academy of Fine Arts, and the New York Drawing Association. Becoming a respectable lithographer in the 1820's, he was encouraged by the venerated artists in his circle, including members of the Hudson River School. He attended the salons conducted by Samuel F. B. Morse. (11) His watercolors caught the eye of one of New York's most prominent architects — Ithiel Town, whose engineering prowess and profits from patents had allowed him to amass a library with more than 10,000 books on art and architecture. Town saw the unique draftsman's talents of young Davis as complementary to his own engineering and sales skills, and made him partner. His books were then devoured by Davis, and the duo garnered many important large scale commissions as a team.
By 1835 Davis stepped out on his own, and went on to befriend and collaborate with a like-minded designer of landscapes - Andrew Jackson Downing. The two collaborated on style books for home and garden design that popularized their visions of proper country living, which led to many notable assignments for both. The Downing and Davis team published several books, including Cottage Residences (1842), and The Architecture of Country Houses, (1850), as well as a magazine called The Horticulturist.
His amazing career as what he called an "Architectural Composer" survived the first of two national tragedies, but not the second. First was the Panic of 1837. This recession truncated the planned publication of his proposed eight volume style guide, "Rural Residences." Only two volumes were produced, with only five hundred copies in total, some hand-tinted, but most going unsold. Yet, during the lull, Davis had still gotten noticed by Downing, many of Ithiel Town's clients, and other luminaries of the day. His work flourished as requests came in. His designs dotted the country from New Bedford to North Carolina with villas and cottages, until the second calamity hit, with more devastating impact:
It was the Civil War, and it altered
everything. Post war tastes changed, and his romantic style of design was
eschewed for the more substantial Greek Revival, Federal and other less fanciful aesthetics. He stuck with Gothic Revival and romantic motifs, which brought him few jobs.
It may not have helped that, rather than adapt, Davis spoke out
vociferously against what he called Abuses in Architecture in the changing times. In this way, Davis worked more like an academic and a bitter elder statesman until his death in 1892, all the while organizing his papers and cataloguing his work, with full pride of the significance of his contribution to American Architecture.
Tragically, his own colorful and eclectic castle-cottage, Wildmont, in Llewellyn Park, burned to the ground in 1884, taking with it much of his art, essays and reflections. Thankfully, many other drawings, plans and letters were preserved and are currently housed at the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, The New York Public Library, The New York Historical Society and other institutions. A book published by Rizzoli for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1992, is an excellent overview to the genius and his contributions to an era.
The original drawings and specifications for Cobweb Cottage are in a private collection, with copies used on this site by permission. (12)
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"Perhaps no other American architect has made so many lasting contributions to so many different aspects of the built environment."
- Alan Neumann, AIA
Historic Hudson A.J. Davis 200th Anniversary Essay
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1. Metropolitan Museum of Art Essay: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Met
2. Jane B. Davies, Introduction, Alexander Jackson Davis, American Arhitect 1803 - 1892, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rizzoli, 1992). P.9
3. Wayne Andrews, American Gothic: Its origins, its trials, its triumphs, (Random House, 1975). P. 29. From an unbound, partial edition.
4. Julia M. Truettner, Aspirations for Excellence, Alexander Jackson Davis and the First Campus Plan for the University of Michigan, 1838, (Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 2003.) P.50
5. Ibid. P. 35
6. Robert Twombly, Andrew Jackson Downing, Essential Texts, (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). P.15
7. Amelia Peck, Editor, Alexander Jackson Davis, American Arhitect 1803 - 1892, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rizzoli, 1992). P.27-29
8. Ibid. Pp. 41 -57
9. Architecture worth saving in Onondaga County. Syracuse, N.Y. : New York State Council on the Arts : Syracuse University School of Architecture, c1964.
10. Auburn Prison is Gothic, and was built from 1816 to 1818, but it is unknown whether it was witnessed by Davis, or made an impression on him. He would have been 13 to 15 years old at the time. His interest in Gothic novels is well documented.
11. Jane B. Davies, 1980 Introduction to reprint of 1837 Rural Residences by Alexander Jackson Davis.
12. A. J. Davis original drawings and specifications, hand drawn on vellum with accompanying buider specification sheets customized for the client, Reuel Smith, 1850. Property of Judy Kaspar.
Above: Alexander Jackson Davis, circa 1835, portrait by George Freeman (Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library | Columbia University).
Underneath: Rural Residences, the first architectural style book in America, published by Davis in 1838, with lithographed, hand-colored designs by Davis. (One of 26 known copies; New York Public Library, A. J. Davis Collection).
Above: Letter to Alexander Jackson Davis, from a Louisville, KY client, 1841. (New York Public Library, A. J. Davis Collection).
Underneath: U. S. Postage Stamp issued October 9, 1980 to honor American architects.
Above: Design for the original Custom House in New York City, now known as the Federal Hall National Memorial, showing A. J Davis's gorgeous drafting and painting techniques. The building was built, but not as designed. It remains today, at 26 Wall Street, Manhattan. (Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library | Columbia University).
Underneath: The U. S. Patent Office, attributed to A. J. Davis, now the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D. C. See article from Jane B. Davies for the story.
Above: Wildmont, the home of the architect himself, in Llewellyn Park, NJ. Ironically, it burned in 1884, taking with it much of Davis's collection of drawings and letters, in a twist on his stern admonishment to others not to build in wood, for fear of fire (see Davis notes on speech at left). (New York Public Library, A. J. Davis Collection).
Underneath: Lyndhurst, in Tarrytown. Perhaps the grandest of all A. J. Davis homes. Open for public tours through the National Park Service.
Below: Cobweb Cottage, Skaneateles New York, 2016. Built for Reuel Smith in 1850, the home was modernized by his son E. R. Smith in 1904, simplified by his grandson Sedgwick in the 1950's, and restored by the Feldmanns from 1975 to 1998.
Below: Original drawings and specifications for the Reuel Smith home in Skaneateles New York by Alexander Jackson Davis. In a private collection. Used with permission.
Left: Cobweb Cottage, Skaneateles New York, about 1890, in one of the earliest known photographs.
Below: West Lake Street and Cobweb Cottage looking south from Lakeview Cemetary, undated photograph circa 1860's
Above: Note considering the addition of a privvy, perhaps by the builder, to the rear of the wood house, which was being added for servants quarters. In 1870 the Census listed the residents of the house as: Rural [sic] A Smith 40; Elizabeth D Smith 25; Leslie Smith 7; DeCost Smith 6; Celestia Smith 4; Sarah W DeCost 44, born Massachusetts; Mary Bradley 15, daughter servant, born Ireland; Bessie Butter 25, servant, born Ireland.