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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,177

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This is the grave of Andrew Jackson Downing.

Born in 1815, Downing was obviously named after the new hero of America, Andrew Jackson, after he had defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. His father was a respectable working class kind of guy, a wheelwright by training who also was deeply into gardening. His father eventually opened his own nursery and after Downing finished his basic education in 1831, he started working for dad. Like his father, Downing was very curious about plants and so he started learning everything he could about the still new field of botany. He then developed an interest in architecture and he found a way to combine them through the idea of landscape architecture. He didn’t come up with this–the royal gardens of Europe were certainly well known to Americans, even if they had never seen them. But how could one apply these principles in a democratic nation? This would be Downing’s life mission.

During the 1830s, he began expressing his ideas about all of this publicly, writing in various horticultural journals and newspapers. In 1841, he took all these ideas and wrote a book. Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America was a big deal. The nation’s growing middle class had a lot of interest in creating beautiful spaces and Downing was there to help them. So this early how-to book really made a splash. Still a very young man, he had a big name. The next year, he worked with his friend Alexander Jackson Davis to publish Cottage Residencies. This book brought the English cottage house to American audiences with some how-to guides on creating such a thing for yourself. Downing was also in the perfect place for this. The Hudson River was the ideal place for the rich of the 19th century. Building a big home on the Hudson was the sign you had truly made it. It wasn’t just English style that Downing studied either. He was big in bringing Italianate style to the U.S.

At the same time, Downing was a very serious scholar of plants. Working with his brother Charles, who became a major horticulturalist of the nineteenth century in his own right, he published Fruits and Fruit Trees of America in 1845 to be a guide on growing fruit. This was considered the coin of the realm on this issue through the rest of the century. Then in 1846, Downing started to edit the new journal The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, which pretty much describes itself. In this, Downing pushed all his ideas, from fruit to interior decoration.

In 1850, Downing and Davis wrote The Architecture of Country Houses, which became another very influential work among these rich people looking to make a statement. Interestingly, this was a pretty democratic work, telling people they could decorate their own homes without necessarily hiring designers, either for the exterior or interiors of their homes. Of course this was just savvy marketing, because while true, it also meant that if you could afford it, why not hire the master anyway who again proved he was the master and put a democratic patina on it that you could say you supported, even as you stole wages from your workers and the like. Among the things that Downing promoted was the idea of the big front porch that became the norm in late nineteenth century housing.

But to be clear, Downing did believe in the democratic use of space and that meant public space at a time when such things were basically unheard of. It was in his journal that Downing became to express the need for public parks that were designed by the best in the business to provided the best of what Americans had to offer to anyone who wanted to take advantage. It was in the pages of the journal that Downing first articulated the need for Central Park. Naturally, we associate Central Park with Frederick Law Olmsted, and there’s a very good reason for that. But it was basically Downing’s idea and he did the work up front to promote it. Vaux also did a lot of work to promote the idea of state-sponsored agricultural colleges, which would become law during the Civil War with the Morrill Act. In fact, my own institution, the University of Rhode Island, is a land grant school because Brown wouldn’t touch public education with a ten foot pole when the land grant was offered to it. It’s funny to me that even today, Cornell is seen as “not a real Ivy” because it was the one elite school that did accept the land grant idea and implemented it seriously all the way to the present. I so love elite academic snobbery.

In 1850, Downing traveled to England. While there, he saw a show of watercolor painting. Some of it was done by a man named Calvert Vaux. Blown away by the way Vaux saw the landscape, he invited the younger man to come to the U.S. to work with him. Vaux agreed and they started a big practice based out of Newburgh. They now got all the major projects. That included designing the grounds for the White House and the Smithsonian Institution. The condition of Washington, D.C. was notoriously awful and finally the government began to invest to make it less embarrassing to visitors and fulfill some of the vision of Pierre L’Enfant decades after his death. But then Congress and Millard Fillmore saw the cost and so they delayed it all once again because of course they did.

The reason that we don’t think of Downing with Central Park is that in 1852, he was traveling on a steamship on the Hudson and the boiler blew up, a common problem of the time. In fact, the more you learn about any form of transportation in the 19th century, it’s kind of amazing that anyone was brave enough to go anywhere. 81 people died, including Downing. He was 36 years old. Calvert Vaux was one of the men who took over Downing’s practice and he worked with Olmstead on Central Park.

Andrew Jackson Downing is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Newburgh, New York. He was initially buried–or what was left of him, which wasn’t much to be honest–in another cemetery in Newburgh, but was moved here at a later date. Not sure why, perhaps because this is the garden-like cemetery that he promoted.

If you would like this series to visit other landscape architects, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. George Kessler is in St. Louis and Isamu Noguchi is in Queens. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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